At our inaugural SaaStr Europa last June, podcast host-with-the-most Harry Stebbings sat down with MuleSoft Founder and CTO Ross Mason to discuss the organization’s sales strategy, building a strong company culture, how to think about international expansion, and much more. Unsurprisingly, it was one of the event’s most popular sessions — and now, even if you weren’t with us in Paris, you can experience it all for yourself! Check out the full video and transcript below:
And in case you haven’t heard, we’re doing it all again — even bigger and better — next June! Don’t miss out on two full days of thought leadership content, networking opportunities, fantastic French food, and fabulous evening events, all in the heart of Paris — snag your Europa 2019 tickets and catch up with us on the other side of the Atlantic next year!
Harry Stebbings: All right, Ross. Give us some context. Tell me about the founding story of MuleSoft. Set the scene. What was that “aha” moment for the creation and the first few months and days of the company?
Ross Mason: For those who don’t know, MuleSoft, we work across many enterprises connecting applications, data, and devices. It was pretty interesting. I was hearing UiPath right before here talking about how you run everything through their platform, layer on some AI, and voila, you’ve got more automated and better processes.
The challenge that every organization has, though, is they can’t actually connect to the data and to the assets that actually drive a lot of those processes. What MuleSoft does is that we create something called an application network to connect all these things together.
It came from pretty humble beginnings. We started making it easier for developers to connect things together. Over the last 10 years and 5 years with the advent of SaaS mobile cloud platforms, it’s become hard to connect so many things together and do it in a way that’s efficient and doesn’t drain a bunch of time.
Harry: Can I ask, you’ve seen the evolution of this industry firsthand through the growth of MuleSoft. What have been the biggest transformations for you from the meta‑perspective watching the evolution of the industry as a whole?
Ross: I think probably the biggest evolution, actually, is this understanding that software in a silo isn’t working for businesses. We have a lot of technology trends, so cloud was pivotal. APIs has become pretty pivotal.
AI is driving the next wave of requirements. When I talk to banks, insurance companies, healthcare, their biggest challenges…IT for the longest time has been plugging this stuff in as best they can in silos. What they’re trying to do is create better consumer experiences. They’re trying to cross‑sell products.
They’re trying to upsell products. They’re trying to understand more about their customer. What they’re finding is it’s prohibitively difficult to use these newer technologies like UiPath without being able to connect all these different systems together in a way that the software on top can actually bring together a different picture of what’s going on.
That transformation, when we talk about IT transformation, I look at transformation at the core of the business and taking all that legacy and putting infrastructure in place to make it much easier to move that information around between those systems.
Harry: Can I ask, MuleSoft now serves some of the largest enterprises in the world. I think a big question that I often get from founders is, should they think about quantity of logos, quality of logos, and getting those brand names?
For you with MuleSoft, how did you think about that in the early days? What would your advice be on onboarding those mega‑corporates that everyone wants on the client page?
Ross: It’s a good question, logo quantity or quality? For us, we went with quality. We have customers like HSBC running their whole transformation program on us globally. Same with McDonald’s.
McDonald’s I love, because you look at their share price the last 18 months. Right in the top headline is their digital transformation, literally, just moving away from human interactions to kiosks, to apps, to those sorts of things, has driven a very different outcome for McDonald’s. That’s all written on our platform.
We realized fairly early on that the problem we solve is pretty complicated and the sales cycle will be nine months, whether you’re spending 50K or five million with us. We just realized if that’s the way it’s going to be for the time being, what we should do is optimize for doing massive transformations first and then back into smaller ones as we got scale.
Harry: I had Andy Burn on the SaaStr podcast, and he said when selling to large organizations you really have to present not just the company today but the company in five years’ time, the vision, the mission. How do you think about that versus maybe the immediate benefits that one could offer and honing in on instead? What were the tips and tricks from nailing it so well?
Ross: I think for enterprise software that’s really true. If you haven’t got a vision and a mission that people can get behind, you look like everyone else. You probably don’t know the integration space, but…
Harry: The immigration space?
Ross: No, the integration space.
Harry: Oh, right. OK.
Ross: The integration space is full of vendors. There’s like 20, 30 vendors, all purporting to connecting applications and data. What makes MuleSoft different? Why did we get acquired by Salesforce for six and a half billion, whereas other guys are scratching around for a hundred million in revenue?
It’s actually about painting a vision about what could be possible and then leading customers down that path. We got very good at not just having a strong vision but also showing the steps it would take to drive that transformation to organizations.
