Being an entrepreneur doesn’t always stop with creating one successful business. Some entrepreneurs make a business out of creating different businesses. Today’s guest is a serial entrepreneur that creates businesses and sells them.
Mansour Salame is an engineer by training, and he is currently the CEO and founder of a company called FrontSpin. However, Mansour says that he doesn’t think of himself as an engineer or a salesperson so much as he thinks of himself as a person who can find value for customers and clients. Listen in to this interesting interview to hear Mansour’s insights about growth and scaling.
- Mansour’s first job out of college as a project manager, and how that led to his introduction to sales and startups
- The importance of understanding a client’s needs in detail
- How to put a process in place that you can scale to the level of growth that you’re at
- How process can be divided into two categories: search mode and scaling mode
- How Mansour is scaling processes at his current company now
- The importance of improving and tweaking the process to make it more successful, even when in scaling mode
- Why considering the customer’s process is necessary when creating your own processes
- How measuring metrics and benchmarks fit into both search and scaling modes
- How scaling without first figuring out the process can lead to low morale and other problems
- How sales messaging needs to change as you scale
- How a trend toward personalization affects production and scalability
Marylou: Hi everybody, it’s Marylou Tyler. This week’s guests is very well known in the Silicon Valley area, he’s one of those, I guess just things he touches turn to gold all the time, his name is Mansour Salame. He is the CEO and founder of a company called FrontSpin. Some of you may not have heard of FrontSpin but I think you’ll soon be hearing a lot more about them because they have a really nice solution that’s built on the platform that I’m comfortable with and that I think is really foundational which is the telephone. We’ll talk about that later, I wanted to introduce Mansour to you and we’re going to talk about topics that are relevant for growth and relevant for scaling which is what all of you want to do. Welcome to the podcast, Mansour.
Mansour: Thank you, Marylou.
Marylou: Tell us about, first of all, you’re an engineer obviously, must be, and you came up to the ranks of engineering. How did you become now a serial entrepreneur who creates companies and sells them?
Mansour: Right, that’s a good question. A lot of people find it unusual. For me, it was a haphazard happening. Like you said, I was an engineer by training. It was actually my first job out of school. I was a project manager for a company called at the time Andersen Consulting and is now called Accenture. I was managing a project where I was implementing a technology for a large Fortune 500, Fortune actually 100 bank in the contact center. That technology was developed by a company out of Silicon Valley called Genesis. That’s how I first ran into, I would say, a startup.
Genesis convinced me to leave Accenture and join them as a project manager, they had a lot of projects. I was always trying to do the right thing by the client. They staffed me out actually on the first project at Wells-Fargo. We implemented this successful project to them and then they gave us an order for five times initial order that Genesis had. Genesis looked at me and said, “Okay, maybe you want to do something else other than project management?” Speaking French, they sent me overseas, and I started the Southern European office for Genesis, we ended up going public.
But I never really thought of myself as a sales person or engineer. I always thought of somebody who could find a solution that is valuable for a prospect, for a customer. I guess that’s the sales approach I would say that an engineer would have. That’s in short how I end up “introduced” to sales. We end up growing the Southern European offices, we end up going public. It ended up being the next, outside of the US, was the largest office that Genesis had.
Marylou: You’ve always had that flair, that unique combination of being very technical, understanding the bits and bites of things, and really getting under the skin of the client of what their need are and then translating that into, okay, this is an opportunity from sales marketing perspective that we can utilize to get more business.
Mansour: Right. It actually even translates more on one-on-one, sitting down with a customer or a prospect, understanding their requirements, understanding their challenges and solving those problems. Because at the end of the day, I think the best customers you have are the customers that after you solved their problem, they’re obviously delighted in using your product or the service you sold them. I’ve always approached it as let’s understand how can we add value to that customer, almost from an engineering or product perspective, how can we add value to this customer. Sometimes, the product is not a fit and just move on. But a lot of times, you can add a lot of value. That’s the approach.
