If you missed episode 134, check it out here: What Great Teams and Great Leaders Hold in Common with Ilan Jacobson
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Show Agenda and Timestamps
- Show Introduction [00:02]
- Who is AJ Bruno and what is Trendkite? [2:00]
- How to know when you’re ready to be an entrepreneur [9:26]
- The key inflection moments along a journey of growth [14:25]
- Figuring out customer centricity [18:55]
- The acquisition process [21:55]
- What’s broken with compensation plans? [26:28]
- Who influenced AJ [33:28]
- Sam’s Corner [35:50]
Show Introduction [00:02]
Sam Jacobs: We’ve got an interview with a friend and a great entrepreneur, AJ Bruno, the CEO and co-founder of a company called QuotaPath. He’s a serial entrepreneur who started and sold a company called TrendKite. He’s been working on QuotaPath as well. It’s a great conversation, and it’s really all about going off on your own and pushing yourself into that zone of discomfort where all personal growth happens.
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Now, without further ado, let’s listen to this interview with AJ Bruno.
Who is AJ Bruno and what is Trendkite? [2:00]
Sam Jacobs: Hey everybody, it’s Sam Jacobs. Welcome to the Sales Hacker podcast. We’re excited to have on the show today, a luminary and one of the most dynamic tech startup CEOs out there, and the CEO and co-founder of a company called QuotaPath. So with me today is AJ Bruno.
AJ, as I mentioned, is the CEO and co-founder of a company called QuotaPath. We’re going to talk all about what QuotaPath is and what they do and who they are. He was also the co-founder and president of a company called TrendKite. And that company was acquired by Cision for $225 million. So this is his second startup. Prior to that, he led sales teams all over the country, and we’re incredibly excited to have on the show. AJ, welcome to the show.
AJ Bruno: Sam, thanks for having me. You started out by calling me a luminary. I don’t think anyone has ever called me that, but that’s going in my bio.
Sam Jacobs: A thought leader, a visionary, all of the things. Welcome to the show, AJ. So, as I mentioned, just to give the rest of the readers out there context, you’re the founder and CEO of QuotaPath. We want to give you an opportunity to just tell us a little bit about who QuotaPath is, what you do. So in your words, what is QuotaPath?
AJ Bruno: Yeah, we’re starting at the end, I love it.
Sam Jacobs: We’ll go backwards after this.
AJ Bruno: QuotaPath is a dead simple sales compensation tool for sales teams, for ops, for finance, anyone that’s ever struggled with comp plans, struggled with the ins and outs, explaining it, what if I close these deals, we built a tool for you. We launched it last year. We have a few thousand folks that use the tool every day. And in the summer, we launched our org paid product. And every week we’re onboarding three to four to five teams. It’s continuing to ramp up through the fall. So it’s been a fantastic fall for us so far.
Sam Jacobs: That’s awesome. Just give us a little bit of a feeling for where you are in your growth journey.
AJ Bruno: The company is two and a half years old already. Actually, coming up on three in February. We are 18 people. Interesting twists with us as we’re split between two cities. Two cities that couldn’t be further apart, but they’re very like in a lot of ways, Philadelphia and Austin, Texas.
I actually began my startup career in Austin. My first company was founded there. I have a huge network. And after two, three years in Austin, my wife was like, “Hey, when are we going to move back?” I was like, “Don’t worry, any day now.” And then another three years later, she’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to take the kid and we’re going to move back.”
But it’s how I ended up back in Philadelphia. And in a world that we are now remote, it doesn’t really matter where you are. It’s worked out just fine for us. I do miss Austin quite a bit. I haven’t been there in six and a half months.
We’re venture funded, we raised a seed round about five and a half million dollars thus far. But we’re also a pretty capital efficient business where 18 people, and the heavy head count is actually in product and engineering.