Then as it starts to come to fruition like in the last few years, we’ve had more and more customers come up on stage and just tell our audiences how that change is actually happening inside their organization. That just creates a flywall effect.
Harry: We spoke about lower quality and quantity there. I’d love to hear maybe how the sales organization’s changed with the scaling of the business and how you’ve seen that really fundamentally different, maybe from jack of all trades at the beginning to specialist now. How have you seen it develop?
Ross: For me or for the company?
Harry: For the company. That you’re sitting on top of it looking at the change.
Ross: Well, in the beginning, it was all me, right? You’re the first sales guy in any company, all founders know that. I actually ended up staying very close to sales, even though I’m a technology founder. Again, it was because we weren’t just selling software. We were selling thought leadership about how you use the software to get a different type of outcome.
Put simply, integration, you can do it two ways. You can just connect two things together and leave it alone and hope it works forever or what we do is we tell people to create reusable building blocks, APIs out of the assets, that they’re connecting to.
You get a view of the customer, a view of the product, a view of reference data, of transaction history, and we pack it up in APIs so that the next time you need that information, it’s there.
Essentially, what you’re doing, you’re making project delivery over time much more efficient. To sell that way, most enterprise software companies who were just selling boxes of software ‑‑ if you need a BPM, you go and plug it in, if you need an ESP, you go and plug that in ‑‑ they weren’t really selling a different way of thinking.
My role in the sales organization was really helping to layer on good selling methodology with, how do you sell with thought leadership and a purpose in mind?
Harry: Can I ask, what is good selling methodology to you? That sounds like a wonderful podcast title.
Ross: There’s loads. People use MEDDIC and challenger sale and all those sorts of things. We take elements of those, but ultimately for me, good selling is about two things, making the interaction with the customer beyond expectation every single time.
Just being really respectful of people’s time and making sure that you come with preparation and something of interest to them, and you should challenge them.
A lot of salespeople that we hire, in the beginning, they’re like, “I don’t want to tell a CIO what he’s doing wrong, because he or she knows his business better than I do and I don’t want to tell them that they’re doing something wrong,” whereas in reality, they want feedback.
They want to know what other customers are doing and why what they’re doing is not working the best way for them. A lot of what we teach our salespeople is really around challenging the right way and coming with a provocative point of view.
Harry: You said about teaching salespeople there. I often speak to founders selling to enterprise companies and they say it’s been three quarters and they haven’t closed any large accounts. They’re sweating. They’re getting very nervous. It’s costing them.
How would you advise them? How would you measure performance in the early days and think about that evaluation in the very long feedback cycles that is enterprise sales?
Ross: Measurement is critical. If there’s any KPI sessions today, watch those. We follow about 30 KPIs through the sale cycle in the business. What it comes down to is just understanding how long things take. If you’ve got a pipeline to get someone from 0 to 10 percent, 10 to 20, you need to look at each one of those phases and measure it before you can understand what’s working, what’s not.
It’s really critical to do that early on when you have four salespeople even though it seems a bit trite because you’ve got four salespeople. Very quickly, that ramps up to 100, and if you haven’t got those measurements in place, it becomes very hard to retrofit and create a culture where people don’t mind being measured, or don’t try and gain the systems to be measured.
For us, we know that getting from 10 percent to 50 percent is the hardest. That’s why they’re going through their decision cycle and whether they’re going to place a big bet on someone like MuleSoft. We’ve over‑optimized that to provide a lot of resources and ways to move people through that pipeline in a way that makes sense for them and for us.
Harry: We spoke about your technical and product ops earlier and then also your role in sales from day one. I’m intrigued, for a product‑facing founder what do you think of cool benefits and value of being that product‑oriented mindset now applied to sales in the early days?
Ross: A lot of organizations are separated between engineering and sales. Salespeople don’t get engineering, engineering don’t get sales. They kind of hate each other. There’s lots of mean jokes out on the web if you want to go figure that out.
Being someone that straddles both, you get to be able to understand both sides of the fence and actually create better relationships. At MuleSoft, we describe ourselves as a product company first, and the reason, you know, some people are sales‑focused, some people are marketing‑focused. For me, being a product company makes sense, and by product I mean everything hinges off a quality product.
A quality product is a lot more fun to build, to start with. Engineers like it. It’s much more fun for salespeople to sell, because you have a product that people care about. It’s much easier to have all the support functions around it if it’s a quality product.