Marylou: You’re coming from a process background. I really identify with that because of the work that I do. I’m also an engineer, software engineering though, I have a computer science degree. But I’ve always looked at sales as one big problem, a puzzle to solve and I like to apply process to things. I used to say this to my team, whenever we have to do something more than once, chances are, it can be programmed.
Marylou: There’s a process behind it. Process is, for me, that overarching methodology that I really like to put into place. We were talking offline and I think the topic for today, that would be very interesting because I’ve just had a conversation with a colleague who went through this process of starting with a number of folks on his sales team, the product took off and then he had to scale very quickly, and they were finding that there was a lot of stuff that was broken in the process that they had. Thought was the wonderful process for a smaller team, but as they started growing and adding more people. more divisions, and then they went global, it just all kind of fell apart.
Luckily, he had a good sense to hire people who are self-directed and really helped by fixing some of these things. Could you talk to us today about process and how process is utilized? When you have to really look at it at certain areas or certain levels of growth and how that affects how well the process is run.
Mansour: Right. That’s a very good topic, Marylou. The way I look at process is in two buckets. I put in everything, it’s not just in sales or the sales process but it’s also the engineering process, the product process, it’s also a little bit of the marketing messaging which is also very important and it plays a lot into the sales process.
Two buckets are you’re either in a search mode or you’re in a scaling mode. When a startup, what we talked, this is my third startup. If you take a look at the beginning of last year, we were more in a search mode. We’re trying to find what is the right prospect, what is the right feature set, what is the right approach, what are the right value propositions that we match with prospects, we’re more in a search mode. The process had to have some volumes so we can validate some of those metrics. But it didn’t make sense to have 100 people in a room scaling it because if you are still in a search mode, and you try to over scale a process, you will end up scaling the wrong thing. Because by definition, when you’re in search mode, you don’t have something that works.
And then there’s the other aspect. Once you have a process that works well, then, you want to scale it as much as possible to get value out of the process, or if it’s a process that doesn’t need scaling, you want to make it as efficient and automated as possible. There’s these two buckets that I put things in; are we in scaling mode or are we in search mode? It’s never a black and white, at every stage, you go from one to the other, that’s I think a good framework of how we think about different processes.
For example, right now, we are scaling some processes, we’re actually increasing our sales team and increasing our SDRs. We’re actually adding a number of SDRs starting actually at the end of the month. That’s very exciting for us but that’s after we validated some of the process of prospecting and some of the process of qualifying and the messaging we validated.
What I think a lot of people do, not unlike the story you mentioned with your friend who ended up scaling. A lot of people ended up scaling maybe with a process that’s not fully figured it out.
Marylou: Exactly. I can remember sitting in a boardroom up in Seattle when I was working at the startup. The board picked what seemingly was and turned out to be a very arbitrary number of votes, 3X. We’re gonna go from $3 million to $9 million, or whatever that number was. I can’t remember the actual dollar value, but there were no basis for that, and of course the VP of sales bought into it saying, “Sure. We can do that. We just need to add more whatever, sales reps, AEs, servicing.” But you’re right, and it was a monumental, worst case scenario. Never met the numbers for each of the quarters because at the beginning of this whole process, we were probably still in search mode. We didn’t have the ability to really consolidate a process that was predictable and consistent so that we can scale.
Mansour: That’s very true and if you take a look at the processes, some processes had room and some reach capacity. For example, in my previous company, Contactual was acquired by 8×8 a couple of years ago. They had a number of different processes but they had reached capacity on the SMB, so they built this process and that’s it. They couldn’t buy more leads for the SMB. They couldn’t get more lists of target customers to reach. What they did is they built a mid-market team to go after mid-market. That mid-market team had a very different process than the SMB team.
And then now, the mid-market team grew and they went through their own search process and their own scaling process and then now they built an enterprise team. The interesting thing is you never stop searching. You could be maybe on a particularly great market that you have one process, you’ve figured it out, and for 50 years you keep scaling it but that’s usually not what happens.