So I’ll get to dive into sales and talk about my sales career. QuotaPath is a little bit bucking the trend for me, in that I built the product and engineering team first and wanted to make sure that the end-user saw value in the product, imagine that, before going and building up a bad-ass B2B sales team.
Sam Jacobs: Well, you’re doing it the right way, as far as I’m concerned. So, kudos to you, sir. You mentioned that you’re in Austin, and I mentioned in your intro that you co-founded TrendKite and you sold TrendKite for a great outcome. And really, when I actually lived in Austin in early 2019, and everybody was talking about the TrendKite acquisition and about the impact that you all made even before you and I met.
So walk us through the origin story of AJ Bruno. How did you get to founding TrendKite, what did TrendKite do, and how did you get the confidence and the ambition and the courage? Because that’s a lot of what it is, to start a company in the first place.
AJ Bruno: Yeah, I definitely did not start that way, Sam. I was a timid little 21-year old that had left Penn State from a big state school with an econ degree and a minor in Italian. No idea what I wanted to do.
But I had a really close family friend that I looked up to. He had owned multiple businesses in New Jersey in real estate, so not in tech. And asked him, “Hey, I’m going to start a business one day. I know I’m going to. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing today. So what should I do? Where should I get started?” And his answer surprised me. It was sales.
This was 2008. So going through the recession, but just in general, sales was not talked about in the curriculum in school. It wasn’t a class. Maybe we had marketing. I just thought of the dealership, the used car salesman, of course. And I didn’t really know anything about it.
And he said, “Look, you’re going to go in and get your ass kicked, and you’re going to learn a lot about yourself, who you are, what you can and can’t do. It’s really going to be a confidence booster. The end of the day, sales is what makes a lot of businesses run, what drives the engine.” And he couldn’t have been more true with that statement. It’s the best advice I ever got.
So, I started looking at sales gigs, and I came across this company called Meltwater. And Meltwater was founded in Norway. It gets this funny little name from the glaciers that melt in the summer and the water comes down. And it had 52 offices. It seemed like a really cool culture. They had this position called international management trainee. I’m not kidding. That was the name of it. What it really was, was cold call sales in the Philadelphia office.
But I went in and their executive team that came in blew me away. I will never forget the managing director, who was Swedish. He sat down and he goes, “AJ, you know nothing about sales.” I go, “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t.” He goes, “I’m going to learn you.” I’m like, “Learn me?”
Sam Jacobs: Learn me, baby.
AJ Bruno: And just went from there. Took a running start into sales, cold call to close, that was ups and downs. I did get my ass kicked. I worked really hard in the first three months and hit quota somehow. Didn’t know what I was doing. Went from manager to manager, trying to learn different sales methodologies, which was a disaster.
I finally ended up with a great manager who just treated me like a second grader and made me repeat stuff on the phone. She would just listen to every call and just say, “No, you’re a moron. This is what you say.” And that helped a lot, and picked my footing up, and eventually by the end of that year, 2009, I want to say, I was one of the top 10 sellers in the company. And this was a company of about 600 sales reps.
Sam Jacobs: Wow.
AJ Bruno: Got my footing and moved into a manager role, director of the Philadelphia office, opened the San Diego office two years later. And that’s how I got my start in sales.
How to know when you’re ready to be an entrepreneur [9:26]
Sam Jacobs: And then how did you figure out you were ready to be an entrepreneur, and what was the catalyst there?
AJ Bruno: Yeah, that’s also an interesting story because in 2012, my wife and I were on the West coast. We’re about to have our first child, really disenfranchised. San Diego is great for climate and just great, but it’s not the culture that I was looking for, for me.
So I was trying to figure it out. And I had a tough boss. I look back, it’s kind of water under the bridge, but it wasn’t a good fit at the time. But he did do something that was tremendous and changed the trajectory of my entire career, which was he took us to go see Tony Robbins.
And Tony Robbins, I just knew him from the movie Shallow Hal with Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow and this 6’7″ monster on an elevator getting Jack Black mesmerized or something about how he sees the world.
