What exactly do you do when you’re in the process of scaling fast and a pandemic strikes?
Well, at the beginning of 2020, no one had the playbook for that. And so, Mark Rudden and his team had to figure it all out by themselves. Ever since he was hired as the Director of EMEA Sales at BrowserStack, a web and mobile testing platform that lets developers test their websites and mobile applications across browsers, operating systems, and mobile devices, he had to completely rethink how to successfully onboard hundreds of salespeople just as everyone was going remote.
Fortunately, Mark had quite a bit of experience working and scaling teams in demanding, hypergrowth environments. In fact, in some form or another, he’s been working in sales for most of his career. What started as a few gigs selling media, property, and even bicycles turned into a blooming SaaS career that Mark has been mastering for the last decade at Salesforce, Wrike, and now BrowserStack.
We recently sat down with Mark to chat about onboarding in a hypergrowth environment, how that strategy played as the pandemic unfolded, and why taking care of your team is actually the best way to take great care of your customers.
Here are some of our favorite takeaways from the conversation.
1. Onboarding, but make it remote
It turns out that hypergrowth is less about hiring people and more about creating onboarding and training processes and opportunities. Mark had to go from 40 to 200 salespeople in just nine months, and the fact that there was a pandemic going on and everyone was suddenly remote was all the more challenging. They needed to be really quick coming up with a new, adapted learning management system:
“It’s the equivalent of going into an old house and stripping it back to the walls and having to really start from scratch again. We started from scratch and we had a six-week turnaround time to take our training. We pushed some start dates and we essentially took what was our existing onboarding and training process, stripped it back to bare bones, and then rebuilt it back for remote working.”
2. Iterate, iterate, iterate
If there’s anything we’ve learned when it comes to working in hypergrowth startups is that you’re not really supposed to have it all figured out on the first try. Rather, everything is an iterative process of building the service, rolling it out to users and keep improving it as you get new data and feedback. Onboarding systems are no exception, especially when you’re trying to replicate on-site conditions in an online setting.
“The most important information you get is the feedback from the people who are going through the training, and we certainly didn’t get it 100% right the first time, but it was about getting it to a point where we felt confident we were giving people what they needed. The second and third iteration of our onboarding is much more about conversation rooms. It’s much more about group discussions, group projects. We haven’t cracked it yet, but we’re getting much better outcomes.”
3. Putting people first
SaaS businesses are obsessed with renewing customers, so why wouldn’t they put the same effort into their employees? Mark believes he has what he calls a duty of care when it comes to people who come working for him — to make them successful, help them grow. Not only will this help with turnover and avoid wasting resources, but it will make sure your customers have the best of care, too.
“SaaS is the subscription business. And I think you need to think about people management the same way. We can grow really fast if we retain 90% of our people every year. When I think about a people-first business, the people who work at BrowserStack look after the customers, and the customers look after the numbers. If you skip the people, who looks after your customers?“
Caught your interest? We’ve gathered a list of articles, videos, and podcasts you can check out:
- Planning for hypergrowth in EMEA with Mark Rudden of Browserstack
- How I left a job I liked and found one that I love
- Building a great sales team: How Intercom fosters and maintains its sales culture
This is Scale, Intercom’s podcast series on driving business growth through customer relationships. If you enjoy the conversation and don’t want to miss future episodes, just hit subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify, or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. You can also read the full transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity, below.
From selling bikes to software
Kieron O’Neill: Mark, you’re very welcome along to Scale by Intercom today. We’re delighted to chat about your work at BrowserStack. To kick us off, I’d really love just to get a sense of how you ended up in sales and your journey to where you are now.
Mark Rudden: Firstly, thanks for having me. I’m a long-time admirer of the podcast, so it’s great to be invited along. I’ve been about 15 years in sales and about 10 years in SaaS sales. The journey to sales is a bit of a random one. I worked in lots of different jobs after college that I didn’t really know were sales, but looking back now, I can see that all the things I was doing were very target-driven, commercial, and based on revenue.
I have worked in media, sold property, managed a band. One of the businesses that myself and a couple of buddies had during the recession was selling bicycles. We retailed stores and we sold to companies, including tech companies, and after taking a bit of a break and doing some traveling, I came back to Dublin and took a look around and tech was really beginning to boom. So it was an obvious choice. And because I’d sold bicycles to most of the tech companies in Dublin, I had some good contacts.
