HG Data: CEO Interviews

HG Data Cholawsky

I sat down with Craig Harris and Elizabeth Cholawsky of HG Data last month. Elizabeth had joined HG Data as their new CEO eight days earlier with Craig shifting from CEO to R&D Leader and Chairman. We discussed the transition, partner management, product planning, and the entry into other information verticals. The interview has been edited for length and will be published over the next few days.


Michael: Elizabeth, can you provide a quick overview of your history and experience and why you are the best person to be running HG Data?

Elizabeth: I’ve been working with subscription-based products, SaaS products, and products in the cloud since they were first invented almost 20 years ago.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked as VP of marketing at a couple of companies which you may not remember. Commission Junction was acquired by ValueClick, and I was VP of marketing there.

In 2007, I moved on to Citrix and the GoTo products, as GM.  It was a great experience because we were at the early stages of getting GoToMeeting out to market. When we got Citrix big enough, we divided into lines of business to streamline the decision making.

That was about a $200 million business when I left it in 2014.

I took those executive learnings and was recruited to lead Support.com. I went there in mid-2014 and by the beginning of the following year, we had a product to market. By the end of that year, we were at about $1.2 million ARR. Pretty quick ramp for that product in the SaaS market.

Michael: What else will help HG Data grow rapidly in the coming years?

Elizabeth: I have always been attuned to the discipline of product and product development. The core of all good technology companies is its product. My affinity is for that as well as the details, and I have been immersed in both – really having a sharp eye for the product / market fit.

Michael: Craig, you made a decision to step back from running the company day-to-day, but it sounds like you’re taking a more technical role with the organization as well as continuing as the Chairman.

Craig: We closed our Series B round about two years ago and, after we closed, I had a great chat with our new investors.  I dropped a bomb on them and said, “Hey, when would be a great time for me to go and really have my dream job?” The same thing from which HG Data was founded which is R&D. That’s always been my love, that’s always been my passion. That was what got me to start my first company NOZA and, when NOZA was acquired, it was the R&D and the pursuit of solving very challenging data problems that led me and my co-founders to start HG [in 2010]. It just what I love and that’s what I find myself doing on the weekends.

I asked our new investors, “Hey, thanks so much for wiring us $12 million. At what point do you think will be a good time to talk about hiring a CEO to get it to really scale?” Jon Seeber of Updata Partners said, “Hey, once you get to an eight-figure run rate, we’ll talk about it.” Well, it didn’t take that long until we were at an eight-figure run rate so this has been in the works for some time now. We just wanted to find the perfect fit. Product management has never been the thing that HG Data has led with. We’ve always led with the Holy Grail [HG] of data.

We put together a group of advisory product people a year and a half ago. We were brainstorming, trying to take that data and put it to work inside of our customers’ workflows. That was the next step for us and that’s not something that I have a lot of experience with. For me, it also wasn’t something where I’d just go hire a VP of Product and then, voila, we’re going to be able to become that type of organization. For us, it was something that the board and I wanted to have just in the DNA of our leadership and so that’s why literally after seeing a couple of hundred candidates, Elizabeth was the perfect choice for us and really a no-brainer

Elizabeth: I feel like I’m in the most fortunate situation. I just feel like that’s a hugely fortunate thing for a new CEO to have [the founder] as a partner.  [When] the founder walks away, you lose a true guiding light of the company. That’s not going to be us.


Continue to Part II

Form Follows Function

InsideView users can quickly target additional executives by function and level.
InsideView users can quickly target additional executives by function and level.

One of the key aphorisms in architecture is that form follows function.  The quote, attributed to Louis Sullivan, holds that a building’s design should be based upon the underlying purpose of the building, not driven by ornamentation.  Twentieth century design took this maxim to heart with similar thinking spreading through industrial and software design.