So I didn’t know anything. But I went and it was four days of an amazing experience, an outer body experience, where I just took it all in. It hit me at the right time. And if you don’t know who he is, he’s a presence, he’s a force.
And so there are 8,000 people in the audience. People know him from maybe the nineties, he had all these ads that were on TV, but he also gets people to walk on coals, so people know him from that. But what he does is he contextualizes really strong values that every single human being has, and which values you prefer over which ones you don’t prefer. Things like significance or even insignificance.
And so for eight hours, actually 12 hours straight, the guy talks, don’t take a break, doesn’t go to the bathroom. Doesn’t even really drink water up on the stage. His throat’s killing him for years. And it hit me hard. He talked about this thing called limiting beliefs.
So your question, Sam, is absolutely the right question. How did you know you were ready? And the answer is I didn’t. But what I did know is that at the end of the day, it didn’t matter how much experience I was going to have, how much money I was going to have, how old I was going to be. None of that mattered. I just was going to do it or I was not going to do it. And so that seemed like the right time to do it.
And so I came back from there, all hopped up on dew, and just went. And I went every single day for six months, just hard and just figuring out everything I could. I didn’t know anything about tech or stacks or languages or programming. I never had a formal computer class in college, but I knew I wanted to be involved and learn everything I could about raising money, financing, cap tables, all of it, just soaked it all in. And that was how we got our start into TrendKite.
Sam Jacobs: When you say you went at it hard from a technical perspective, does that mean that you trained yourself how to be an engineer? Or does it mean that you became familiar enough that you could kind of crystallize your idea, but you were able to talk to other engineers and get them on board with your vision of what you wanted to build?
AJ Bruno: Yeah, that didn’t come until much, much, much later. I looked at it a little cavalier. In fact, it was the opposite. Went at it hard on the sales front. So we were building this idea behind TrendKite was these reports that lots of customers at Meltwater were asking for, but we didn’t have a way or mechanism to help those customers. It was a lot like BI dashboarding. Tableau was coming up to the forefront, things like Good Data.
We wanted to do this for PR, kind of thinking about the marketing attribution. We wanted to do this for PR attribution, which is eventually what we coined the term as. And so we were selling these magical media reports, by just faking it before you make it. And I remember getting on a call, it was a month in, and I was all about closing and it was with C.H. Robinson. I think it was the company. It was this massive company.
Sam Jacobs: It’s like a trucking company.
AJ Bruno: Trucking, yeah, and shipping. We got on with the director and he’s like, “Okay, well, these reports that we had just put together in a Word doc look great. How much are these?” And I just remember saying $120,000. And I remember him saying, “Huh.” He said, “Okay.” Guess what? I did not close that deal. But that’s how we went at it hard.
We went through an accelerator and almost got our startup MBA. It was called Dream Adventures. It was in Austin, Texas, which is also how we ended up in Austin. So my wife was pregnant back in Philadelphia and the baby was due in March. I stayed down in Austin, January, and the baby was actually early. So I flew back, made the birth by four hours in February, and then was there for two weeks and then came back and did the demo day pitch. And then we got a $1.2 million seed. It was called a Series A at the time, but seed round from an investor, Silverton Partners. And so it was just craziness and madness.
And I got interns that weren’t really SDRs. I didn’t even know what the term SDR meant in 2012. Meltwater didn’t have them. The SDR function was so relatively new. I think that that’s kind of crazy to look at, but it was still relatively new, at least for an inside sales team. So yeah, it was fun.
Sam Jacobs: Yeah. And so how did you do it? What did you learn? I think TrendKite, did it have 400 people? Is that how many people?
AJ Bruno: Yeah.
The key inflection moments along a journey of growth [14:25]
Sam Jacobs: What were the key inflection points as you’re getting a company literally from zero up to 25 million, 150 person sales organization? What do you think the key inflection points, the key changes, the pivotal moments over the course of that journey were?