“I ended up in Salesforce at a really, really interesting time. They went from 7,000 employees to 15,000 people in that year I joined”
I ended up getting into Salesforce through a referral, a real Dublin story of figuring out a way to get into a company that wasn’t the natural route because I thought that was a more interesting way to get in. And ultimately, it was my sales skills that allowed me to do that. I ended up in Salesforce at a really, really interesting time. They went from 7,000 employees to 15,000 people in that year I joined. And you definitely felt that. You felt how fast it was growing. And I got it. I got the opportunity to work with some really smart people, some really driven people. I got trained really well. You’re Salesforce alumni as well. So I’m sure you can relate to the type of training that you get and the type of experience you get onboarding.
Kieron: I am indeed, and I’ve you in a large part to thank for getting my foot in the door.
Mark: It’s a massive company now. It was still a massive company then, but it’s a really, really large company now. It’s filled with really smart, driven people and they have killer products. So it’s a great place for people to go and to learn about the SaaS business and ultimately to grow their careers. After that, I wanted to get back into smaller businesses. I got the sense that I’d missed a lot of the rock and roll years and the real hypergrowth. So I went looking for that.
I was the first sales hire for a company called Wrike, a product project management software company. The idea there was to go to a company where I was one of the first salespeople and put my foot down and take the opportunities that came my way and make sure that most people got hired behind me, not in front of me. I was lucky enough to find that at Wrike and have four and a half, almost five fantastic years there. They’ve recently been acquired by Citrix. There were different phases to that business as well, which is great. But once I reached a certain level, again, you start looking around, “Okay, what’s the next phase?”
10 years ago, I had a conversation with my then-girlfriend, now wife, about having a 10 to 12-year career stint that was broken into three parts: learn about something, get good at something, and master something. I don’t think you can ever really master business or SaaS or sales or anything like that, but to go to a company then, and instead of being the first sales hire to be the first leader in the region, that was always the goal. BrowserStack came calling, and if I’m honest, I’d never heard of BrowserStack. They’re an engineering platform, and I’d always been more on the front end. But looking at BrowserStack, looking at the product they had, the market, the growth rate, the customers they already had in Europe… And they were looking for somebody to scale out their enterprise business across Europe. And it was an offer that was too good to turn down.
Scaling in the midst of a global pandemic
Kieron: I know you started there in January 2020, just enough time to get settled into the role, understand the product, understand, I suppose, the vision for the future, and then the pandemic hit. I’d love to get an understanding of what was the initial ambition, a goal that you’d set yourself and the team when you started, and then how was that impacted by the world being turned upside down by COVID?
Mark: Yeah, it was an interesting three months because well, we saw COVID happening in China in January, but we didn’t see it to the extent that it was. I think anybody who says they did who isn’t a scientist is probably full of BS, but the first three months in any role at any level are a bit of a roller coaster. You’re trying to figure out who you and your colleagues are, what the product is, the culture of the company, all that stuff.
So, in January, I spent most of the month in Mumbai, most of the time in February in the US, in San Francisco, in an office there. January was all about learning the product, and going to San Francisco was all about sitting with the most experienced salespeople in the business and learning and learning and learning.
The goal was, and still is, in a way, to hire 100 people in Dublin as fast as we can, to get $50 million in revenue out of Dublin as fast as we can, purely into enterprise business. I flew back to Dublin on the first of March and we knew things were changing pretty rapidly. My role changed really rapidly. I stepped into a global director of sales operations, and the reason for that was my Wrike experience, being a satellite office for a fast-growing company, you need to wear many hats because I came from Salesforce and because I had a bit more of a background in that, I ended up dipping my toe quite regularly into the sales ops world.
“I discovered pretty quickly that going from 40 salespeople to 200 salespeople in a matter of nine months is not about hiring people”
What I discovered pretty quickly in January last year, when I arrived in Mumbai, was that going from 40 salespeople to 200 salespeople in a matter of nine months is not about hiring people. It’s about putting down foundations of systems and processes, training, support people, and ensuring that you’re supporting people in every way to be successful, otherwise, people come and go pretty rapidly. That was always the plan of BrowserStack.