Typically, what happens is you find a process occurs per segment, you scale that and then you look for the next segment. The segment could be either vertical or it could be also a size of a company. For instance, right now, what we have here at FrontSpin, we have, if you will, two segments. We have one which is more the segments that we can sell remotely and implement remotely. We have more of the enterprise which are larger customers or 100 seats and above or 100 customers and above, where we have to address their requirement, and their buyers journey in a very different way than the smaller guys which are much more cookie cutter. We are aware of that. We filter out the larger ones so it doesn’t slow down the velocity of, I would say, our bread and butter today which is more of the 100 and below customers.
Marylou: You mentioned within the two buckets, the search bucket and scaling bucket, there are certain parameters or categories that you like to look at. You mentioned that there’s a marketing and sales component, there’s the actual sales conversation itself, there’s developing unique selling propositions by product and probably by prospect. How do you go about defining what these things are and when you’re in search mode, are the same things looked at in scaling mode? Are you adding more things as you move into scale mode and newer processes as you move?
Mansour: Yes, for me you always are improving and tweaking the process, even when you’re in scale mode. In scale mode, it’s usually like more than half of the process is nailed down but you always want to improve things. And then at that point is when you spawn off different targets or different verticals you’re gonna go after or different markets.
But if you take a look at during the search mode is usually when you validate the vast majority of the messaging, let’s do different pricing. Should we do a transaction-based pricing? Should we do a fixed monthly fee pricing? Those are the kind of things that you validate, in my opinion, in a search mode. Typically, what happens is you will tweak them as you scale because you’ll see things that you didn’t see necessarily at the volume of search but you will have, I would say, most of the framework there.
What happens, this is important, that even if you go into scaling mode, that you always have one person or a couple of people dedicated for searching for the next frontier, whether it’s a different market segment or a different vertical. But one thing is clear is your customers or your prospects will tell you, if you listen hard enough, they will tell you what is the right sales process you should have and what is the value proposition they need. That is what you get out of search mode. Usually at a scaling mode, you don’t. For example, imagine, Marylou, you’ve got a lot of experience especially in call centers, but imagine selling a Fortune 500 and saying, “Oh no, you got put a credit card on the website, that’s the only way you can buy.”
Mansour: That sales process may be great for an SMB, but for a Fortune 500, they’ll say, “Thank you. We don’t even have credit cards.”
Mansour: The same things goes the other way. Imagine if you tell a SMB, “Oh, the only way we can buy is you got to put us through purchasing and you’ve got to give us a purchase order, otherwise we can’t issue an invoice.” And so forth. The whole processes are really the customer’s processes.
I think one of the things that we’ve always had in all the startups I’ve worked with or for, is we always try to focus on what is right for the customer. You engineer the product for the customer, you engineer the sales process for the customer, you engineer the customer support process for the customer after the sale, you engineer the customer feedback. You really are focusing on how can we keep adding value to the customer, so that relationship keeps growing and becoming more and more valuable.
Marylou: The other thing I wanted to ask you about search mode, I’m a big stickler of metrics, of benchmarks to generate consistency in the pipeline before we do anything upscale. Does that fall in here in search mode in some capacity or are you also looking for consistent benchmarks that you could, okay, now, we understand from the buyer’s journey where we should be, we pretty much have a good handle on the sales process and the sales conversation. Now, we need to focus on how consistent is this framework for us and can we fill pipeline more predictably? Is that something that’s also in the search area for you?
Mansour: Absolutely. It’s absolutely in the search area. Typically we have two or three people, if you take a look at sales, we have two to three people in sales and maybe one or two as you also support them, it’s relatively a small team. But basically, what we do is we validate how much does it cost me to generate a lead for them? How much does it cost me to generate the demo? And then, is this really how the customers want to buy? Can we get to a profitable model?
But even in search mode, we are measuring the cost of the demo, the cost of the lead, the cost of a closed deal, the number of deals each rep does. Because before we scale we have to validate that each rep can do, let’s say, four deals or five deals a month, we also validate the average deal size.
We validate all these metrics at a smaller scale and most of the time when you’re in the search mode, you don’t get it but maybe you want one or two months of consistencies if you’re doing what SMB and probably one or two of consistency if you’re dealing with enterprise.
