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Small Projects, Big Companies (pioneer.app)
217 points by marceee0901 12 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

I love that the post points out the importance of selling to executives instead of users. As much as users hate most of their tools, they have very little say on what gets bought. Executives make those decisions and no amount of grousing or changing from internal users will change that. Solutions that sell upwards in an org (yammer for example) are very much the exception.

> I love that the post points out the importance of selling to executives instead of users. As much as users hate most of their tools, they have very little say on what gets bought. Executives make those decisions and no amount of grousing or changing from internal users will change that.

It's possible to "sell" directly to users, but you have to have a particular pricing structure: free to individuals.

This is what TravisCI, Dropbox and Slack did.

You actually have to have a really good product to pull this off, though.

Dropbox ultimately failed at B2B, and Box/Azure/Apple/Amazon/Google/ and others have taken their spot way before Dropbox opened up a B2B product.

Slack? In every company I know that uses it, it was blessed by IT. It’s hard to adopt for a subset of users in the company.

I've had the opposite experience. The developers start using Slack, then invite PMs, BAs, QAs, etc, they work with. Then the PMs start using it to talk to each other. Eventually, someone from compliance says "we need to pay for this to have a full audit log", and someone from IT says "what's the JML process for this?".

People can use it outside work though, and then propose it at work.

Yes though it’s more complicated than this. Executives often don’t have time for every purchasing decision. And a lot of “CEO plays golf with other CEO” don’t lead to purchasing decisions that gain traction with anyone at the client that has to work in the problem domain, and can lead to dissapointing results for the purchasing org.

What you want is the right level of decision making for what you’re selling. Sometimes it’s a skip level manager with budgetary authority and expertise to champion purchasing. Other times it’s many different stakeholders up and down the org chart (from end users to execs).

In my experience you won’t get exec buy in if you don’t have their subordinates and others championing you as the best choice. If the in house expert in the domain isn’t interested, you won’t succeed with the executive.

This depends on how much the executive values the experts opinions. For a callcenter, or any other support group, I think this is close to zero (e.g. anyone can do that job).

This is spot on. I'm working on a blog post about a superset of this: the product IS the go-to-market. Messaging, sales/marketing strategy, pricing are just as much The Product as any feature.

Ideally you maximize value/experience for users while you figure out how to get execs to buy your thing, but the sad state of most B2B software is a testament to how insanely hard it is to be good at both.

Can you post a link to your blog ?

I would hope that making employees effective and efficient would be a selling point for executives. And the idea of charts and graphs shouldn't just be for execs.

If someone wants to really optimize for exec only, just do it the old fashioned way and bribe them. That's probably cheaper than making functional software, right?

You would hope, but that is a macro decision that rarely gets into the details of the tools themselves. I've been C level at two tech companies that both grossed more than 70m annually and served tens of thousands of customers. In all cases at both companies the decisions made on SW tools were about cost, ROI, ease of migration/implementation and what present pain the tool solved at the exec level. "Will our support people be more efficient with this tool" and similar questions never ever came up. We migrated from ZenDesk to ServiceNow for support ticketing and the decision mostly hinged on the integration with Salesforce and the TCO, not on the functionality of the tool itself.

It’s not selling to executives vs users. Good sales process targets both - with different messages.

> The golden dataset everyone wants is the org chart. Who reports to whom. Who is new. Who has been at the company for a while. Find a way to get this data and sell it to companies. I suspect you’ll have many takers.

Please don’t. Please. Really. Please don’t. Training my users to fend off social engineering attacks is hard enough as is. Please don’t use your talents in this way.

This seems like a great example of how privacy risks result in conflicts between buyers and sellers. It doesn't seem very surprising that salespeople want it so badly, and also that organizations don't want them to have it.

Some parts of the org chart can be inferred from various public data. Is it any wonder that people want to scrape LinkedIn so much?

I could see many reasons a company wouldn't want their org chart public. Employees too. This seems like it could be a privacy issue.