When the world changed, product training happened in classrooms because ultimately a classroom is better than online learning. Not that there isn’t a place for online learning, but the immersion of being in a classroom can’t really be replicated on a Zoom call. That changed pretty rapidly. And I spent six months in the sales ops role as we went through this massive hiring. We had already committed to hiring almost 150 people, and we were actively hiring another 150 at the time. Our recruitment processes were underway and we had some real decisions to make. What does the world look like in six months, in 12 months? What does our business look like? Should we be hiring? Should we be pausing? Most companies paused but I think our board and our founders are pretty bullish on our business and pretty confident in our place in the digital economy. We decided to push on, but we had to re-engineer all of our onboarding programs to make that happen.
Kieron: Interesting. So your goals in terms of headcount remained stable from pre-pandemic to post-pandemic?
Mark: So, we paused hiring in Dublin, closed the office here, and decided to pause as well in the US. We have offices in San Francisco and New York. We paused all of our enterprise field sales, but in our HQ, we decided to put the foot down and really go for it. That’s where a lot of that hiring happened. But because they couldn’t be in the office, we brought in some consultants on the sales enablement side and we beefed up our sales force and our customer platform. And ultimately, we had to do a lot of work on reengineering how we teach, train, and enable people.
Kieron: Absolutely. And that’s actually something I was going to come to next was just that onboarding process and the enablement process. In the past, it was very much location-based. What did you do, how did that change? How did that process look?
Mark: We hired a couple of people very quickly — we needed to find some people with some good experience in the area really quickly. We also brought in some consultants because things are happening so fast you can hire and train, or you can purchase the knowledge and the experience as well. So we did a bit of both, just to balance things out a bit, but we needed to spin up a learning management system pretty quickly. Now, luckily, we had one in place. It had just never been used to that extent. It had always been very supplementary. There was content but wasn’t as cutting edge as we needed it to be, so our learning management system had to be stripped back. It’s the equivalent of going into an old house and stripping it back to the walls and having to really start from scratch again.
We started from scratch and we had a six-week turnaround time to take our training. We pushed some start dates and we essentially took what was our existing onboarding and training process, stripped it back to bare bones, and then rebuilt it back for remote working. But anything like that is never a silver bullet. You’re never going to get it right. So we’ve iterated on that probably three times in the last year as we build and collect data and as we analyze it and look for insights.
The most important information you get from that is the feedback from the people who are going through the training, and we certainly didn’t get it 100% right the first time, but it was about getting it to a point where we felt confident we were giving people what they needed. We didn’t really know what that level was going to be because this is trial and error in a blitz scale company going through hypergrowth. You have to take a bit of a leap of faith… so we took that leap of faith. We didn’t get everything right, and we’ve gone back a couple of times to supplement over and innovated and it has iterated. 15 months later, it looks quite different from how it looked back then.
Kieron: Absolutely. It’s something we definitely believe here in Intercom, we take the cookie approach where we start something with a minimum of our product, and then it changes as you put that in place, things will emerge that you never thought of in the first place. So yeah, even looking at our people team and our enablement team, I have so much respect for them over the past year. We’ve been in a similar situation where we’ve obviously been onboarding a ton of people in a remote environment and that brings lots of complications.
Thinking about hypergrowth
Kieron: I’d like to do is just to revisit the scale side of things in terms of how you’re building that team. At that level, and I think ultimately I think you went from a company of the size of like 300 to 700 people, which as you said earlier, it’s a fantastic endorsement of the strength of the business. But at that level, it’s about more than just adding some headcount to individual teams, you’re building new teams, you’re creating new roles, potentially new reporting lines. How did that process work for you?
Mark: It’s a pretty labor-intensive planning process, and there are lots of different people involved. Everybody from the board down, our sales operations team, some pretty smart people in there as well, who are analyzing a lot of the data, analyzing a lot of what’s happening in the market with our customers. We look at our retention rates. We look at our acquisition rates. We look at the incremental revenue we have, and there’s a lot of pieces that go into it, it takes time. And because of that, you need lots of people to look at it, and you need to take a lot of opinions.
