Grow Your Company By Listening to Your Customers—and Yourself
One of the best lessons I've ever learned from an old boss was to meet with as many customers as you can, but when it comes to feature requests, never take notes. It sounds crazy, but he had some logic behind it. As you constantly meet with customers, interviewing them to understand their needs, themes will start to emerge. Their input will help you prioritize your development cycle instead of jumping at the needs of a single customer. They will show you where the market is going, and what you need to build into your platform.
Once you’ve charted your course, you have to move fast. The sooner you can go from proof of concept to your initial launch, the better. This is true in any business, but especially in the SaaS space.
The Future of Electronic Signatures
At PactSafe, we’re building a new kind of electronic signature platform focused on the types of documents that business and consumer users sign online. When you look at the biggest electronic signature companies—specifically DocuSign and Adobe Sign—all they really did was to digitize the pen and paper experience. That’s not how the world works anymore.
When you buy something on Amazon, and you click—or swipe—to accept your purchase, you’re signing a contract. The same happens when you hail an Uber, or load your Instacart with groceries. All of these transactions are legally binding, and there are contracts behind every transaction. You’re agreeing to a purchase, and to the terms of service, even if you don’t scribble your signature with a pen.
But what happens when things go wrong? A lot of companies don’t track which version of the terms of service a customer might have accepted, when they accepted, what the page looked like, or even the device used to make a purchase. These may seem like minor details when fulfilling an order, but they take on huge significance when you’re dealing with litigation.
We built PactSafe to address these issues. It started as a platform to centralize, manage, and track the kind of transactions that big companies have traditionally struggled to prove. Then we started to look at the bigger picture.
As a next step, we created a platform that collected and tracked signatures based on the way customers interact with businesses today. PactSafe formats contracts, order forms, NDAs, employment agreements, terms of service, and more in a way that makes them easy to review and accept on mobile devices.
PactSafe users can "sign" a document by clicking on a button, answering an e-mail, sending a text message, or even by providing a response in a Slack chat room or in-app chat like Intercom.
Starting Lean and Building a Platform
From the very beginning, one of the reasons I helped start PactSafe is because I wanted to build an entirely new platform. I wanted to have an impact on other industries by introducing a new set of technologies they could integrate into their products.
We've built our company the way we've wanted, counter to many of the tech startups hiring and growing to meet fundraising milestones—we’re very lean, and our goal is building a long-lasting sustainable business. There are eleven employees in total, including the three founders. Two of us are from ExactTarget, the e-mail service provider that was acquired by Salesforce for $2.7 billion in 2013 and rebranded as Salesforce Marketing Cloud.
In my time there, I learned a lot about how to grow a company.
Once ExactTarget hit its stride, the company grew super fast. In the beginning, though, they focused on three key goals: Become profitable, build the business model, and figure out how and when to scale. When you’re building up a startup, you have to stay lean until you find the right formula. When you have it, you can raise $40 or $70 million, and then you can go nuts.
As COO, I’m responsible for product management, customer success, and most of our internal IT stuff. I work with our technical folks. We talk to customers every single day. We listen to all kinds of different use cases. Then, we figure out how to apply these cases to meet the needs of customers who are using our platform today. We also factor all of this into our long-term vision. This helps us align our goals with what customers may need in the future.
Integration Is Key
When I think about the difference between a product and a platform, it comes down to integration. With electronic signatures, customers want signing up to be easy (and no one likes contracts when they're buying something). Customers of today don't want to leave the website or the app they’re using to enter into a contract, or to conclude a transaction. The experience has to be seamless. We can build the UI on our end and ensure the process is delightful for the user, but connecting the dots on the back-end can be tricky.
In the past, I’ve had to build a new iteration every time we rolled out another integration of a platform. We had to learn one new API after another. We could leverage some of what we’d done with an initial integration, but after we’d built a version for, say, the Salesforce API, we’d have to build a second one for the HubSpot API, a third one for Microsoft, Oracle—and the list goes on.
