Rice and Beans: An Interview with Brent Frei of Smartsheet

When asked what his “old-age” trait, the trait that exists in you that will intensify with age, will be, Brent Frei responds, “Efficiency.” Aside from his intimidating stature and preceding highly accomplished reputation, Brent is a humble man who is strikingly determined. It is apparent that efficiency is core to who he is and efficiency is the core idea behind his company Smartsheet.

While with his previous company, Onyx, Brent realized a problem with operational oversight. The observed problem extended beyond his company. Products popped up like weeds yearly to help with project management and oversight, yet nothing appeared to stick. According to Brent, many adopted tracking programs stating they were “trying such and such” but all continually returned to the use of spreadsheets. “Spreadsheets are immediately available, they’re perceptually free, they’re perfectly flexible, they don’t force me (the user) into a process and they are easily shared and changed.” Brent realized the limitations with spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are not automated. Reminders to complete tasks do not exist within spreadsheets. You had to use other software to produce documents and manage products. Hence, the birth of Smartsheet.

Brent thought, “why not weld the features of project management programs into a spreadsheet and make them work together.” Others had been continually producing products that “lined up with the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.” Brent’s idea merged these programs into what consumers already identified as their go to solution.

As seemingly simple as the idea appears, do not be fooled. Execution of the idea to creating a product took several years of development.

To aspiring entrepreneurs, Brent offers up this piece of advice:

“If you’re not super committed and not willing to eat rice and beans for years to get there, don’t bother. You have to be unbelievably determined.”

 Smartsheet is a testimony that Brent practices what he preaches. The first few years of Smartsheet’s existence were spent in development. At year 4, Brent was doing sales and began realizing the product did not work as efficiently as they had hoped. They realized the interface of the product was correct; people loved it when they got it. But that was the thing. They had to ‘get it’. Brent explained there were too many core concepts to learn before usability became simple.

Given the feedback, and under instructions from his wife, Brent and his team had new users test the product while they observed. Brent describes that experience as “humiliating”. Brent and his team validated every complaint heard from users. The users were right. The product needed to operate more efficiently. Given this feedback, taking the product out of beta would guarantee the company a spot with the ‘has beens’, all those before them that launched a solution that was under par of what consumers needed. They had a choice, run it into the ground or redevelop the product. They chose the latter.

They spent 18 more months in product development.

“We were set to run out of money in May. It was December. Our adult product was set to launch in February. We were coming out with Gantt Charts. The launch of Google Ads was approaching and we had invested time into adwords…just one of the 3 had to hit.”

 True to his advice, Brent did whatever he could to secure capital for Smartsheet. With 5 small children, Brent sold his house. He also went to his parents and borrowed $300,000. He undoubtedly believed in his product.

“If I believe in something, it’s not going to fail. I will die before it fails.”

The launch of Google Ads proved successful as well as Gantt Charts and the adult product launch. Soon, the company would not run out of cash in May but in June. Then it extended to July, from July to August and then beyond.

The diminishing capital honed in the focus of Smartsheet. They became incredibly, and noticeably, efficient with the use of capital. They focused in on what mattered and what actually had an impact on the growth of the company. Smartsheet began realizing customer growth of 30-40 new customers a month.

Smartsheet has grown from acquiring 30-40 new customers a month to acquiring 180 new customers a day. Today, they are listed at number 22 on Geekwire, Seattle’s Startup Leaderboard. The success can be attributed to Brent, his team and the relentless support around them. Brent’s determination is truly an inspiration. Congratulations, Brent.

Smartsheet has grown from acquiring 30-40 new customers a month to acquiring 180 new customers a day. Today, they are listed at number 22 on Geekwire, Seattle’s Startup Leaderboard. The success can be attributed to Brent, his team and the relentless support around them. Brent’s determination is truly an inspiration. Congratulations, Brent.

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