Putting the product front and center has helped bridge that gap, by not being about sales or engineering, but having this other thing in between, which is really what drives the outcome for the customer.
Harry: You spoke about sales and engineering there. The other one that I consistently hear is the integration or lack of integration of sales and marketing. How do you think about that? Have there been any key learnings in removing the silo of sales versus marketing?
Ross: I spend a lot of time in marketing removing that silo. That’s one of the hard ones. Bridging reality or maybe a version of reality, which is engineering, sales, which is what they want to go and sell, and in marketing who, every six months, wants to recycle any concept that you’ve had because they feel like it’s gotten old.
Quite often, what I have to tell marketing is, “Just because you said it four months ago, it doesn’t mean everyone was listening. You got to go and say it again another 10 times.” They hate it.
It was like, “No, because you’re only capturing a very small portion of the audience. Stop forgetting about our core values. Just find more interesting ways of bringing that to bear in the marketing message.”
It has worked pretty well. We used to cycle through concepts every six months. A, no one can keep up. B, it means you’re trying to differentiate yourself on message.
You should differentiate yourself on having a key theme but innovative ways of bringing that theme to market. It’s a slightly different way of thinking about it. It has especially worked quite well for us.
Harry: It’s being innovating on those themes. How do you know when is the right time to refresh? You said there about every six months. In a new one, it was tough to keep up. Is that like in flash and points in your nativity? [laughs]
Ross: Yeah. There’s two ways you feel it. We do a lot of events. I’ll be on stage. I’ll be saying something. I start to think, “I’m not believing this as much as I used to.” That’s usually a good sign.
Ross: The other one is we run about 20, 30 events a year. We do get a lot of feedback. We really do listen to every bit of feedback that we get in every event.
It’s interesting. You come out with a new message. It works well for about a year or two years. Then you start hearing people say, “I feel like I’ve heard this before. I need something else. It was good.” The time horizon for messaging tends to be one to two years.
It depends on if you’re doing a big yearly event and you have a lot of repeat customers, then you got to refresh that every year. If you’re doing regional events where you just capture people in different locations, then refreshing every two years, but every year putting a different spin on it makes sense. Definitely, one year is the minimum. Max is probably two.
Harry: Speaking of refreshes, I’m not sure that many people know. You started out of Malta and then moved to the US. Talk to me about that, your mindset towards the move. I’d love to hear about the VC angle presented in Europe versus the US. Let’s start with the move more broadly, why you thought it was necessary and how it impacted MuleSoft.
Ross: Weirdly, not many people do this. I started an enterprise software company in Malta, which is just off the coast of Sicily, down at the bottom of Italy.
Harry: It’s a growing tech hub.
Ross: Yeah, exactly. It’s the center of the Mediterranean. It must be at the center of the world.
Harry: MuleSoft’s revenue has to be Malta’s GDP. [laughs]
Ross: Pretty much. I think it was, actually. I was foolish in the early days. I thought because you could build a software, distribute it…I had a team all over the world building Mule before I had a company around it.
When I got funding, I wished that my VCs just said, “You’ve got to come and move to where the company headquarters is going to be,” which is San Francisco. Instead, they said, “No. What you’re doing is working. You do whatever you want. We’ll figure it out.”
We spent two years trying to build a weird company culture where I wasn’t there half the time. It just didn’t make any sense. I realized that was just holding us back. That’s why I moved to San Francisco. I should have done that the day of the funding.
Harry: Can I just jump in for one moment?
Harry: You said there about the distributed team. It’s obviously something that’s incredibly popular and successful now. You did it seven or eight years ago, when it wasn’t a tool. The key theme that…
Ross: I’m going to share my age. It was 12 years ago.
Harry: 12 years ago, OK. [laughs] What was key to being so successful in the early days, with the VC saying, “I’ll let you run with it”? How did you think about that in creating that cohesive unit?
Ross: We understood how to run open source. We looked at open source as…I say “we.” It was pretty me, actually, for the first year and a half. I looked at it as really as a distribution channel. A lot of people, developers…I’m not really a developer.
This is the weird thing. I wrote software, but I don’t think of myself as a developer. I just used code as a way to express a bunch of ideas. I looked at open sources as purely a distribution channel. All I was trying to do is build a broad base of users so that I could go and build a company on top of it.
With that mindset, I was very efficient on what I spent time on and what I didn’t spend time on. When I brought people into the project, they adopted the same behaviors. It’s just the easiest thing to do.
