Strategic Selling vs. "We Needed the Money"

I think a lot when exercising. This morning I reflected my own experience from the very beginning until the end of my active role as founder and my later role in sales. So there will be some historical story telling here.

When we started my company, we were just a few guys with a joint passion for breaking SAP systems. And we had the first assignments literally over night after establishing the company. We pen-tested day for day and month for month and we grew organically. We recruited many people from my "Hacker Contest" courses at the university and grew organically (I will talk about the "pain of growth" later). And then we found out, that it was very difficult keeping heads above water because many project assignments came in late in the year. We couldn't deliver everything while suffering hardly above the line before the first 9-10 months of the year.

That's why we decided to turn the company from a consulting to a software firm (I will also talk about making and executing strategic decisions). Having left SAP after a few years as product manager, I knew what was not in SAP's portfolio. I still have the sheet of paper with ~20 ideas but we opted for what was later known as "CodeProfiler" - a security scanner for SAP's proprietary language ABAP. We funded this with cash flow and our own money and had our first prototype up and running for SAP TechEd late 2008 in Berlin. This attracted the first customers and we could grow the business from there generating a recurring revenue stream as desired.

While we could grow the company further, some things went wrong. Since we were funded by cash, we could often not sell strategically (executing our vision). Sometimes, we had to hunt every EUR in order to move on and we sometimes couldn't do what needed to be done. Here are three key examples:

  • Custom Development: you know the stories where one customer says "I buy your product, if you implement this ..." and we did that a lot in the beginning. While this may secure a deal (it doesn't always), it doesn't help you to build a standard product that is valuable for many customers vs. only one customer. In the worst case you will end up with a highly segmented product where no customer gets the full value. We changed that over time by implementing product management functions and agile development.
  • Consulting without focus: due to our history, we had a strong consulting division. Strong also means that there was high revenue generated. The downside was that many consulting services were not around our products (like getting it up and running, executing scans, working on results, etc.) but dozens of small service offerings somehow related to our topic SAP security. By nature that was difficult to transfer to the field organization since sales must be simple. You can only overcome this situation if you have enough funding for implementing your strategy - by being very focused and also by bringing in growth capital.
  • Too much focus on features: I'd say that we had the best product in our domain over time. However, the best product does not necessarily sell by itself. The market might value your solution - but first of all prospects need to understand WHY they need what you have. Since we sold complex products that are not explanatory like iPhones, a lot of effort needs to be put into the right messaging with a focus on customer value. Over time we succeeded and "CodeProfiler" is still used synonymously with security scanning of SAP ABAP.

I can only encourage every entrepreneur to look for growth capital being able to execute strategically. Keep in mind that finding the right partner for this will be another challenge in your life as a founder and director of your own business.