We didn’t want to keep building in two places. It was a waste of time and resources. We needed a process that was light, low maintenance, and flexible to let us grow our integrations while still staying lean. We found that in .
Cloud Elements is a genius-level tool that gives us one interface to a single API. This allows us to quickly leverage one resource, and to then code it into multiple APIs, speeding up future integrations.
Obviously the first integration is the hardest. You have to do all that work up front. If you’re using Cloud Elements, once the initial one is out of the way, you’re beautifully set up for the future. Your engineers don’t have to go back and spend a week learning the ins and outs of the next API. You know how it is. Without Cloud Elements, every company is a black hole of proprietary stuff you have to navigate.
Integrating With Cloud Elements
I know how valuable Cloud Elements can be because we didn’t start off with them. We originally hired an independent contractor to build our Salesforce integration. Dealing with so many larger tech companies as customers, Salesforce was our number one integration request by far.
With the contractor, it took a while to get something going—something like six or eight months—and we ended up having to scrap it because we couldn't keep up with the new features of our platform within Salesforce's proprietary environment. Fortunately, as this was happening, I ran into the Cloud Elements people at , and we ended up starting from scratch together to get the best possible product and integration to market—all while keeping the big picture in mind.
PactSafe for Salesforce accomplishes a lot for our customers. For starters, it forces a sales rep to enter the data into Salesforce, which is generally a problem for sales operations. It then injects all that data into a contract and conditionally shows—among other things—what a customer buys, how much they pay, whether they’re using a credit card, and if they’re being invoiced at a later date. It’s not just a bill of sale. It’s a legally binding contract.
The sync from Cloud Elements is seamless. It lets us build up the frontend and backend in a way that makes contract generation super dynamic and powerful. It also speeds up the development process. After our initial setback with our first integration, we went from proof of concept to the start of production in three weeks. The first integration launched within six to eight weeks. We’ve also improved it constantly, based on customer feedback and other input.
Our next step is to use Cloud Elements to capture all the information a customer might enter when they sign a document and push it all back into Salesforce as a PDF. For the user, the process couldn’t be more transparent. You log into your Salesforce account and Cloud Elements automatically provisions everything you need by handling the integrations behind the scenes.
It’s also easier for us. PactSafe pulls some very complex data from Salesforce—it can get really gnarly. Cloud Elements offered us the ability to populate contracts with Salesforce data out of the gate. Cloud Elements also released a new functionality that helped us to customize and tailor the datasets we were grabbing on a customer-to-customer basis, without having to deploy any code within our core code base.
The potential for us is huge. We can individualize our Salesforce integration—or any of our future integrations—for some of our bigger customers. We can offer all kinds of new applications to our customers because we don’t have to spend days and weeks using a bunch of different API calls that are a nightmare to manage. Because of how successful this has been, we plan on rolling out HubSpot, Dropbox, Box, and Google Drive integrations in the near term, and maybe even Intercom and Drift after that.
Staying Lean and Managing Growth
We plan to stay lean as we continue to grow PactSafe. Instead of bringing more people on board to help with future integrations, we’re able to do it with our existing dev team, along with some help from the people at Cloud Elements.
Working with Cloud Elements helps keep us flexible. Instead of stressing out about APIs, we’re applying our super-smart technical resources to other, more strategic projects, like monetizing future integrations and further differentiating our digital signature offering.
We want to stay in control of this business and create something sustainable. It helps that we’re not in the Valley. It’s one way to avoid some of the startup craziness. Another way is not to accelerate growth for its own sake. We want to be confident about moving in the right direction and choosing the right goals.
When the time is right, we’re going to go full bore. For now, we’ll stay small. I never want to be at a place where cash flow’s looking rough, and we can’t make payroll. I never want to have to lay people off or to liquidate assets to keep the company afloat.
It’s all a matter of scale and perspective. Once we nail that, look out.