I think the difference for me doing that global sales operations role at BrowserStack, being in the room every day with our C-levels, with the head of finance, with the head of recruitment, on a personal level, was fascinating, exciting, and scary all in equal measure. I mean, our major backers are Excel, one of the premier VCs in the world. There’s a lot of people having input into that. And because of that, it’s pretty detailed. So when it comes down to the customer-facing teams, we have a classic SaaS model. We have business development doing inbound and outbound. We have SMB mid-market enterprise. We have people doing renewals, we’ve people working on net new customers and we have people working with existing customers.
“You have to reverse engineer it for how many people we need. How many graduates are we going to take in? How many people have five years’ experience? How many people have 10 years’ experience?”
So what we’re doing is not new. It’s about analyzing all of the different inputs and trying to solve for the outputs that we want. We know what growth rate we want to grow at. We know where we want to be in one year, two years, three years, four years. We know what our deal sizes are. We know our customers and what the market price is. We know all of these different pieces. You have to reverse engineer it for how many people we need. How many graduates are we going to take in? How many people have five years’ experience? How many people have 10 years’ experience? What’s the management structure going to look like? What type of organizations do we want to take people from?
That would normally take six to nine months, and we were sitting in these meetings and doing it much faster than that. It’s not a one-and-done calculation either. It needs to be monitored and tracked almost bi-monthly. We take data points and see where we’re tracking, where we need to be, and there are tons and tons of variables that go into that. It’s an interesting question. You could do a podcast series on that alone.
New ways of onboarding
Kieron: Interesting that you talked about the data points. Did you notice any key stand-out things from pre-pandemic to mid-pandemic in terms of those data points when you were talking about onboarding and that side of things?
Mark: Ultimately, you see a slowdown, if you’ve got an established way of onboarding not everybody in your business is very comfortable with it. You’ve got to change it to something new and that new way of working doesn’t have any data, and everybody who’s involved in delivering that has to go through or is going through a period of change management. So it’s really difficult to see the wood from the trees. I can say, 12 months later now, after doing multiple intakes of people at different levels, in different regions, in different roles, we know a lot more now than we did then, but with our initial onboarding, we would have seen slower ramping rates. We would have seen smaller first deals, average deal sizes. And that goes back to again, the classroom versus the online.
“We’re missing all the absorption and accidental learning and the off-the-cuff conversations overheard in the corridor”
One of the interesting points about learning online is about calendars. I’m sure your calendar for the rest of the day is full. Mine is too. Every slot in that calendar has a purpose, and we’re really productive. But what we’re missing is all the absorption and accidental learning and the off-the-cuff conversations overheard in the corridor. I’ve been in Intercom’s office and it’s a wonderful space. It has lots of space for these kinds of conversations and stuff to happen. Zoom is a really bad place to replicate that because Zoom automatically prioritizes the loudest voice, and that is really bad for learning. You probably saw it on both sides of the party, since you started in Intercom just before the pandemic.
We’ve planned and planned and planned and planned everything we’re going to teach everybody, but they’re still not learning as much as the people who were there slightly before the pandemic, who started in January 2020. And the reason for that is the loss of accidental learning. It’s been a killer.
The second and third iteration of our onboarding is much more about conversation rooms. It’s much more about group discussions, group projects. The contact teaches that much more on WhatsApp, and we haven’t cracked it yet, but we’re getting much better outcomes. When I think of January and February spending time in Mumbai and San Francisco, if I hadn’t have been able to do that, my impact on the business in the last 12 months would have been 50%.
“We have a duty of care to take people in and make them successful. We need to be able to say, ‘Come work for us. We can make you successful’ “
So I’ve got to put myself in the people we’re hiring, and we’ve got a duty of care there as well. We’re hiring people into a really fast-growing business, which is exciting. They can go and do some career-defining work, like a three to four-year journey with a pre-IPO company. It has the potential to change people’s careers. We have a duty of care to take people in and make them successful. We need to be able to say, “Come work for us. We can make you successful.” That’s probably been the biggest challenge of the last 12 months.
Kieron: Absolutely. A lot of what you said there really resonates in terms of my own journey. So I started Intercom pre-pandemic, just before. And so I had a little bit of feeding both sides, part of my onboarding was the traditional one, and part was the new model. I saw how our enablement team was developing and changing our onboarding plan on the fly, just like you guys were. In terms of the shift to remote, did that impact how you were attracting talent, the way in which you were hiring those people, even in terms of the types of people that you were actually looking for?