AJ Bruno: Well, let me start with the first year, which honestly sucked. The first year after we raised money, we moved the company down to Austin. We got office space. We’re trying to figure out culturally what we wanted to do myself. Myself and my co-founder, we’re peers in the business, 50/50. And the challenge you have as first time founders is that whole CEO thing, who’s going to be CEO, who’s not? It became a little bit of a friction point where we were basically drawing straws, but also it wasn’t even that, it was more dysfunctional.
And I will say today, my co-founder Matt Alison and I are really good friends. We talk every single day, we work on projects together. So it all worked out in the end. But at that time, we did not like each other. In some cases, we couldn’t even be in the same room.
And we went through three or four salespeople our first year, because the product just was not standing up. That fake it before you make it only takes you so far. And it was just hitting a wall. There were only six people. But in April of 2013, we were less than a month away from running out of money. And we had only two contracts to show from it.
And so we’re going back to our investors. It was not a good time. We were just trying to figure it out. And we had one investor who was like, “Look, I believe in you guys. I know you can do this. I know you have product market fit. I know what you’re capable of. You can do it.” And he backed us and backed us through that gap.
Sam Jacobs: That’s awesome. What’s his name? Let’s give him some notoriety.
AJ Bruno: Raymond Walheim. Ray is funny. When I went to start QuotaPath I was like, “Hey Ray, I’m going to go do this and I’m going to raise…” He goes, “AJ, it’s not about the widgets or whatever the hell you’re building.” He knows what I’m building today, obviously. He’s a super sharp guy. He knows exactly. But for him, he’s an early stage investor and he’s like, “It’s about the founder. And of course I’m going to back you.”
So I was very fortunate to have him, but he was always an advocate for the founders, and Dreamit was as well. I’m still good friends with the founders of Dreamit, a couple of which live in Austin, a few others live in Philly. And so I felt a close connection with them. But ultimately, finding those partners kind of gets you through the really lonely days. I slept maybe two or three hours a night. It was miserable.
So the inflection point there was we got that capital and I put together a sales plan with quota capacity. We’ve got it. The product has now got its legs under it. We flipped it. And I’m going to go build a sales team and we’re just going to crush it. And so I took early folks that were SDRs at other companies in Austin. Austin, as you know, Sam, because you were there, great talented town, lots of great people, especially on the sales front.
So we recruited like early folks that were in their mid-twenties, had been two or three years into sales so that I could get a really good understanding. They knew what they were getting themselves into, or weren’t going to just like leave after two to three months.
And then we said, “Hey, you’re on target earnings is $90,000.” They all tried to negotiate that and said, “My on target earnings is $180,000 where I am at work.” “I don’t give a shit. Are you hitting that?” They’re like, “No.” I’m like, “Of course you’re not. Because it’s bullshit. Don’t buy into that. I’m going to really get you off the ground here and you’re going to make a name for yourself.” And guess what? Those first eight hires are all either founders, entrepreneurs, or VPs of sales today, all of them.
Sam Jacobs: That’s amazing.
AJ Bruno: I was just really lucky. I can sit here and say, “Oh, it was easy. We hit 34 out of 36 quotas sweeping.” But absolutely not. I just got super lucky with the people that we brought in. That talent begets talent and eventually turned around and it was a hundred people, which was too heavy. That’s the other side of it. We can talk about that.
So the inflection point was 2014, 2015… 2014, we did 750,000 and S in ARR. And then 2015, we did 4.7 million. In 2015, we did 12 and a half, and then 25 million. That four-year sprint, zero to 25 million was what happened. That was a rocket ship all the way through until I left the business in 2018.
Figuring out customer centricity [18:55]
Sam Jacobs: Did you feel in control the whole time? Did you feel like you knew what you were doing? Did you feel like leaning on the sales pedal? Was the key driver, was there something that you figured out about customer centricity or building product?