In the case of information services, a focus on flashy design or “bells and whistles” can be a distraction if the underlying service fails to meet the basic informational and workflow needs of its users.  One of the great things about Google is that it returns high precision results from a few words entered into a search box.  It was this simplicity that allowed them to grab and hold two-thirds of the search engine market share, leaving Bing and Yahoo! to pick up the scraps.

A well-designed sales intelligence solution supports multiple sales and support workflows.  These users span multiple functions and departments (e.g. sales, sales directors, sales operations, sales support, service departments, business development, and marketing).  Furthermore, there are multiple types of sales reps within larger organizations so your sales intelligence platform needs to be flexible enough to meet differing information requirements and workflows.

Thus, tactical sales reps need to quickly locate contact information and a few prospect qualification variables.  They want to make sure that the contact they are about to call is in their territory and doesn’t work at a subsidiary of a named account.

Conversely, a strategic rep has broad information requirements around companies, company structures, executives, and key events.  Strategic reps are focused on who to call, when to call, and what to say.  Sales triggers are not only a flashing green light that a prospect is more likely to buy, but conversational material for catching the prospect’s attention and signaling that the rep has prepared for the call.  Likewise, SWOT reports, biographies, industry market research reports provide insights into client interests and needs.

Named account reps sell only to a few firms so need a deep understanding of their target accounts.  They need to be apprised of key events at an organization that could positively or negatively impact their pipeline.  Furthermore, named account reps are looking for additional contacts and locations for extending their corporate footprint.   Thus, searching across a company for specific job functions and then reviewing subsidiary profiles and bios is an important task in growing the account.  Named account reps also benefit from PDF exportability so they can review the latest information about their client or prospect while traveling.  These reports can also be shared with other members of the sales and support team.

Territory reps and financial services relationship managers need to be apprised of sales triggers within their territory, quickly research and qualify companies, and dig deeper on larger opportunities.  Furthermore, as they generally sell cross-industry, they  also benefit from industry overviews from vendors such as First Research.  These primers are written in plain English and provide a set of Q&A sections by topic and job function.

First Research reports, found in Dun & Bradstreet products, provide a series of Q&A topics by C-level functions, opportunities, and challenges.
First Research reports, found in Dun & Bradstreet products, provide a series of Q&A topics by C-level functions, opportunities, and challenges.

Most reps work within a CRM, so review the capabilities of sales intelligence CRM connectors.  The tighter the integration the better.  If your CRM is your system of record, you want the sales reps working within the CRM on desktops and mobile devices.  Services that bounce the user between a web browser and the CRM are less effective than those that provide most or all of their content and functionality within Salesforce.com, MS Dynamics, or other CRMs.  Also, look for “stare and compare” updating of records, batch and real-time synchronization of data, custom fields, and duplicate checking.

Many sales intelligence services also support the marketing department.  Standardizing the two functions on a common vendor helps reduce cost and channel conflict.  It also provides a basis for successful ABM programs which cross the two departments.  Several years ago, sales intelligence vendors only offered prospecting to marketing, but now they also support web forms, real-time and batch enrichment of leads, lead-to-account mapping, marketing automation connectors, lead scoring, segmentation analysis, Ideal Customer Profiling, TAM analysis, and net-new leads and contacts.  A few also offer standalone services for the marketing department such as programmatic advertising, visitor id, multi-channel marketing, and SEO.

When evaluating sales intelligence solutions, you should understand the workflows and information requirements of each of your sales groups along with other potential beneficiaries of the service.  Don’t evaluate simply on counts and features, but on the information needs and workflows of your various sales and marketing teams.

2016 in Review: Sales Intelligence UIs

IV2
InsideView for Sales Company Profile (New UI)

Over the past few days, I’ve been discussing enhancements made to the 14 sales intelligence services covered in my new book, 2017 Field Guide to Sales Intelligence.  On Monday, I discussed content enhancements and on Tuesday I covered functionality.  Wednesday was supposed to be user interfaces, but Dun & Bradstreet dropped a bombshell and acquired Avention, so the UI discussion was bumped a day.

