“The Belgian tech ecosystem is becoming stronger every year, but we could use some more success stories”, explains co-CEO Pieterjan Bouten from Showpad a couple of days before Tech Startup Day. “I want to see dozens of Showpad’s popping up in our country.”
Showpad did something remarkable last year, when it raised 50 million dollars in a C round led by the well-known American venture capitalist Insight Venture Partners (Alibaba, Twitter, Flipboard, etc.). Few other European software companies obtained such an amount of money in 2016, and what’s equally important: the headquarters of Showpad are still located in Belgium, not in Silicon Valley.
“Our country has a lot to offer”, stresses Bouten, who’s one of the keynote speakers at Tech Startup Day on March 9th. “Not only do Belgians have a strong work ethic, we are modest folk and we speak three languages. Our country is in the heart of Europe and we get along very well with other cultures.”
“Our tech ecosystem is becoming more mature as well, I’m approached almost daily by promising young entrepreneurs with an international mindset. This is a very positive development, but there’s still room for improvement. We need to encourage entrepreneurialism even more in our classrooms, colleges and at universities, and entrepreneurs need to pay it forward more often.”
“Hopefully we’ll see some encouraging exits in the years to come, because we could use some success stories in Belgium. We learn a lot from unfortunate events like the failure of Take Eat Easy, but our ecosystem really needs some success stories.”
“I want to see dozens of Showpad’s popping up in the next few years”, adds Bouten, “companies that go beyond a Series A or a Series B round, and that make a mark internationally. The potential is there, no doubt about that, we just need to focus even more on engineering, on technical training, on women in tech, … and the rest will follow.”
Showpad has an office in San Francisco, should you really go to the US if you want to make it in the SAAS world?
Pieterjan Bouten: “It depends on your product and your intentions. For Showpad, the US is the biggest and the most interesting market. This said, during the first years we had no office in California, and we still managed to generate a revenue of 1 million euro in sales.”
“But at some point, you have to start serving your customers locally. And when those customers are in the US, you must be there as well. I don’t think it is wise to go to Amerika too quickly, as you can achieve quite a lot over the internet. But if the majority of your customers are there, you should at least consider putting a team there. It will cost you a lot of money and there will be setbacks, but that’s all part of the game.”
What are the most important lessons you learned in the US?
Bouten: “That you must be patient and that you need someone you can trust to carry your business. Americans think bigger, are better salesmen and can be overly enthusiastic. This has both advantages and disadvantages. Some people create a positive vibe and make your team fly, while others don’t deliver. People tend to sell themselves so well, that you have to dig deeper and be more critical.”
“Sometimes we recruited too fast, based on great résumés. And then it turns out that the recruit is not such a good sales person after all, or that he or she is less experienced than we thought. Those things happen, and you have to cope with them.”
What keeps you awake at night?
Bouten: “My days are busy, and I sleep quite well, thank you very much (laughs). Showpad is a fast-growing business, we’re always in the middle of something. Our revenue doubled almost yearly for the last five years, and to keep up with that pace we’re constantly attracting new talent and strengthening our management team.”
“Currently we’re looking for an experienced COO to take Showpad to the next level in the US. It must be someone who knows how to bring a business from 250 to 500 people. The search for talent never stops.”
Last year, Insight Venture Partners invested in Showpad. Has anything changed since then?
Bouten: “We had a good 2016, with almost 20 million in revenue. Although we didn’t exactly double our revenue this time, Insight was satisfied. You can try to keep growing with 100 percent every year, but you cannot burn too much cash. Let’s say that we’re a little more conservative than the average startup in Silicon Valley (laughs).”
“At Showpad, we prefer a more structural and less aggressive growth. I favor solid fundamentals over growth rates that crumble once you run out of VC money. But to answer your question: Insight made us raise the bar again. They help us with recruitments, we have access to benchmark data from other companies, there’s that gigantic network…”
“Next week I have a meeting with all the Insight-companies in the Salesforce ecosystem. We come together to share best practices. That’s the real value. For me it's important to work with good people, not only on good days but also when things get difficult. All our investors are super supportive and give us really good advice. They do what a board needs to do: challenge us, help us shape our strategy etc.
Showpad wants to be a leader in enterprise software. Can you achieve that goal when you stay a one product company?
Bouten: “Sales enablement, the software category we operate in, is a very broad category in terms of products. You have businesses that focus on training and onboarding, you have sales enablement tools that focus on insights, on analytics, … The uniqueness of Showpad is that we have built something that really adds value for sales people.”
“One of the biggest challenges for sales teams is that buyers are so well informed, people do their own research now. But human interaction stays important, certainly when you’re selling a complex product and you must negotiate about the price. We ensure that sales people can add value there, by having access to the right content at the right time.”
“Showpad is more than a sales-app. It ensures that sales and marketing teams work better together, and that their revenue grows. We make sales cycles shorter, and this on the web, via email plugins, on smartphones ... We are not a single product company, we have different products for direct sales, for insight sales teams, for channel sales teams, …”
“We have competitors who are about the same size, but our ‘engagement layer’ is unique. People have paid for their CRM, they have their marketing automation in place, but an indirect channel that adds value during sales pitches, that’s really something no one else can offer.”
Have there been interesting exit opportunities for Showpad?
Bouten: “In the States you often get interesting proposals, but our current focus is on growth and on product. We add value for our customers, our employees and our shareholders. Companies that do so tend to make a good exit, whether it is through an acquisition or an IPO. Never say never, but right now an exit is not our priority.”