AJ Bruno: A lot of the things I’m going to mention I figured out after the fact. And at the time, I really didn’t know any of this stuff. We actually brought in a CEO for our series B, Eric Holston, and Eric was operational efficient. That was his thing. He was like, “We’re going to be diligence ready all the time. I’m going to know every single metric in the business. And it’s going to be dashboards galore all over your face, all the time.”
Sam Jacobs: Diligence ready, meaning like I’m selling this thing as quickly as possible.
AJ Bruno: If you were going to give us a term sheet, I can give you 150 different data points. I wonder if he’s going to listen. He probably won’t. He always had this phrase, and I picked up on some of them. He said, “Two data points make a line.” He’s very, very clear on that. So you always want to make sure that anyone that was coming into the business just knew what we were about, what we’re going to do, how we’re going to take over the world, but the operational efficiency.
Matt went and ran product. He was the first CEO product. I stayed running the whole entire sales team. But when I sat down with Eric, I said, “Look, I haven’t run a sales team anywhere near the size we’re going to get to. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’m happy to run it to let’s say a million dollars, and then we can see what happens.”
And that’s what happened. Kind of fired myself, but as a founder you don’t really fire yourself. You can do other interesting things in the business to add value. But I just kicked the can down the road. And since I got to work with such a badass team, I got to continue to learn and grow, and so I went out and did it.
Now, the customer-centric thing, that’s interesting because that was something that I figured out near the end. When we moved back to Philadelphia, I didn’t want to run a massively scaled team. So we went out and hired a guy by the name of Kevin who had been at Spiceworks. He scaled Spiceworks, Outbound Engine, and he’s now at Mailgun. He was an advisor and mentor to me, and so it was easy for him to come on board and he knew the team really well so he could take it to the acquisition. I just left.
So when I was coming back and forth, I was just managing the account management team. And that’s where I really understood… Let’s actually make sure that we’re focusing on the end-user. And I know it’s a novel thing. So I knew for my next company, that’s what I wanted to do.
Other things, we had this financial plan that was showing 400 sales reps in 2017 or 2018. And that’s when I raised my hand and was like, “I’m out of here. I’m done. This is not the sales team that I want to run.” I wanted to run a highly specialized team that could scale and be more capital efficient. But we had seven investors and seven people on the board at that point, so it was a totally different thing.
The acquisition process [21:55]
Sam Jacobs: What is the phrase they say? Great companies are bought, not sold. But what was the process, if there was a process for actually triggering the acquisition?
AJ Bruno: It’s always a series of chain of events that happen to that. So we had bought a company, this was prior to me leaving, called Insight Pool in Atlanta. InsightPool, funny enough, there’s always connections. I’m actually running a webinar tomorrow at Revenue Collective and Katie Ivy is joining me. She is a VP of sales at Demand Base, but she was the VP of sales at Insight Pool. And I had worked with her at Meltwater. So the role goes around and round.
But we bought that company, and that company Cision had looked at and really wanted to buy. It was a marketing influencer platform, but its day had passed. So that was the first data point. Second, Eric made a pretty close connection with Kevin, the CEO, early on.
He was at a company called Dachas Group, which was in social media analytics prior to TrendKite. And so he kind of knew the Cision ecosystem. There were a couple of things they were just enamored with. They were enamored with our sales channel and our sales distribution.
Meltwater had been kicking their ass in a lot of different ways for years. I knew the Meltwater playbook. I was running a lot of the Meltwater playbook. We were kicking both their asses. And so we were just a thorn in their sides in some ways, but we were also ahead of the game. We had future mental models, this attribution place where connecting into whether it was Google analytics or Adobe Omniture, and really being able to get the ROI on your press was a really important thing. And we were definitely at the front of the pack for that, and we were able to have a strong distribution channel for the enterprise.