I think this is the exact point of the article. Executives don’t think like you, so if you want to make it big with your software, you have to change how you think. Even if it means annoying middle management and their direct reports.

That might be the point of the article, but the point of the grandparent is that the only method to get this data is to be seedy as hell. And that we should aspire to use our talents for better things.

Better things don't pay, at all. The most betterest things you can do as a developer - make infrastructure that makes other developers more efficient, or invent protocols or fundamentals to build ecosystems and industries on - often you get nothing for it. Because you made it open source, because you wanted it to be useful. But to try to make it proprietary would have been to make it useless.

Theres a reason probably 95% of software developers are employed to write redundant repetitive corporate business software over and over and over again. Everything else is being done philanthropically because anyone outside the perview of a budget department at a big co recognizes the value in reaching a consensus solution everyone uses because its a lot of work to make and is good enough. Even corporate-adjacent software like databases, game engines, etc are trending this way - Unreal, Unity, and Godot are all varying degrees of open now in ways engines weren't even a half decade ago. The world is coalescing around Postgres in a way unexpectable a decade ago under the tyranny of SQL Server and Oracle SQL alongside a half dozen "competing" open source databases.

Do you think those who contribute the most to Postgres get anything close to "reasonable" compensation for having architected the database engine that is now running likely trillions in business infrastructure and data management?

Their software is maximally useful - "the betterest things" - but you can't survive being maximally useful. You have to sacrifice how useful what you make is to not be homeless in 99.99% of cases. You have to make worse, often redundant things, wasting your time and the time of others in the process, because thats the only (feasible and/or reliable) way corporations will pay you to write software.

Why do we have such an emphasis on making our tools open source?

How much does the license matter?

Would it be feasible to release source code for inspection while simultaneously retaining exclusive rights to operate the software?

Would that garner a negative response from the developer community?

This is like a source available license and we’re trending to that. elastic, redis, I believe mongo, are all making versions of this that allow the source to be public and even used for commercial purposes, but not for commercial purposes that compete with the company.

I guess the mental calculus depends on how much you value positively impacting society vs just wanting money

The Information is doing this: https://www.theinformation.com/org-charts

Interesting, that looks like exactly what they're talking about. Are you a subscriber, and if so how are the charts?

It's mostly the who reports to whom part and goes about 1 to 4 levels below the CEO.

This is basic B2B sales....

Huh? I think I’d try to introduce a new trend of putting this info on your business card or something. Trying to gather the info from companies directly doesn’t scale I think.

Why such a strong reaction against the idea?

For someone who has to sell stuff, this would be incredibly valuable if executed well. It's possible to build something like this using only publicly available data about people and organizations.

Genuinely curious - where is the ethical problem?

> Genuinely curious - where is the ethical problem?

Why not sell stuff based on the quality of that stuff? If the stuff is crap, or is a bad fit for the purchaser, but you've managed to sell it anyway thanks to various sales tricks (playing off a company's org chart would be one of such), then you've done an unethical thing. Since buyer's org chart has little to do with quality of your wares and their utility to the buyer, such an org chart spying tool seems to serve only to enable unethical sales behavior.

It's not about trying to pawn off inferior wares onto your customers.

I make a living selling software that I write. My customers have no way of judging quickly how good my software is or even whether it solves their problems. When I'm selling to someone, it is my responsibility to figure out whether or not what I'm selling actually solves their problem.

Being able to navigate their organization helps me extract this information more quickly than I would otherwise be able to. It allows me to convince people for whom I'm really solving a problem to try out my solution. It allows me to leave people alone for whom my solution would only add noise.

Number 4 is ethical quicksand. Please don’t build a machine that guesses personality traits based on personal data. It won’t end well.

In the past when people created arbitrary unquantifiable categories and then proceeded to put people in them based off of unempirical/irrational voodoo it was called superstition (ex. Astrology). Involve a computer in your rituals and now it's AI.

Or worse, phrenology, which sounds very funny today but at the time people were applying it as if it were actually scientific.

