Steli Efti, CEO Close.io: SaaSStar Interview

Steli Efti has been a serial Entrepreneur since the age of 17. Having run a number of successful non tech businesses, Steli one day decided to up sticks...

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Steli Efti has been a serial Entrepreneur since the age of 17. Having run a number of successful non tech businesses, Steli one day decided to up sticks and leave home (Germany), leave everything he owned behind and go to Silicon Valley, without a working visa and without knowing anybody there! Why? Because thats where he felt he had the best chance to make it and make it big. We discuss this ballsy move and much more with the full interview available on the SaaS Revolution show podcast: The Hustle and The Hack, which you can listen to here. Below is a transcribed excerpt of the must listen to podcast with Steli:

I think that what Salesforce was to Siebel we are to Salesforce.

For those that haven’t heard of Close.io, can you give us your elevator pitch?

So what we do at Close.io is very simple. We build sales software. What we offer today in Close.io is a CRM system that’s very much focused on inside sales and very much integrated on the communication part of inside sales.
So if you sell products and services to customers and you do that mainly through communicating with them in email or through the phone, so you do it inside sales versus field sales, we probably have the best software in the world for you. What that means is that we have fully integrated calling so you can just click a phone number in our CRM and it will do an outbound call or people can call you right into the CRM. So calling is really tightly integrated.
And emailing is incredibly tightly integrated so any email communication you have with any customer or prospect or anyone else in your team has with them is automatically synced up in Close.io. We display all the historic communication, a really nice timeline view so you have full context whenever you look at a prospect or deal that opportunity you’re trying to close.
And because we have communication so tightly integrated, you have to do no manual data entry, so you don’t have to constantly go to your CRM telling the software what you just did, and you can focus fully on doing the job – selling, closing more deals, making more sales, hustling. Then the software takes care of all the data and keeping track of everything that’s happening, giving you reports on it.
It’s a very, very high productivity tool and we see all the companies that adopt Close.io see a bump in terms of their sales productivity.

You went through, the Harvard Business School of accelerators, a.k.a. Y Combinator. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? How did you get in? What impact did it have for you or for Close.io upon graduation? And the third part to the question; would you recommend to other SaaS start-ups to really go down the accelerator route as one of the leading options to grow their business faster?

That’s a great question. First, a little bit of context. When I first arrived that first start-up that I did in the Valley, I applied with that start-up four or five times to Y Combinator and I never got an interview with that. Rightfully so. To me that showed that they have a really good process weeding out bad ideas and founders that aren’t ready. So I never got an interview with that start-up.
Then when I finally accepted defeat with that company, a friend of mine had a little idea he wanted to work one. I supported him, helped him, very quickly we saw that… we got excited about that idea. We launched the product, we got traction, we got some angel funding, $300k from investors, all of which had said no to me with my prior start-up now said yes because they knew me a bit better but also they liked the new idea a lot more.
Then we decided to apply again for YC. This time we got invited to an interview and ultimately we got accepted to it. This was in 2011.
So it was a little bit of a different Y Combinator today in the sense that it was still run by Paul Graham. It was a small organisation but it was an incredible experience for us. Insanely great.
As I said, we had already launched the product with user growth and revenue growth and we had $300k in the seed route. We had the Techcrunch article and everything. Like the basic things you would expect to get out of accelerator we already had checked off on all of them.
But it was still insanely valuable just working with Paul Graham on our product. Just these things we learned about building insanely great products, growing your user and customer base, raising money, it was truly an accelerator. It just accelerated the pace of everything we did in an insanely fashion. It was very, very valuable.
Now, would I tell everyone around the world that accelerator is a good idea? No. Because I have not attended all accelerators. And I don’t think that all of them are great. Just like with anything else in life, at the end of the day it comes down to people. If the people you’re working with are insanely great then they’re going to make a difference in your life and in your business.
But if they’re not, it doesn’t matter how much money they give you, it doesn’t matter what the name of the accelerator is, it doesn’t matter that it says “accelerator.” That’s meaningless. At the end of the day, it always comes down to what are the people I’m going to be working with and how much can they truly help me.
So there’s no generic yes or no answer on should you do an accelerator. In our case, it was a yet and I was very glad that we did it.