So between product and the sales, they were just continuing to get interested. Ultimately they made an LOI. It turned around in six months. I’m going to tell a quite dramatic story. I’ll leave out some of the details. But really interestingly, Cision had made a bunch of acquisitions prior to this. And we were bought during the government shutdown in January 2019. I think there was a holdout period. I won’t say what that period was. But nothing could be done in the government.
So government shutdown and our acquisition got through pretty seamlessly. Cision, which was public, went through its own up and down. It’s talk so, as a founder, when you get bought by a public company, you’re not done. There’s a cash and most founders get an equity side as well. And so they kept it at a lockout period a little bit. And their stock got cut in half in the summer, summer of 2019. God, I don’t even know.
Yeah, 2019 got cut in half, just over a year ago. And they got bought by Platinum, a private equity company in Chicago. It’s mostly known for their t-shirt business. He owns either the pistons or some sports team. Anyway, they bought it for $10 a share. It was at $12.75 when we got bought. It went down to $6, whatever, par for the course.
So I go live through that, but at the same time had already moved back to Philly and started QuotaPath at that exact time. So I was living vicariously through my co-founder, who was still at the business and saw all the way through the acquisition.
Sam Jacobs: Well, thank God for the cash component of the acquisition.
AJ Bruno: It made me feel better about the QuotaPath. And then my wife started a business as well. So we’re just like, “Well, shit.”
Sam Jacobs: You’re all in on the startup life.
AJ Bruno: Exactly.
What’s broken with compensation plans? [26:28]
Sam Jacobs: AJ, we cannot leave without talking about comp plans and compensation, because that just wouldn’t be fair.
I’m always wondering whether people are overstating how people make decisions and whether direct cash incentives are really the key drivers of behavior. But that’s my own ax to grind. When you think about what’s broken with compensation plans, what do you see? What are the biggest things that are broken and what can we do to fix them?
AJ Bruno: I think what you just said is fundamental to this. The cash incentives, the reason that I think people are disenfranchised with just how cash incentives are is they just overly complicate them. I think we would say half of the compensation plans that we look at, and we look at a lot. I don’t know the exact number, but I’d say a couple of thousand in a year’s time. Total dog shit. They’re awful.
I get sort of passionate. It’s not something that I was necessarily super passionate about. Everyone is asking, “Well, okay, you’re building this product. Are you really passionate?” Look, I’m passionate about the problem. I’m passionate about what we’re building, but the actual idea of comp plans, it’s kind of nauseated, frankly.
Sam Jacobs: Thank you for your honesty.
AJ Bruno: First off, when you go to make a claim, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. So start simple. And that’s the best decision a company can make. But then it’s all downhill from there. So start simple.
I’ll give an example of TrendKite and why I started this company. 10% of bookings, and then we gave $1,000 dollars bonus for hitting your monthly, your monthly sales cycle, and $1,000 bonus for hitting your quarterly. Add it up to, I don’t know, I think that was $46,000 in variable comp. Your OTE was $91,000. We split 50/50. Straight forward, right? Well, a year and a half in business, you have a VC that comes in, series B, and says, Why are you measuring your team on bookings and not MRR?” I don’t know.
Sam Jacobs: And they’re saying you’re overly discounting multi-year plans or something like that.
AJ Bruno: Right, exactly. So in all of our infinite wisdom, we at TrendKite said, “All right AJ, you’re the VP of sales in this instance. Your comp plan is going to switch to MRR, but we’re not going to change everyone all at once to your MRR” I’m like, “What? That’s stupid. No, no, no, no.” So at least there’s multiple people pissed off at this dumb plan.
And that’s what happened. So I walk into a room and one of my managers, Garrett Ozar, who’s a founder of a great company in Austin called Eterneva, that ashes into diamonds, comes in and he goes, “AJ, what the fuck is this?” I just remember I had eight angry sales managers just staring at me and they’re like, “Okay. So I’m going to have a deal. Haley’s going to sell a two-year deal, and she’s going to incentivize it and discount it to 20K. So it will be a two-year deal, 10,000 MRR.
