The Journey

A Discussion with Ryan Smith, CEO of Qualtrics: The New Enterprise Sales Guy'

Jason Lemkin

So much seems to have changed in SaaS in the last few months.  A few months ago, Lloyed Lobo from Traction Conference asked me to do a fireside chat with Ryan Smith, CEO of Qualtrics.  The video took a while to get up but we have it now and it is below.

It’s really excellent.

Qualtrics was a super-interesting Unicorn story when we made this video just a few months ago.  Now, with the changes in the capital markets, it’s even more interesting to me.

A tiny little bit like Atlassian, Ryan built Qualtrics into nine figures in ARR and a Unicorn without any (primary) venture capital.  Like Atlassian, it perhaps took a little longer because of that … but once it hit Initial Scale, it grew like a weed.  The trade-offs here are even more visceral these days as the cost of capital for SaaS companies has gone up, at least for now.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 7.57.05 AM

Ryan also drove the company upmarket over the years, and in fact, talks about how there were in essence 4 different “Qualtrics” as the company evolved and grew over more than a decade.  We also had a great discussion on scaling SaaS outside the Bay Area, and how to bring in talent at different phases as you scale.

I didn’t know Ryan before the conversation, but I’m (truly) a big fan now.  I especially love talking to CEOs like Aaron Levie and Ryan Smith that have become students and professors of SaaS over the years as they’ve learned all the mechanics of scaling recurring revenues.  Because they love sharing the learnings back.

Please take a look.

Published on February 21, 2016


  1. Jason,

    Really great interview. I’d been reading about Qualtrics and Ryan recently and the story and journey is amazing. I’ve developed a bit of a man-crush on Qualtrics as a result.

    Some points I thought were super interesting and spot on with our experience at CB Insights and some challenges I’d love to dig into more if you ever get a second opp to talk to Ryan.

    1. He’s been at this 12 years. This was not an overnight success. I love these stories as they’re a bit antithetical to the normal narrative. We were bootstrapped/revenue-funded for 6 years so tons of this resonated.
    2. Your point on corporations knowing they’re dealing with a young company and betting on innovation is a really interesting one. Have you seen anyone actually use that sort of line in their pitch successfully?
    3. Ryan’s points on how you attack a market based on whether it’s an existing one or a new one were pretty spot on.
    4. The new enterprise sales model of try before you buy is also exactly what we’re seeing at CB Insights.

    Questions I’d love to see explored

    1. Land & expand – It seems Qualtrics has built a great product which has somewhat organically expanded in the organizations it sells into. Were there things they did to foster this more? Or was it really virality.
    2. His point on Qualtrics being 4 different companies over time. How did they manage the positioning of the company over these ‘evolutions’. Was it done with PR? Big user conferences? Really good copy and videos? It is what we’re undergoing but the question is how do you get customers who’ve thought of you one way to reset and think of you as something bigger?

    I rarely sit through 30 min videos but this was great. Thanks Jason.

    CB Insights

  2. I was kind of surprised that you didn’t call Ryan on his inside-sales-or-bust perspective in the enterprise.

    As a field sales guy that’s eaten his team’s $X00K lunch on several occasions this year (including his proud land and expand silo installs), I’m disappointed to see his narrow enterprise G2M on a pedestal here. Until Ryan buys a suit or two, they’re leaving a lot of money on the table in the enterprise…

    That said, Sequoia-backed unicorn and all that, so what do I know.

    1. Yeah I do agree some growth is sacrificed to not going more field and outbound. But the trade-off for him is more capital efficiency and a simpler overall organization. I certainly believe in trying to get that extra growth, but very capital efficient companies like Qualtrics and Atlassian have decided not to make the investment.

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