Imagine I’m using the market-leading CRM software already. How would you sell me Close.io in that situation?

I would sell you Close.io like I would in any situation.
First, I would try to convince myself that I can help you. So the first thing that I’d do I would never just pitch you. I would first try to understand can we truly help you. Are we truly the best solution for you? Because if we’re not, I don’t want you to buy Close.io.
So the first thing that I do is I selflessly qualify you. So we try and understand how many people do you have, do you only do inside sales or do you need a lot of field sales or are they outside… I’m trying to understand is our software the right fit. What are some of your goals? With the problems that you have right now with the market-leading software how much of a problem is that? The benefits I know that that software gives you how much of a benefit is that to you today? I’d ask a bunch more questions to truly understand your situation.
If somebody comes to me and goes, “Steli, we’re using this CRM. We don’t really like it. Pitch me on Close.io.”
I’ll say, “Awesome. Well, why don’t you like it? How do you do things?”
You’ll notice that I won’t pitch. First, I’ll try to understand you better.
And once I understand and you’ve convinced me that I can help you, that Close.io is the better solution then I will selfishly qualify you, which means I’ll ask a few questions to see, now that I know I can help you, let’s find out can you help me too.
So I’ll try to understand how big is the opportunity, how immediate is your need to change, are you the decision maker. So I’ll try to understand a little bit of like how big is this opportunity and then how to make it happen.
But more generically, you want to hear a pitch from me for the audience rather than an approach to a philosophy. I think that my basic pitch if I was convinced that we’re the better solution for you was to tell you that it doesn’t have to be an either-or. Like you can go with the big thing that’s safe. That solution is going to slow you down today and once you become a 1,000 or 5,000-person company it’s going to speed you up, because at that point we’re not the right solution.
Conversely, today Close.io is going to speed you up, is going to help you move faster but as you grow to like thousands of employees we’re going to slow you down.
I don’t think you have to make that choice. I think that what I would convince you of is to not look at an either-or but to look at what is the best step-by-step approach to succeeding with your business? Which is today you might want to use Close.io to help your salespeople win, to get more data, to move faster.
And Close.io can easily pump all the data through our API into an older and bigger CRM that you can either adopt later on or you can run in parallel if for some reason you think you still need to have it as your reporting hub or integration hub. So it doesn’t have to be an either-or.
But at the end of the day, I think most businesses, especially in their early stages like the start-up businesses that we talk to a lot of times, they don’t care about what’s going to happen when we’re 5,000 or 10,000 employees and they don’t care about let me make the safest choice because I don’t want to be fired in my job. They care about winning. They care about how can we grow as fast as possible, how can we close the most deals possible, how can I empower my employees to be happy and productive? If you care about these things, we’re the right choice.

Do you think that you guys are disrupting Salesforce and would you view them as like a legacy SaaS software?

Yeah, I think so. I think what’s happening is very natural and something that’s been always happening in business and all industries and specifically in technology. I think that what Salesforce was to Siebel we are to Salesforce.
I think that one interesting trend is that a lot of times people think about what’s the next technology kind of paradigm that will allow the new wave of companies killing the old ones? So I think that once, for instance tablets and smart phones became so big, everybody was like, oh, the big SaaS players of today will be disrupted by mobile versions of these products.
I don’t think that much, that a lot of that has happened, but what is happening is that a new wave of SaaS companies are launching and winning especially in the Enterprise and B2B space that are just better products. And better is defined by products that are focused on the user and making the user of the product insanely successful and happy and with that bring real ROI versus what the legacy SaaS business a lot of times did, which was building software that could easily be sold to management and then management from a top-down approach forced it down to the individual user. Nobody ever cared if the software is actually being used and if the people that are using it are happy and successful with the usage.
I think that’s a really big trend and it’s harder to grasp because it’s not as easy as like, oh, it’s mobile first or this first. It’s just is it really great software and is it software that was built for the person that’s using it as opposed to the management that is signing off on large purchase orders. I think that’s a big trend.
And there’s a lot more going to it like we have a specific philosophy on how we built Close.io. It’s completely different from how Salesforce built their CRM or most other competitors in the CRM market built theirs.
Intercom.io is a nice example. Somebody that they just solved the problem they saw and did it insanely well and discovered that there’s a lot of people that have the same problem but they don’t fit as quite neatly into a category as you usually would. I think there’s a lot more companies in that trend that I see today.