Mansour: But once you have these couple months of consistencies, you’re just replicating what you did. Part of search mode is getting closer to capacity, and then once you’re in capacity, you scale it and then you tweak it obviously, but you scale it.
Marylou: I think this is an area that I’ve seen over and over again that mistakes were being made. There’s just not a consistent amount of leads and opportunities in the pipeline, they’re guessing. It’s more like hope prospecting. That, “Okay, we’ve got enough momentum, so now let’s turn on the switch.” But really it’s doing a disservice by trying to do that. And then you end up hiring all these people when there is no pipeline. It’s a classic problem that still is in our space today and it was in our space in the early 80s when I started. Just now we have more technology to really screw it up.
Mansour: The anecdote you mentioned about being involved with the startup in Seattle, the Venture Bank startup. A lot of it comes from the venture capital nature of the investment. They want to see, “Okay, you’ve made a few dollars, great, let’s scale it.” You may have made a few dollars with each sale having gone through a different sales process.
Mansour: I’m just picking a number, let’s say like you said $3 million. You could have closed a $100,000 deal, you could have closed a $2 million deal, and $900,000 deal, and each one went through a different sales process. Now, on paper, on the spreadsheet, that might look, “Okay, this is $3 million. Let’s go and make them $9 million,” or whatever number they were asking without understanding the mechanics of it and without understanding how to validate these things.
I’ve been involved with a lot of these issue here and the VCs make the assumption that you figured it out and it’s up to the management to be strong enough to say, “Okay, yeah. We figured out the segments. So this segment, let’s grow it to $3 million and let’s see if there’s still headroom,” because very well you may be able to get leads enough from three to six but from six to nine, you may no longer have leads. Or for management to push back and say, “Look, we’ve done three different types of deals, one is a mid-market, one is an SMB, one is an enterprise. Let’s pick one of them, let’s figure out how we can do five of these or ten of these to make sure each one of these process is repeatable and then we can scale it.” Because there’s no point scaling it.
A lot of times, you scale it without having to figure out the process and also with having a lot of slack on your sales capacity. Their problem is, when you scale and you have a lot slack, it ends up creating very bad morale because the sales reps aren’t meeting target, everybody’s stressed out about it and so forth.
Marylou: Yeah, I think this comes back to our call center background because at the time, call centers, telephony day, you lived and die by the list. There is a lot of painstaking attention paid to what source this lead was from and what it ended up closing as. We had segmentation built in and lived by that for so long. I think when the internet came and you have a free for all of records and email addresses and what have you, there wasn’t that tight of control over the type account.
I mean, even today, when I talk to people about the sources of leads and what’s the mix, they look at me with just this like, “I don’t know.” They don’t know what I’m talking about. “What do you mean by the source of the lead? What do you mean by a mix?” It’s just amazing.
What you just said was, and which was a problem in Seattle, there was a total dollar amount that was generated with no concern about where it came from, how long it took to generate, and whether it was segmented or not. It was just a number that they decided, “Let’s triple it.” You’re right and it still happens today and it’s just amazing to me with all the data tools and just all the apps that we have to have more control over this.
Mansour: It’s the same comment I’ve seen from VCs all over the boardroom. But they seem to focus a lot on sales, maybe a little bit on marketing, more than engineering. They rarely do, they go to engineering and say, “Hey listen, you’ve got to make this thing go 10 times faster.” Or, “You’ve got to do this thing.” It could be because a lot of the startups start with some sort of technology they bring up which is already pretty impressive. They seem to not worry about the profitability, they seem to worry about, “Hey, let’s scale the top line,” and everything will be good without really understanding the mechanics of it.
They are smart enough to understand that they don’t understand the technology most of the cases, they don’t push the engineers but it’s as if they had pushed the engineers to say, “Okay, I need you by next quarter to make it twice as fast.” But if you understand, I mean, you’re a computer scientist, if you understand how hard it is to double the performance of a software program, it’s just as hard to double the performance of sales teams, especially if their process is not there.
Marylou: Right. The cure for us would have been, “Let’s look at the history of what closed. Let’s look at the type of account that closed, the people involved. Do we even have those people in our database?” There wasn’t even any research done on whether we were equipped, so we spent the first quarter trying to get names, because the people that we found closed weren’t necessarily represented in our database.