I'm considering submitting a project that would fit well under this category. Have any ideas around what could be done to mitigate the involved risks?


If you believe yourself to be an ethical person then you want to build companies like those yourself rather than stop, since you can be sure that you'll do your best to handle data properly while providing the world with that service. In the case of the Big 5 there are not many companies I know of that are providing the service as proposed in the article so you would have a chance to set standards and expectations around what is or isn't acceptable.

While the data might be handled responsibly, what you're suggesting assumes that inferring personality traits as a business model can be used for ethical purposes. I think there's a fair number of people on here that would say that trying to guess a person's personality based on their media consumption or otherwise is implicitly unethical no matter how you do it, since it's in support of the monetization of another person's emotions. The output of such a system is used to manipulate a person (making purchases, drive them towards a political position, make them a more productive employee, etc) or it's a sham and the data is bogus. In either case, there's a compelling argument to be made that this system's creator is not doing a good thing.

> since it's in support of the monetization of another person's emotions

that seems to describe close to 100% of commerce.

Doesn’t this assume that it’s ethical to use data-driven psychometric profiling and targeting with the aim to increase profit?

What if those originally submitting the data could share in the profits?

I'll shoot you in the leg but I'll give you back 10% of your hospital bills out of the 20% kickback I get from the hospital.

I'm thinking more along the lines of get shot in the leg and we'll cover everything and pay you out even more, but even your proposed scenario still seems better than the current situation of getting shot in the leg with nothing to show for it.

The thesis seems to “build enterprise software” because those people have a budget.

I enjoy reading people’s startup ideas. But this is a pretty uninspired list - (“Better Google Groups”, “Better Zendesk”, etc) There are thousands of solutions to these problems out there.

Not sure what makes them more ripe for a startup then bill splitting or pizza.

I think you said exactly why these are more ripe. Your customer has a budget for it.

It’s also incredibly hard to sell to enterprises as a startup. Building a better mousetrap is not all it takes, which explains why these solutions are still widely used despite their deficiencies. People are building better solutions all the time that go nowhere.

Re: Zendesk

It's not just that ticketing products won't build next-gen reporting with thematic monitoring and analysis, it's that big companies have more than one source of customer conversations.

Actually answering the questions that matter when it comes to customer contact -- "what's driving specific outcomes, and what about them has changed over time" -- needs to be done across all sources.

The company I work at (frame.ai) is an add-on with built-in connectors for all the help desks like Zendesk, Intercom, Service Cloud, Help Scout, etc. for this reason.

> Legal-Doc-to-Google-Form

> Every founder goes through an identical process: downloading Microsoft Word, changing variables in a legal template, opening it in Preview, attaching their signature, and sending it over to the counterparty. Automate this process. Offer templates for common documents (company formation, SAFEs, etc). In time, you might become the store-of-record for company documents.

My friend was working on a product that does this called Formswift! I can upload a PDF, have it convert to a set of form fields, and email it out pretty quickly.

It's not the most glamorous-looking startup, but it works really well for the mom-and-pop small businesses that are their usual clientele.

Take a look: https://formswift.com/self-serve-builder

> 3. Backchannel.app

Having a hard time seeing this turn into anything but linkedin wankery. The people who could give you honest responses either don't care enough to or will start a 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours'.

> 5. Org Chart As a Service

Prepared to get sued out of existence. I was at a finance firm where all external emails were sent to both legal and security. I had to redo security training because I didn't report a phone call I got from an external source that shouldn't have had my details.

And god help you if you do any of those ideas to EU citizens.

> 7. Legal-Doc-to-Google-Form

Shout out to Clerky who has been doing this wonderfully since 2011.

I don't think you could come up with a better critique of the problems with silicon valley today than "this product wouldn’t have billions of users, but you could charge the elite few quite a bit for using it."

could you elaborate

Things are getting built for the 1% because they have the economic power, but I'd imagine OP thinks this is undemocratic (which it is) and results in many people becoming underserved by software companies (very likely).

What is getting built for specifically the 1% (or .1%, etc.)? The only service I can think of is Magic.