What if Salesforce see you as a threat to their business and they come in tomorrow with $500 million offer to buy Close.io. Are you going to sell?

I definitely think that they realise we’re a threat to their business. I think they’re smart enough to know that their software sucks from a perspective of the end-user is not insanely happy and successful. The sales end-user is not insanely happy and successful using it. And it’s a convoluted, slow, complicated product. I do think they know that. They realise that. I just think it’s incredibly hard for them to change because of many reasons.
When it comes to what if they realise that they want to come and buy us, I don’t know. I mean, I’m not worried about that. I don’t want to sell the business. I fucking love my business. I love running the business. I love our customers. If you took this away from me, I would not exactly know what I would want to do tomorrow. I’m not like, yeah, let’s sell this so I could do this better thing, or this other thing. So I’m not looking to sell.
Now, if somebody offers me $10 billion tomorrow, will I have some very serious discussion in my company and team about that offer? Fuck, yeah. I’m not stupid so if somebody offers an insanely over-proportional amount of capital, will I sit down and think about it from a pure business perspective, like should we really take this seriously? Yes, I will. I don’t know if it’s $100 million, a few $100 million or whatever the amount is, but if it’s a really large amount I’ll definitely entertain it.
But would I sell? I don’t know. I’m not sure.

Give us your one best hustling tip and your one best sales hacking tip that every SaaS founder should be doing right now.

All right. So the hustling side is very simple. Follow up and follow up a lot more than you do today. That’s probably the one piece of advice that I give that has the highest ROI. Judging by the amount of people today that are sending me emails and giving me very specific numbers on the difference it made to their business and their life, follow up more.
There’s people every day that send me emails. They closed the funding route, got press, hired this one guy, closed this one massive enterprise deal just because they listened to my advice and they follow up a lot more than they usually do.
My simple follow-up philosophy in life is if you have a positive interaction with somebody, a prospect, a customer, whatever it is and they go silent on you when you follow up with an email or something, don’t take that silence as rejection. That silence, more likely than not, means you’re not a priority anymore, they got busy, they are distracted, something else is happening. Don’t stop following up until you get a response. Yes is good. No is good. Silence means you still have to champion this deal.
And I’ve written about how to write follow-up emails, how to think about this, but my No. 1 – winning is happening in the follow up.
Follow up is where nobody competes with you. Everybody is competing at showing up, sending that first cold email, making that first cold call, shaking somebody important’s hand at a conference. It’s so crowded. Everybody competes you with showing up, that initial contact. But when it comes to the follow up everyone stops and you’re like alone in the race. So that’s where winning happens.
When it comes to sales hack for SaaS founders, that’s a good one. There’s so many things. But I do think if you have a SaaS product and people sign up for a free trial possibly, you need to send them a lot more automated email. And your automated email needs to look and feel like it comes from people in the company and needs to be very enticing in their reply.
So when you sign up for a 14-day trial for Close.io you get 7 individual emails in those 14 days. You’ll get 5 more how to use the product emails. You’ll get a shit ton of emails from us. So send more emails. Take the number of emails you send today, double it by two, and you’ll see a dramatic impact in your business immediately. I don’t care what the numbers are that you’re sending in emails, just send more.

If you have a question for Steli about following up, hustling or Close.io you can reach him at Steli@close.io

Listen to the Full interview on the podcast here, or subscribe on iTunes or soundcloud

by Alex Theuma @alextheuma

 

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