I didn’t spend all my time running a software. I spent more of my time building a community, speaking events, answering emails and forums. It sounds really trite now. I started shaving off hours of my sleep so that I could get up early at 5:00 AM, answer emails for two hours, and then go to work.
I did stuff like that just to drive the engagement of the community. There’s a tipping point where, at some point, you’re getting more emails. More people are jumping in because they see you jumping in. They just replicate what you’re doing.
Harry: I do have to ask. You have an enterprise founder sitting in the audience today, debating whether the move is necessary to ask either you or an outpost or a sales team there. What advice would you give?
Ross: When I moved to SF, there wasn’t many options. I tried to raise money in London back in 2005.
Harry: How was that experience?
Ross: It was brutal. I met with…I won’t call out any names. There wasn’t many VC companies around then. They were so risk adverse. It was very clear I was talking to people who came from financial services, who are used to low‑risk, low‑return and high‑risk, high‑return.
Their requirements of putting any money into anything was I had to be some evil genius that could pull together all the other software companies who are doing interesting things and bring it under one umbrella. It was crazy. If you have fire in the hall…all these talks were ridiculous.
I realized I wasn’t going to make or raise money here in the UK. That’s why I went to San Francisco. Now, it’s much easier. There’s investment arms all over the UK. There’s about 110 incubators or accelerators in the UK, which is crazy. It’s a very different landscape.
I don’t think you need to be in Silicon Valley or even in San Francisco. In fact, you’re competing for resources there. It’s super hard to find great talent. I think the next company I do won’t be there. It’ll be probably this side.
Harry: Absolutely. I do want to dive into a quick‑fire round with you there, Ross.
Ross: Yeah, sure.
Harry: Quick‑fire round, I say a short statement and then, Ross, you give me your immediate thoughts. We got 60 seconds per one, OK?
Harry: What was the biggest challenge in building MuleSoft?
Ross: Oh, God. Making integration sexy. Isn’t it sexy? No one cared about it, and it’s become interesting in the last two or three years.
Harry: What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the beginning of your journey with MuleSoft?
Ross: I’ll phrase it differently. I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it was going to be because I probably wouldn’t have done it. Now I’ve been through, I feel like I’d do it again quicker.
Harry: [laughs] I love that one. When I say success in SaaS, who’s the first person that comes to mind and why?
Ross: My new overlord, Salesforce.
Ross: I think what they’ve done is pretty amazing. It’s an amazing company actually. From the outside, it’s great, but also from the inside, it’s pretty impressive as well.
Harry: What’s the key to scaling culture to the extent that you have done staying with MuleSoft?
Ross: Maniacal focus on culture. There’s only one thing you have to do, which is focus on every day. Actual facts, I can’t take credit for that because actually our CEO, all he did, he spent pretty much all his time thinking about how we hire and how we retain talent.
That was his thing for probably the last six years. He focused on other things, but his big passion was making sure we hired the right people and we were doing the right things culturally.
Harry: How have you seen yourself change as a leader and a CEO with the scaling of MuleSoft across time?
Ross: Well, I started off writing code and now no one will let me write codes.
Ross: I’ve definitely crossed over to the dark side. For me, it’s an exciting journey and what I’ve done is rather than try and hold on to position in the company, I try and let go. My whole mission for about the last six, seven years is to drill myself out of a job.
Because as a founder, you end up being this linchpin. That gives you power and control but it also slows you down. I realized when we started scaling, I’d have to take myself out of the equation more and more. What I’ve done is I’ve let go of roles as I found people that could do the role better than I can do it.
Harry: You mentor a lot of young companies today. What’s the most common mistake you see young SaaS founders, SaaS companies making?
Ross: The common mistakes really are around understanding what they’re building and why they’re building it. There’s some vision alignment things that I often help founders through.
There’s some key ones around setting your goal up from…Like a lot of founders say, “I want to build this thing. I think it’d be really cool,” but they don’t really know why they want to build it. If you can’t articulate to someone, it’s super hard for people to buy into that vision and get excited.
Another one is I see first time CEOs taking on way too much on their shoulders and not thinking about how to leverage their teams around them to offload some of the pressure and holding people accountable. Those are the two big areas.
Harry: You’ve managed boards for many years. What makes a great board member?
Ross: Good board members, I think they turn up on time and they leave the phones off.
Ross: Good board members, there’s so many different varieties. You get operational ones that have great insight into running a business. Quite often if somebody has an exit, getting someone right after an exit is really good because they have a lot of operational experience.