Mark: I think a lot of businesses, especially the larger businesses, and I think of Salesforce, for example, the sales culture is get on-site, get in the room, walk the halls and be there with the customer and build that relationship. You can’t replicate that virtually, as much as you try. There’s always that personal relationship, which is key when you’re going into a partnership with a customer, you’re not just selling them something and walking away, it’s a subscription, a long-term relationship. When I think about the Dublin team and specifically we manage enterprise customers in Europe, we manage some of the largest customers in Europe out of our Dublin office. And typically, when you go and hire Enterprise people, they come with 10-plus years of experience. They’re used to selling large complex deals, managing really complex stakeholders, complex commercials, all of that kind of stuff.
“I think one of the questions we need to ask ourselves is, ‘What world are we hiring people for?'”
But that level of complexity grows when you take away that on-site element. A 60-minute Zoom is not the same as 60 minutes in the customer’s office in a meeting room with a whiteboard and lots of other things. I think one of the questions we need to ask ourselves is, “What world are we hiring people for?” We’re hiring people for three or four years stints in their career. And, obviously, as we speak, vaccination programs have been quite successful. Are we hiring people for full-time remote work or are we hiring them for a hybrid world? Or how much business travel do we think will come back? I think we are hiring for a hybrid world. There will be some business travel and customer on-sites. But if more and more of our customers are working from home, meeting them in the offices becomes a harder thing to do as well.
So probably, meeting people on-site is more of a special occasion, and everybody would come in specifically for that, as opposed to just turning up at the office and the people you want to meet are there. To answer your original question, we’re probably looking for people who are high-achieving commercial reps or people who’ve worked in enterprise roles at companies with a similar size to BrowserStack, or slightly bigger. When you look at the really large companies, those guys can typically be on the road four days a week. It’s called field sales for a reason. We’re moving towards enterprise sales being more of a hybrid model, and they’re the people we’re looking for.
To be customer-centric, be people-centric first
Kieron: Absolutely. One thing that’s coming up again and again as you’re talking there is your focus on a people-first approach. I’d love to understand what that means for BrowserStack. If you’re growing at this level and you want to not only attract people but also retain the people you have, how do you do that as you scale?
Mark: It’s funny. We work for businesses that are obsessed with renewals, right? SaaS is the subscription business. And I think you need to think about people management the same way. We can grow really fast if we retain 90% of our people every year. The business will also grow if we retain 90% of our revenue every year. And I think I’ve seen businesses make that mistake where it’s not a people-first business. When you think about a people-first business, I think about the people who work at BrowserStack and they look after customers, and customers look after the numbers. If you skip the people, who looks after your customers? Your people look after your customers. Management doesn’t look after customers. It doesn’t really happen that way.
“That second year is really where the juice is, and you need to get as many people to that as possible, and then give them a path to grow and develop their career”
We’ve got to make sure we hire the right people, but we’ve also got to keep them for a long period of time. It’s really only in year two and year three that you get the best and the big outcomes out of the best people. You come in and you take six months to ramp up. You’re learning the ropes. 12 months in, you’ve completed a fiscal year. You’re ready to go. That second year of tenured rep is really where the juice is, and you need to get as many people to that as possible, and then give them a path to grow and develop their career. They need to be earning, they need to be learning, and they need to be having fun.
You need to tick all those boxes. Otherwise, people want to leave because either they’re not happy or they get a better offer down the road. People who are earning and learning and having fun rarely leave their jobs. In fact, if you have two out of three, people rarely leave the job. Unless, of course, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime offer. People have been saying for a long time that they’ll be the same for a long time in the future. So when I think about people management, you’ve got to separate the people from the data a little bit, and people need to know they’re in an environment where you’ve got their back, you’re going to look after them, that they can talk openly about what’s wrong with the business, what’s wrong with them, what’s wrong with customers, that it’s a bit of a safe space.
“My experience is that if you give people a safe space to work the way they want to work and be who they want to be, you get outstanding results”
My experience is that if you give people a safe space to work the way they want to work and be who they want to be, you get outstanding results. And that means your attrition rate stays really low. People are coming into this culture where they look around and go, “Hey, I want to be part of this,” and people are being successful and progressing their careers. Even the people that leave, leave on really good terms and they go on to bigger and better things.