There are two approaches to UI enhancements: Big Bang and Incremental.  With the big bang approach the entire product is refreshed.  Such a project is a major endeavor and often involves a completely new look and feel to the service and upgraded workflows and design elements.  It may also involve new standards such as responsive design in support of mobile devices.

Big Bang

One example of broad product redesigns are the new interfaces found in Bureau van Dijk’s Orbis and Fame products.  These products focus on financial analysis and account research.  New design elements included a navigation bar, a contemporary UI, faster list building, new report types, shared information sets (e.g. reports, lists searches), and new analytical tools.

Unfortunately,Bureau van Dijk has not indicated any plans for addressing the old-fashioned Mint sales intelligence user interface.

Another example of redesign is InsideView which refreshed its user interface for its web browser and CRM connectors.  The browser changes were relatively minor, but the CRM connectors had a broader set of design and workflow upgrades.

DiscoverOrg also redesigned their user interface at the beginning of 2016 (it was in beta in 2015).  In February 2016, DiscoverOrg released a new platform designed with better speed, performance, and scalability. It included a new UI and enhanced features:

  • Streamlined prospecting against 62 variables across five broad categories: companies, employees, technology products, location, and triggers. The new UI immediately presents an updated result list as variables are selected. The same selects are available across three results views: companies, contacts, and triggers.
  • Export of contacts as profiles or as VCF
  • Company and contact notes
  • Suppression of companies or contacts when prospecting (e.g. suppress named accounts from lists for territory reps).
  • Admin user management and usage reporting
  • Ability to toggle between multiple departments on the same page (depending on subscription)
  • Ability to follow a company or contact with update alerting, including if they leave a company and reappear in the database under another profiled company (a unique DiscoverOrg capability)
  • Customizable dashboard based on followed lists
  • Contact profiles include previous job history and education
  • Company profiles include lists of current employees and recently departed staff.

RainKing went through a rebranding exercise which included a refreshed user interface. The platform has faster response times, improved searching, and an expanded technology taxonomy.

Zoominfo repackaged its service as the Zoominfo Growth Acceleration Platform for sales and marketing effectiveness. The new platform helps sales and marketing teams “identify, connect, and engage with qualified prospects and replicate success.” The Growth Acceleration Platform is a cross-product branding that supports company and executive searching, list building, file enrichment, and data Insights (segmentation analysis and persona identification).

Incremental

The second approach is more incremental.  Instead of changing the overall look and feel of the platform, workflow and layout improvements are made to a set of contained tools.  For example, list building is a contained functional category.  Upgrades to prospecting workflows do not impact the whole product, but are focused in a functional subset, allowing the upgrades to be compartmentalized.

Avention took an incremental approach to workflow with redesigns of their active homepage, build a list, and watchlists. The Build a List user interface was redesigned to improve usability while expanding to 150 selects. Lists may now be exported to Salesforce, MS Dynamics, Oracle for Sales, Marketo, and Eloqua.  New list management features include rename, pin to desktop, delete, modify criteria, and clone list.

The Avention active home page is now customizable with users able to drag and drop information tiles.   There is also an improved SmartList tile display and onboarding tiles containing product tips.

Expanded notification functionality allows Avention reps to manage new company and sales trigger alerts from a centralized location. This Watchlist supports filtering by read/unread notices, priority flag, trigger type, and list. A new flag allows users to flag notifications as important.

Likewise, Data.com originally launched the Dun & Bradstreet family trees in the classic UI, but implemented the Lightning UI for family tree viewing.  The family tree information mashes together the Dun & Bradstreet global family tree (e.g. linkages, location type, city, country, revenue, and employees) with Salesforce.com account intelligence including whether the location is already an account and the name of the account owner.  Users may expand or collapse nodes and add an account via clicking on a Plus button.

Owler improved the user interface for their advanced search (Build a List). They also added selects for area code and ZIP/Postal Code.