Sam Jacobs: ARR, whatever.
AJ Bruno: You’re right. Thank you. See? This is why this is bullshit. This is why it’s bullshit. 10,000 ARR. But if I get her to sell a one-year deal at $12,000, I actually get incentivized more. So why would you create two worlds where we’re incentivized against each other? It doesn’t make any sense.
And that’s what I see happen across the board for a lot of these companies. Where you make small changes, but you don’t want to upset everyone’s world. So you make these small changes, you kind of Frankenstein these plans together. So when you have something like, “Okay, sales ops leader leaves, the new VP of sales comes in, a new growth equity partner comes in. We’re going to incentivize that activity, but let’s actually focus on MRR, but we just added an SDR plan to all of this.” And people get confused, super confused.
So I start simple. If you can afford to pay the cash upfront in your commissions, meaning they close a deal one quarter, the next month you can pay them out, do that. Pay them out as the customer pays, I hate it. I hate it. Unfortunately, that’s the way the world works. So we have an entire product called a payouts that allows someone to pay out their team correctly, based on some of the stuff.
Of course, I’m being a little facetious. You still pay out on some level of installments that are after the fact, so you still need that payouts function. But that’s one thing I see that gets really, really screwed up.
Another side of it is when the board doesn’t quite understand the behaviors that sales reps need. So there’s a massive disconnect between the, I call it the back of the office and the front of the office. There’s just massive confusion. And I would say, from what I can tell, 70 to 80% of sales reps today don’t understand the comp plans. Totally failed leadership by the sales leader, if that’s the case. If you’re the VP of sales and your sales team doesn’t understand their comp plan, find a new job. That’s my feedback.
Sam Jacobs: I like it. I like it. Well, I just want one layer deeper on that. What’s the back of the office front of the office disconnect? Tell us about that.
AJ Bruno: This is a big part of our product and how we built the product. So with QuotaPath, the idea, a-ha moment for us was like, “Wait a second. This problem lives in sales too.” Why are companies either just using spreadsheets, which 70% of companies do that today, or if they’re using this enterprise software, it’s just built for finance. Sales team has no visibility into this. They’re at the end of the day, they can see that on a paycheck.
So we actually built it bottom up and built the product first for the sales team to use it, their own shadow accounting sheet, and do some fun things like personal goals and such. Then we worked our way up all the way. So that the front of the office is like the sales team itself and the frontline and the customer folks. Back of the office is accounting, finance ops, FP&A, that will either come up with the plans, but also in charge of actually the comp owner and making sure the team gets paid.
Sam Jacobs: I hear you on not paying when the money comes in, but you just need a big balance sheet to do that. When we pay commissions at Revenue Collective, we pay as the money comes in, but we’re bootstrapped.
AJ Bruno: It’s a good model. And then as you scale and things to get a little bit more standardizing, standardizing, that’s a good idea.
Who influenced AJ [33:28]
Sam Jacobs: We’re almost at the end of our time together. This is the part where we like to have you pay it forward. The ideas, the people, it can be music, it can be podcasts, it can be books, it can be investors, it can be mentors. We ask you a lot of different questions in the prep, but really this question is about when you think about the people that have influenced you, that you want us to know about, who comes to mind?
AJ Bruno: That is so such a good question. I’ll make a plug for a book that I just quote it in really quickly. Amos Schwartzfarb, he’s the managing director of Techstars in Austin, he has a book called Sell More Faster. And I think for folks just trying to figure out their ideal customer profile and getting off the ground, he’s someone that I look to a lot.
Podcast role, probably similar to around, maybe for you as well. We don’t get our commutes in, so it’s a little bit tougher these days, but I still listen to every episode of Open Views, the build, which is on product-led growth. I am a student of the game, as you can say, because I don’t know shit about it. And so I spent the last three years studying different startups and what makes their motion go and looking at tools like Superhuman, which has done a great job on the flow. Or Gusto that does an interesting motion with making people feel good about getting paid. DocSend does a really good job on their trial.