Additionally, what markets are underserved? This is an area I'm interested in but don't know much about (except from my own anecdotal experience like the fact that comparing costs of healthcare from different practitioners being prohibitively difficult)

> What is getting built for specifically the 1%

Should clarify that by "specifically for" I'd mean that the 1% have all the money and thus practically all the decision making power. An example of the distinction would be that though everybody engages with AdTech software the software is built for the 1% to make them money.

The 1% isn't a demographic that's targeted by some SaaS in this case, it's a way of naming the rich who create the demand for a lot of software (they use the software to make money) and control the (high-level) implementation of most software in the world.

What's Magic?

It's a service where you can hire an on-demand personal assistant for $30/hour, https://getmagic.com/. I never saw the appeal.

Not OP, but I think the point here is that very few end users have a say in the tools they use. You sell the big company on your software, one or a few elites like it, and they buy thousands of licenses for all of their employees.

it doesnt matter what you sell, but who you sell it to

The point on selling to managers is the big one, imo. Not users not the company, at least not directly.

While the "decision maker" is not the user, they may be the project lead/implementor.

Certain managers are looking for low risk, high visibility projects & notable successes. They're expending a sort of social capital within their company, putting themselves on the line.

Those are the managers that need to like your thing.

Companies selling to these people need to focus on those individuals, and figure out what the hell "costs," are, irl, to them. It's not money

Can someone elaborate on "Backchannel.app" thing ?

It's the common use-case: you don't know whether to trust someone. If you ever know anyone who is in danger of being hired by a friend, your friend will ask you how it was working with that person. This is usually a high-signal source because you're not going to lie to your friend, your recommendation or anti-recommendations are things you want to be meaningful, and because you have direct evidence.

They want to scale this. I've discussed this same thing with friends before but we couldn't find a way to keep it clean.

This is also a powerful advantage of a good network. You hear someone's leaving some job through the grapevine and if it's accompanied with positive feedback you hire this person. Or you're looking for a person and you ask your network for the guy who can do it.

That's how I got my current job.

But once you automate the backchannnel, it becomes impersonal. If someone is vindictive they can ruin careers through such a system. If you dont actually know a person, how can you trust their recommendation?

Well, we couldn’t figure out how to make things work and decided not to pursue. Maybe the next guy will have better luck.

Something that is at best bordering on unethical at worst a material breach of candidate confidentiality.

I'm curious who #6 would be valuable for. It seems like a cool thing to make, but who is the customer?

For #7 there is the great webmerge


Number 7 Legal-Doc-to-Google-Form is being done by Axdraft (YC W19)

Disclaimer: I'm friends with one of the cofounders.

Number 7 seems like a no-brainer. Is there a reason this hasn't been done yet?

Pretty sure LegalZoom does this?

It's kind of disappointing that the pioneer "RFA" projects are all "more of the same" SV. I don't see anything audacious , like "build a chip that competes with Nvidia" or "build a pharmaceutical model that improves over what we have", or "find a way to do high quality journalism without a paywall". For that matter, I don't see any inkling that any of these ideas have anything in particular to do with their self-styled goal of helping outsiders get in.

For reference, here is what their main page advertised as what they seek: "We fund projects and startups built by ambitious outsiders... Apply with any type of project you need help with. It could be a company, physics research, journalism, or art..." The RFA is basically a message, "but really, this is what we want"

I guess it's easier to talk big than take risks with big money.

It may also be a case of different strategies for different channels.

If I were a VC, I might prefer to solicit these kinds of solid, boring business ideas in an RFA and source moonshot ideas through my personal network. If I looked for moonshots from my open application process, I would probably end up wading through a lot of applications that would be time-consuming to vet.

That's what I would do as a VC, too, but then I wouldn't premise the advertisement of the open application for my accelerator on something misleading.

"Make something managers want. "

The PG quote reformulated...

We are building better zendesk here - https://provlem.com

Still, many to go, but we have started to build better zendesk already.

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