I just had this, my co-author on the new book, we went to do an immersion program together, we created the ideal prospect persona. Her name was Betty, she was the one who was gonna let us in the door, she was gonna champion our project, they were convinced they had a huge list, they are a publicly held company and there were enough Betties in there to satisfy the team.
We did a search in the database, we did a search on LinkedIn. LinkedIn was 10x the size of what we had in our database. Our database couldn’t feed enough of the people to be able to have these conversations based on our metrics. Little simple things like that just somehow, I don’t know, they’re just getting lost… or not understood but I think with your process of the search and scaling, there’s some checks and balances there, almost like a checklist. You cannot pass go, you cannot collect $200 until you do these three things to make sure that you have statistically relevant sampling of the type of account that is going to help you scale.
Marylou: Basic math.
Mansour: I was an investor in a company that got acquired and they had a great technology but every one of their customers was different. It was almost a custom project for every one of the customers. It was not a repeatable sales process but it wasn’t even a repeatable product. Again, that was hidden and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just different expectation. There’s nothing wrong with having a company that builds system software for people even if they have a kernel of technology and take it from there. There’s a lot of people doing great money this way. It’s just the set of expectations and what you want to achieve.
Marylou: Let’s go back into the search mode. I’m curious about the sales messaging. Have you been able to quantify instant fashion when your sales messaging needs to change in an automated pipeline and how that’s actually done.
What I’m asking is if we breakout the pipeline, initial conversation, they let you in the door and now you’re determining fit, and then from there you’re going into some kind of qualification or disqualification process. I’m assuming that you have sales messaging that’s supporting that conversation. When do you start taking that and tackling that in terms of getting it ready for scale?
Mansour: I think you want to do it and there’s different messaging at the top of the funnel versus I would say in the middle of the funnel. The top of the funnel, you want to position so that people understand the problems you’re solving. I would say more in the the middle of the funnel, when people are comparing you to alternatives, you want to position how different you are and why that’s important for the customer.
Mansour: Especially if you’re going after a given segment with a given persona, why what you do is different than what the other people are. You always have to validate this. I think you have to validate the top of the funnel and then middle of the funnel messaging and these are done very differently. The top of the funnel is how many demos you get, I would say, maybe a metrics measure. However, in the middle of the funnel it’s how many deals you closed versus competitors, for these kind of alternatives and these kind of personas. Those would be I would say the two metrics you measure and those are very different positioning, but you’re always positioning your product in a very different way.
Again, what you’re doing, especially if you’re doing outbound prospecting, you only have a few seconds to grab someone’s attention. It’s probably not the right time to position yourself against competitors because they may or may not be looking at the competitors. The important thing on that point is the positioning of what is the problems you solve for that particular persona. Once they’ve engaged with you in the sales cycle, they’ve done a demo, and maybe even before the demo you do some research so you’ve earned the right get feedback from that customer to understand the problems and how your product can solve them or your service can solve them, and then you position how you would be a good fit for them maybe against the competition.
Marylou: Okay, because in the search mode, one of the things I’m seeing a lot of that is proving to be very difficult is this concept of hyper personalization and in that search bucket, that’s where I would experiment with what I call three levels of personalization which is mass personalization, data driven, which it has some knowledge, it has to have a richer database in order to know more about the prospect from a prescriptive analytic point of view, and then hyper personalization where they’re actually physically editing everything that they do and sending out the emails, or whatever, their voicemail scripts, whatever.
In the search mode, that I think would be a perfect place to start validating whether this hyper personalization craze is really helping or hurting production. Because I think if you move the hyper personalized approach that’s at a smaller scale to a larger scale, it just brings on a whole slew of new problem.
Mansour: Oh yeah. And then the question is, like for instance now, if I’m gonna prospect to you, Marylou, next month, I can probably hyper personalize it. But how scalable is that?
Marylou: It’s not.
Mansour: It’s within my network, but then beyond my network, I probably won’t be able to hyper personalize it. That’s also something to take into account.