Net

Unlike content and functional upgrades, one would not want to have annual UI upgrades as they require customers to relearn key elements of the service.  There is value to both stability and change (a fact which is true of both product design and life in general).  If a platform goes too long without a refresh, it becomes stale and fails to leverage new browser and mobile device capabilities.  Furthermore, as new content and features are added to a platform, it can become overly busy and illogical.  Conversely, a platform which changes its design elements and workflow too often will frustrate users.  There are benefits in knowing how to efficiently complete a task or where to find specific information.  Change should never be simply for change sake.

Putting Lipstick on a Pig

The task of software product developers has become increasingly difficult.  It used to be that marketing could “put lipstick on a pig” and sell a poorly designed product based upon futures, a few cool features, and a high ROI claim.  But increasing competition and higher user expectations make dressing up a weak product more difficult for several reasons:

  1. Buyers do much of their research up front, so marketers and sales no longer control the narrative.  Purchasers are now able to frame their requirements and conduct much of their basic research before raising their hands.
  2. Review sites such as G2.com (FKA G2 Crowd) and TrustRadius provide input on what users like and dislike about software products.  If there is a disconnect between promises and reality, these problems will be surfaced.  If there are connectivity, performance, or scaling issues, these will also be flagged. (Warning: be wary of reviews that are manufactured by vendor campaigns.  Look at the review dates and note if reviews are tightly bunched in time or if a small vendor has several-fold more reviews than its larger competitors.  These reviews are often derived by campaigns, some with rewards, for reviews.)
  3. We’ve all come to appreciate great design thanks to Steve Jobs and Apple.  Most of us are not experts in what makes for great design, but we are much better at identifying poor design, balky workflows, and ugly interfaces.
  4. Services must integrate with each other.  It is no longer possible to build a product that only weakly integrates with key vendors.  Simply providing a download CSV for enterprise software platforms is unacceptable to admins.  The AppExchange has thousands of vendors on it.  In SalesTech and Martech, it is expected that your service integrates with Salesforce, MS Dynamics, Adobe/Marketo, and Eloqua/Oracle.  Other common integrations are Chrome Connectors, Hubspot, Gmail, Exchange, and LinkedIn Sales Navigator (SNAP).  We are already seeing Sales Engagement vendors such as SalesLoft and Outreach.io build their own partner ecosystems.
  5. Competition is fierce.  In the Marketing Technology space, Scott Brinker identified approximately 3,500 Martech vendors in his 2016 graphic, up 87% over 2015.  By 2019, the vendor count had doubled to 7,040. That is a large gaggle of voices calling for attention.
"Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic (2016)" courtesy of Scott Brinker and Chiefmartec.
“Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic (2016)” courtesy of Scott Brinker and Chiefmartec.

Products rarely succeed if they are backed by poor marketing.  But is increasingly difficult for poor products to gain traction by marketing alone.  Firms now must tie strong marketing to strong design and an unmet user need.  A company like SalesLoft identified an underserved market (Sales Development professionals) and gave them “sincerity at scale.”  Likewise, DemandBase was talking about Account Based Marketing for years (and supporting it with their programmatic marketing platform) before other vendors recognized the value of targeting your best clients and prospects.

In a blog, Gartner Research VP Jake Sorofman warned marketers:

When your value proposition, use cases and features are all in perfect harmony with a high-value need, customers take notice. You’ve won their minds. When the user experience doesn’t just fulfill these use cases, but does so with artful simplicity and deep respect for the user, you’ve won their hearts, too.

When I’m evaluating which products to profile, a poor UI is a red flag.  I’m also wary of profiling products that lack an integration story, have typos on their website, push marketing puffery into bald-faced lies, or whose pitches suffer from featuritis.

So be wary of the firms that sell features over value, that promise ROI with gauzy claims of indirect benefits, or that fail to understand the underlying needs of their customers.  A pig with lipstick is still just a pig.