I try to study startups and the products ins and outs, but there’s a lot of great people out there that have helped influence it on books. Obviously Awesome By April Dunford is one of my favorites. Sumo Advantage by Bernie Brenner is all about business development and how to grow, something that we’re working through right now.
Sam Jacobs: Ilan, if folks are listening and they want to get in touch with you, maybe they’re an entrepreneur that has a company that they want you to invest in, or they need some help. What’s your preferred way of getting in touch?
AJ Bruno: That’s great. It was a great list. If folks are listening, they want to get in touch with you. Maybe they want to become customers of QuotaPath. Maybe they want to use your tool to build a plan. What’s your preferred mechanism if they want to reach out to you?
Sam Jacobs: LinkedIn. I’m very responsive. If you write a personal note on LinkedIn, I promise you I will respond to it. It might take me a little while, but I am very active on LinkedIn.
AJ Bruno: AJ, thanks so much for being on the Sales Hacker podcast.
Sam’s Corner [35:50]
Sam Jacobs: Hey everybody, Sam’s Corner.
Great conversation with AJ Bruno. What are some things that I personally took away from it? Well, a couple of weeks ago on the Sales Hacker podcast, we had my interview with John Mark Shaw. And John Mark Shaw is of the same genre of personal development that Tony Robbins is. Of course, Tony Robbins is much bigger.
But there’s a theme here. And that theme is that there are people out there, there are ideas out there that can help transform your life, that can give you the courage and the confidence that you need to take the next step in your life. And cynicism and skepticism are impediments to that. And if you have an earnest belief in your capability to achieve something and you can visualize it, that thing can happen.
And that’s what happened with AJ. He went out on his own after leaving Meltwater. He started TrendKite, and sometime later that company was acquired by Cision for $225 million and now he’s onto his next journey, his next adventure. So that’s one thing just generally to be thinking about.
Now, honestly, it’s about knowing thyself because frankly, not everybody should be a solo entrepreneur or a founder of a company. That’s not how you should define success. You need to define success in your way. But success only happens when you can visualize what it is that you want.
And again, I’ve talked about this in the past, but really try to visualize it. I don’t mean writing down on a piece of paper, “I want to be worth $20 million one day.” What does that scene look like? What window are you looking out on? What’s outside? Who’s in the other room? What music is playing? All of those things, those things that you can bring forward to your mind to help you visualize a reality that has already happened, that is how you can achieve your goals or at least one possible way.
Now, changing subjects completely, comp plans. Two things stuck out to me. First of all, the comp plan has to be simple and understandable. And AJ kept coming back to two drivers of a comp plan. Not 50, not a spiff for this and a spiff for that. You cannot control every single behavior of a human being.
If they have to think about what to do next every single time because your compensation scheme is so convoluted, you need to take a step back and simplify, and you have to understand, and you have to tell the very smart condescending finance person in your organization or the strategy consultant that went to an Ivy League school that used to work at McKinsey, you need to tell them how the world works and here’s how the world works.
You need to simplify these behaviors and you need to understand that externalities, that on the margin, some people might do things that impact the comp plan negatively. But you’re not solving for the margin. You’re solving for the mean. You’re solving for the median. You’re solving for most of the time. And you have to understand the world is messy. You cannot build a system so perfect that it can contemplate every eventuality. What you can do is try to create a simple, powerful machine that can grow very quickly. And to do that, the plan itself needs to be simple and understandable by the reps.
Don’t miss episode #136
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If you want to reach out to me, you can. Linkedin.com/in/samfjacobs. If you want to customize your message to me, have at it. If you want to paste in some random template, have at it, too. I might still accept the invitation, but give me some time to respond. If you really want to reach me and have an actual conversation, the best place is email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, without further ado, I’ll talk to you next time.