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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3 Takeaways from Andy, Paul and Taylor

3 Key Takeaways from Taylor, Paul and Andy

 

Last week, we had the pleasure of listening to three great men in the marketing/journalism/PR world: Andy Karuza of BrandBuddee, Taylor Soper of Geekwire, and Paul Owen of Owen Media. Each shared unique perspectives on PR and building an online community. Here are 3 top takeaways from that discussion.

  1. Create a Story that has Value to the Reader

This primarily came from Taylor’s experience at Geekwire. If you want Geekwire, or like publications, to notice you, be interesting. Ensure that you have a story to tell. If you have an awesome new product to launch, that’s great, but unless you have a story to tell, don’t expect anyone to write about you. A product launch in itself is not a story, unless maybe you’re Apple. Find the magic and share that.

Additionally, be your own media. Make it easier for others to write about you by gathering the data they will need, add pictures of key people to your website and beginning writing about interesting

  1. Separate Influencers from Advocates

The idea of influencers and advocates can easily blend together and many use terms interchangeably; do not do this. When thinking of the difference between the two, think of the 12’s. The 12’s, if you are another planet, are what Seahawks fans are referred to as. The 12’s live and breathe Seahawks football and have become as big to the franchise as Beastmode, Russell and LOB. They have brought magic to Seattle and are the best product advocates you could imagine. Your product advocates are the ones who are closest to the product, that need it to survive and naturally tell their friends that they should have it too. This allows for incredibly genuine brand support, like the 12’s. Influencers on the other hand are paid and may sound unnatural when speaking of your brand.

  1. Focus on the Problem

To be clear, focus on the problem and how you solve it. With that being said, your product or brand does not do much unless there is a problem to solve. When thinking of a new product, first identify the problem that you seek to solve. You can create the craziest, coolest knickknack imaginable, but if it does not solve a problem for anyone, you don’t have a story and you won’t have a successful product.

Identifying the problem and focusing solely on the problem, not only shapes your story, but helps you narrow down who your target audience is and helps you create a persona of your ideal customer.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading My Messages…

I recently had the pleasure of moving to a new apartment, in the middle of the quarter, the day before the Super Bowl. It was as enjoyable as you can imagine. But with moving come the perks of upgrading. New appliances, gas fireplace, vaulted ceilings, balcony; this place makes my old place look like a shack. Once the boxes were finally unpacked, I began the Amazon shopping frenzy to quickly and conveniently make all those little purchases of everything you realize you need (such a weird paradox when you are moving and thinking, “Why do I have so much stuff?”). Though I’ve purchased countless things on Amazon within the last week, it is not Amazon or my Amazon searches that showed up in my news feeds.

 

My living room has large windows, awesome, until you realize you look right into your neighbor’s bedroom; not really my thing. My walls are painted light green and most of my accessories are very loud, so I need to tone it down on the curtains a bit. Turns out, I want very specific curtains. I began my search for 60in x 96in white, ruffled curtains. My search led me to Wayfair, a site my mom also told me to check out. Knowing that I’m spoiled and have a birthday coming up, I took a screenshot of what I wanted and sent it over iMessage to my mom. Holding out for a better price (or for a present), I decided not to purchase. Then, I opened Facebook and there it was, my curtains on Wayfair. My Facebook advertising shifted towards home decorating or apartment searches. Additionally, I had sent iMessages with a friend regarding a trip to Iceland. All advertising is trying to get me to go to Iceland, on the cheap, and buy my ridiculously specific curtains.

 

I’m a sucker for advertising and if I liked something enough to view it, I’m most likely going to like it more the more I see it. If I had the funds, I probably would have purchased curtains and the trip to Iceland. By the way, Wow Airlines is coming to America and offering flights from $99 from DC to Iceland….at least that’s what Facebook tells me.

Lynk Messenger: Know Everyone. Everywhere.

Some people are drawn to apps that ensure their privacy. I am drawn to apps that do the exact opposite: allow everyone near me to know who I am and what I am doing. For those of us who are addicted to checking in, hashtagging and retweeting, this app is made for us and has the potential to truly grow networks. Lynk Messenger links you to everyone near you, regardless of if you have met them before. Not only does it show you who are around, it remembers who was there. This app helps you never forget a name and a face.

 

I think Lynk Messenger should begin reaching out to bloggers who write in the social media space. Including JD Rucker from soshable.com, Melonie Dodaro from Top Dog Social Media and Francisco Rosales of Socialmouths. Since these bloggers write in a space of expertise within social media space, giving the app legitimacy if the bloggers choose to write about it.

 

Pigeon! Not the bird…

Pigeon is essentially the ultimate all-in-one remote. Pigeon is simply placed on your coffee table and never needs to move, striving to end the ‘find the remote’ game we all know so well. Pigeon links to any of your electronics and you control the electronics by opening up the Pigeon app on your phone. Once in the app, you can control your entire house through your phone. Additionally, Pigeon connects to your devices with Bluetooth and can connect to multiple devices at once.

Currently, Pigeon appears to have a presence on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. On Facebook, they have only 169 likes. Pigeon follows only 131 people on Twitter and has only 30 followers. LinkedIn appears to be the least utilized channel as they have 7 connections. Pigeon’s twitter use, though seemingly sparse, does attempt to be interactive. The company also maintains a website that, although aesthetically appealing, is clunky and is not user friendly.

Pigeon’s target audience appears to be the tech savvy, gadget-loving consumer. The ideal consumer has a plethora of electronics requiring a remote. This gadget allows for the ease of controlling every electronic one owns in one easy app stating “Let your mobile device be the only remote control you will every need.” As previously mentioned, it seems they are just beginning to communicate with their target customer via Twitter. The product is expected to launch within the next few months. It will be interesting to follow their growth on these channels.

Flash Volunteer-Have an hour to spare? Volunteer!

Flash Volunteer uses technology to provide socially-minded people with volunteer options in real-time. Flash Volunteer uses GPS to show volunteer opportunities nearby. Like searching for a restaurant in the maps application, a user can open the application and view volunteer opportunities for this week, this month or today. The app also allows users to check into the volunteer event while they are attending. This allows user to keep track of their volunteer hours easily.

The initial target audience appears to be young adults with schedules too busy to allow for long-term commitment to one organization, as the process is often tedious. The target audience is socially conscious with a longing for community connection and giving back. This audience appreciates the social aspect of volunteerism and is looking to connect. The audience is tech savvy and runs their life through the convenience of apps. The ideal target audience enjoys the convenience of seeing opportunities nearby when they have an hour or two to spare. Right now, it appears that Flash Volunteer does not have direct competitors, though they may steal customers from MeetUp or organizations like Seattle Works.