I had a coffee meeting not long ago with an entrepreneur that I admire, and he asked how it was coming along with our new venture. At the time, we had been working on Yesflow for about nine months. I gave him a quick canned answer: “Pretty good – we’ve put together a good team, foundation product is built and good progress with some early customers.” Being an astute listener, he was not going to be satisfied with my glib response, so he asked a more pointed question: “How does it feel compared to your last one?”
By “last one,” he was referring to Customer Effective, the CRM consulting and systems integration business we built and sold to Hitachi Solutions in 2014. His better question made me stop for a second. I really hadn’t thought about how this experience feels compared to that experience. After I answered, he said, “You gotta write that down.”
The Analogy Explained
Those who know me well know that I love a good analogy so it isn’t too surprising that my brain would go down this path to answer his question. What popped into my head was an analogy of building fires. I think building a new company is very much like starting a tiny little fire with some dry kindling, growing that into a decent campfire that keeps a few people warm and from there growing a bonfire that can provide warmth for a whole bunch of people. If you’re really fortunate, your bonfire gets enough oxygen and fuel to become a towering inferno that goes on to consume an entire forest (hopefully a controlled burn and not a man-made disaster)!
From Campfire to Bonfire to Blazing Inferno
Over the course of a few years we built Customer Effective into a really nice bonfire that kept a bunch of team members and customers well-heated and happy. Our team was filled with smart, hard-working, motivated professionals that knew exactly how to cut and chop the right wood to help our customers get their own fires started and burning brightly.
Our fire was hot and growing rapidly, and the inferno was underway when Hitachi came looking for a way to accelerate their entry to the US CRM market. Selling a hot and growing company like Customer Effective to the 38th largest company in the world gave us the feeling that our inferno could be fed with so much oxygen and fuel that we would set the world on fire!
Fast forward 24 months, and our fire had seen multiple CEO exits and several corporate strategy changes. I won’t bore you with the details but it was finally enough to send my co-founder and I into an extended sabbatical. So much for setting the world on fire!
We learned a lot from the experience, not the least of which is that working in the bureaucracy of a giant company alongside 380,000 other people is probably not the right fit for people who, by nature, are fire starters. The positive outcome (other than the obvious one of exiting successfully) is that we now had the opportunity to reinvent ourselves with a new business. After taking some time off to re-energize and assess our opportunities, we decided to start another fire from scratch.
Starting the New Next Thing
With a little time between this venture and our last one, it is easy to forget that when we left the last business it was a bonfire (at a minimum) and maybe even a small inferno (by the sheer fact that it sits inside a multi-billion dollar enterprise). There were lots of professionals tending to many different parts of the business to keep it burning, and, as a leader, you get used to having all that help.
When you start a new business, you walk into an empty space, and there is no fire ring, no stack of wood to burn and no one standing at the ready to go collect twigs for kindling. All you really want at that point is two sticks to rub together to get a little something burning. You also realize that the only person that can go find two sticks to rub together is you (and if you’re lucky maybe a couple of friends to hold the flashlight). Such is the nature of being an entrepreneur, and, while that’s maybe a tiny bit daunting, it is more invigorating than anything else!
When we put the word out that we were starting another fire, we began hearing from our old teammates. It is incredibly rewarding to know that our inferno had warmed so many people. Many wanted to hear details about our plans and why we thought our idea would turn into another inferno. Some wanted to know if there might be a role for them cutting trees or gathering wood alongside us. What we noticed when we talked to all of them is that there is a very strong memory of our old fire ring and how we built that bonfire together.
What a Fire Needs To Burn Brightly
Yesflow has all of the right ingredients to become a highly successful business. It will most certainly be a bonfire, and it has the potential to become an inferno very quickly. An inferno needs a lot of oxygen and fuel and a lot of fire starters and fire feeders that have been around fires before and understand their nature. We have all these things in place.
Fire Starters and Fire Feeders
Our leadership and development team are seasoned fire starters and fire feeders. The importance of a high-quality team is hard to underestimate. Among just our core team of seven, we have experience in multiple start-ups with successful strategic and private equity exits, funding via VC, IPO and secondary offering, and double-digit growth through bootstrapping, global acquisition and organic new product development.
Every member of our team has recruited, led and managed a significant team of people in their career and each understands the importance of building customer-driven teams to achieve aggressive goals. On top of this proven experience, our team is in the unique position of having worked together with common purpose and common culture for nearly two decades – a rarity in most enterprises today. We don’t need to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how to work well together – we already know how to run our plays and operate as a unit.
We’re working at the confluence of several tailwinds that are feeding our market space. The market for Enterprise Digital Assistants (EDA) is $4.2 billion and predicted to grow at 32% annually for the next 5 years. CRM is a $40 billion dollar market growing around 10% annually. The Artificial Intelligence market is expected to exceed more than $191 billion by 2024 at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 37% with one of the primary drivers being demand for intelligent virtual assistants, as detailed in this article from HeraldKeeper.com.
It is always difficult to say exactly what size a future market will be, and predicting our slice of what will develop around enterprise digital assistants and our specific segment of that market is simply guesswork. What we do know is that our market segment and its complementary markets are all very large and growing rapidly. Our fire will be fed with oxygen.
Fuel is the most important ingredient in a fire, and our customers are the fuel of our business. Without them nothing happens. We are here to serve them as they build their own fires and keep their own people warm. That means that our success lies in their success and in our ability to work closely with them to define, measure and ultimately help them achieve that success.
Our customers should always be happy and referenceable, and our team knows how to make that happen – both strategically and tactically. In addition, we have a proven track record of making it happen over our careers. We helped many of our customers receive Customer Success awards and be highlighted on stage with Microsoft’s leadership team. The awards that we garnered at Customer Effective are too numerous to mention here but include being recognized by Microsoft as Global CRM Partner of the Year, named a Microsoft Dynamics Technology Innovation Award Winner and being included in the Microsoft Dynamics Inner Circle and President’s Club numerous times.
Back to the Spark That Started It All
Remember those two sticks that we started rubbing together at the beginning of this analogy? Before there’s ever a campfire or a bonfire or an inferno that can be seen for miles and miles, there needs to be a single spark that gets the fire going. For us, that spark is our belief that there’s a radically easier way of getting work done and that starts with leveraging the power and simplicity of an Enterprise Digital Assistant. Everything we do comes back to this simple idea – we help make things easy, easy, easy for end users – and we believe that, when we do it right, people will feel the warmth and want to step a little closer.