Kieron: Couldn’t agree more, Mark. As I look back at my own career, if a business or a manager has a focus on the people, everything else will take care of itself. A lot of what we’ve been doing so far is looking back over the last year to 18 months. Now, I’d like to ask about your plans for the rest of 2021 and into 2022. Have you got any big projects on the cards? What does the future look like for yourself and also for BrowserStack?
Mark: We’ve just kicked off a new fiscal year as of the 1st of March, so we’re finishing our Q1. We have pretty aggressive plans for this fiscal year, running through to the end of March next year. It’s really, really about people. Our product is in a fantastic place. Our infrastructure is industry-leading. We’re seeing huge demand, especially in the enterprise, which is where a ton of our growth is due to come.
It’s shaping up to be a really big year. We have grown significantly through the pandemic. And obviously, our fortunes are very much tied to the growth of the digital economy, which has been accelerated in the last year. The focus for us, the big project, is people. We’re very much back on track hiring in Dublin. We hope to open a new office towards the end of the year when public health guidelines allow us to do so. And it’s really about attracting and retaining the best people at the moment. We have too many customers to be managed right now. And it’s a great problem to have, but we need more people. We need support. So after that pause in hiring in Dublin, we’re very much accelerating that. I think you’ll see the Dublin office grow considerably through to the end of the year.
A framework for choosing the right company
Kieron: Amazing. Exciting times. We’re in a similar situation, we are planning to open a new office in Dublin as well. I’ve seen some of the plans and I’m definitely looking forward to inviting you.
Mark: I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t nipped in for lunch in Intercom more than a few times. Is the bar moving with you? Hopefully, you’re taking the bar with you.
Kieron: I think I can confirm that. I don’t think we’d get away with removing the bar. Mark, this series is all about hearing about how companies can scale and that’s pretty much been the focus of the conversation so far. We go way back and a big part of the reason I changed industries and moved into SaaS sales and eventually into Intercom was actually thanks to a lot of your guidance and support. So, a huge thanks for that. What I’d like for you to finish on is something I know that’s key to a lot of your personal decision-making. You shared this with me when I was thinking of changing careers myself. It’s your P model.
Mark: I get asked about this quite a bit. I didn’t think it would grow legs the way it did. I wrote a piece about this on LinkedIn a few years ago, around the time I was leaving Salesforce, and there were tons of companies around. There are tons of companies that on the surface all look very similar, and even talking to them, sometimes, it felt very similar, and I needed a way to differentiate between some of the opportunities that were around in Dublin. So I distilled it down to the three Ps. One is Product. Is it a product you’d sell to a family member at list price because it’s that good?
Then, People. The people that you’re going to work with, are you on the same wavelength? Can you learn from them? Can they learn from you and ultimately, do you think that they would be good people to go on a journey with, in good times and in bad? And then the final part is progression. Is the company growing? Typically, it needs to be above 50% year-over-year. Is it growing fast enough that it’s going to generate opportunities for you to progress your career in a three to four-year period?
“You go through an interview process and it’s about them interviewing you, but sometimes you need a little bit of help to go and interview them back”
That started that simple framework. It’s the same framework when BrowserStack called. I put them through that piece and it was really, really helpful, especially going through an interview process and going through all that understanding exactly what I’m trying to find out. You go through an interview process and it’s about them interviewing you, but sometimes you need a little bit of help to go and interview them back. And that interview process needs to be a two-way street. And thankfully, that framework has helped me make some decent decisions along the way.
Kieron: Me too. I love it. To finish up, if our listeners want to learn a bit more about BrowserStack, is there any content that you would recommend?
Mark: I think our website’s a good place to start. And we also post a lot of stuff on LinkedIn. I post on LinkedIn, probably not as much as I should, but our marketing department is trying to get me to do more of that. Ultimately, if you’re interested in a career at BrowserStack, the best thing to do is just go and talk to people. If there’s an open role, you should try to find the hiring manager on LinkedIn and contact them, because as always, that is always the best place to go. It always gets people’s attention when they get a direct reach out.
Kieron: Amazing. Thanks so much, Mark. It’s been a real pleasure.
Mark: Thanks so much for having me.