That operational experience has a shelf life of about three, five years after that. If they’re not back in the workforce during that role, they’ll certainly lose touch because, frankly, the world is moving so quickly.
Then you also have the connector board member who just knows everyone. Ann Winblad is our connector on our board. Then you’ve just got the super smart VC who just analyzes the market, sees way ahead than most other people and just helps you think about what you’re facing in different ways.
Harry: We’ve had a billion‑dollar IPO. We’ve had a multibillion‑dollar acquisition. Tell me, what’s the highlights of the MuleSoft journey?
Ross: Those two things are pretty good.
Harry: [laughs] Those things are big.
Ross: What’s the highlight? One thing about the acquisition, I will say, MuleSoft has always been about the people and the culture. It’s not an easy business. Nobody really understands it. It sits in the middle of everything, but no one knows where the edges are.
We’ve had to hire really smart, driven, intellectually‑curious people, and it’s been a lot of fun getting to know those people and working alongside them. But having the acquisition outcome meant that everyone got a bit of a payout and it was a lot of hard work.
Just having people come up to me saying, “Hey, my wife’s going back to the university,” or, “We just bought that second house we wanted,” and it was because of this outcome. That feels pretty good. It’s an ongoing but feel-good factor of this.
Harry: I spoke to many of your investors actually before this interview and they said that you have recruited some of the best people in some of the most competitive markets. How do you think about recruiting the best people in such competitive and well‑funded times today? What’s the secret sauce?
Ross: Secret sauce is very clear mission that they can understand right in a 15‑minute phone interview. People want to know why they should even care in the first place. Secondly, it’s a great candidate experience, making sure that you’re really running a strong process.
Two, we actually push candidates. We don’t make it easy at all. We don’t get rock stars in who then coast through. We really challenge them both on the interview and the testing side.
For what we needed, which is that smart‑driven, intellectually‑curious person, they respond really well to being challenged. Once they’re boarded, once they buy into the vision, being challenged by the company almost made a certainty that they’d come into the company.
Harry: Then I want to finish with some parting advice. What parting advice would you give to a European founder today scaling, contemplating, and looking to progress in a similar vein that MuleSoft has done with two huge access?
Ross: Actually, I’m spending the summer speaking to founders around some of these ideas because I’m trying to connect myself back into the European startup market. I think probably one of the things every founder in Europe has is, “Do I go to the US, and if so, when?”
I think it depends on the business and the type of market you’re going after. There’s a lot more opportunity in Europe now to build scaling companies.
The biggest challenge, frankly, is just that it’s not such an open market. The great thing about the US is if you’re selling to 100, 200 thousand companies and they all speak the same language, they’re on the same legal system, they have the same laws, the tax is complicated, but it’s all taken care of in the software, it makes it easier to sell.
Whereas if you’re selling in Europe and scaling, you’d have to look for businesses that can do really well in one GO first, get a real stronghold, and then expand. There’s a slightly different expand model in Europe than you have in the US. US, you can actually be a bit lazy.
Lazy, because you can just go to market with something and scoop up demand just through marketing whereas here you have to be much more prescriptive about how you’re going to go after that particular market segment and what you think is going to help you dominate that market before you can move to the next one.
I’d say different set of business model triggers, I think, here. Just be more aware of that. That’s what I want to learn this summer is, what are those triggers and what’s working for people.
Harry: Final question. Next five years for you and for MuleSoft, what’s in the roadmap?
Ross: Roadmap for us is we’re part of Salesforce, we’re going to be the foundation of their integration cloud. We continue to be neutral in terms of we’re not just going to get Salesforce connecting to everything because the information that we connect is all over the place in mainframe systems and other SaaS platforms.
We have this concept of application network that’s starting to come into fruition, which is basically a way of organizing reusable APIs inside an organization so anyone can discover and use data or capabilities.
What that’s doing for companies is driving a different type of innovation where instead of having to come up with an idea, file a project, wait 20 weeks, have something delivered by IT, we’re starting to enable companies to get more self‑service capabilities as IT is already stretched anyway. Helping IT provide self‑service without compromising the backend systems is really powerful.
I think the next five years, that concept is going to take hold and become pretty mainstream. You’ll hear a lot more around real self‑service IT versus just people going and buying stuff and trying to make it work.
Harry: Ross, as always, I so love chatting to you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Ross: Thank you. Cheers.