Marylou: Definitely. In my world, I can hyper personalize because working with end in mind, my goal for opportunities is very low because it’s me. I don’t have a team here of people that I’m feeding to make sure that we get enough opportunities in. I can because of my overall record size, my overall universe, but I still use templates. I still start everything with templates that has my value proposition, why me, why now, why this type of scenario of putting into sales process. Then I customize as needed.
But for the most part, I rely very heavily on data driven personalization because I think, if you wrap up your calls, if you are just going back to the telephony side of things, if you wrap up your calls, if you’ve had conversations with personas that look like the one you’re going after, you’re gonna have a better idea of how to frame that conversation for the next time you have this role that you’re working on. Since I have three roles in my world, I pretty much understand what the logical progression is of urgency in solving problems and which problem’s probably left at the top, even at what time of the year they bubble up. Usually, it’s crazy around here fourth quarter or the third quarter, because people are trying to make their numbers and think we could just rack this and put in the process that works.
Marylou: That would generate two, three X. I have that said, it’s all rhythmic but it’s all using data to do that and still have that authentic approach.
Mansour: I think you always have to be authentic. It’s a combination of how do you use data and stay authentic and it sounds like, from your engineering perspective, very structured.
Mansour: You’re absolutely right. Some things, I don’t know if you want to put it in the personalization bucket, if you even use the same vocabulary of certain people. For instance, one of the things that we do and we’ve done in the past is we used to convince CFOs to pre-pay a couple of years in front in exchange for a discount. Basically, we talk about the IRR, the return on this investment, how much they could get in the bank.
Mansour: At the time, they’re getting like, 0.1% in the bank and, “Hey, what if we give you 10% discount. Is that better than keeping it in the bank?” For Fortune 500s, it was a no brainer.
Mansour: But again, that message would have totally flown over our end-user.
Mansour: I do agree that there’s a level of personalization for personas and there’s a level on a personal level even more if you can get that. I think we see a lot ot AI happening right now that are doing top of the funnel personalization sometimes in emails. You see products a bit like from Versicom that automate email at top of the funnel. I think, they’re gonna be somewhat successful there at the top but I think the middle and bottom of the funnel is really where humans will excel. This is what we’re doing at FrontSpin, we’re building tools for them to be as productive as possible and in that part of the funnel.
Marylou: Yeah, I agree. Getting back to we call that language, we house language, the way they spoke to us, the pain points that resonated, positioning where those pain points entered in relative position in the pipeline, where we had the first call, where we had the brief, pre-conversation level. All of that data that we can store in our database helps build the correct sales conversation, and with tools like, Conversica, that are gonna come in and take that and actually frame it out even more so for us. The phone is gonna become extreme, and is still extremely important with those one-to-one sales conversation. But that’s a topic of another podcast, I’ll have to have you back on.
Mansour: Thank you, Marylou.
Marylou: We’ve already gone over our time but I wanted to leave the audience with, I’ll put on the topic page for this podcast, your connection information to FrontSpin. I recommend that people take a look at that product because it really is an amazing product that helps you have better conversations. Just so you know, their metrics are double what Aaron and I did in 2011 with Predictable Revenue. We were hoping to get three to five meaningful conversations in a two-hour call block and Mansour’s company blows that out of the water. It’s worth taking a look at that. How else would you like people to get a hold of you, Mansour?
Mansour: They can look me up on LinkedIn, on the podcast you put in my name, they can look me up on LinkedIn. Be glad to connect. Obviously, on our website, www.frontspin.com, there’s a number of ways to get a hold of us. If you want to take a look at the product and see if we can be helpful or even if there’s any questions you guys may have, will be glad to have my team route it to me or address it directly.
Marylou: Great. Thank you so much, this has been very enlightening, I think a lot of people really need to think about this whole process of scaling. Next time you’re sitting in a board meeting and there’s a number thrown out, you have the ammunition to give them all the reasons why you need to take it back, do some analysis and research before you agree to that crazy number that they’re putting up there.
Marylou: Thank again, Mansour.
Mansour: Thank you, Marylou.