Scaling for the Enterprise: Top 5 Lessons on the Upmarket Journey with Airtable CEO Howie Liu and Coatue Management General Partner Caryn Marooney (Pod 618 + Video)

If you run a successful, scalable business, the word “enterprise” will inevitably come up at some point—and for good reason. To survive, businesses need to evolve, and creating an enterprise offering for customers is part of the evolution of a business.

Adding the world’s largest businesses to their customer rosters is a massive goal from the beginning for many SaaS companies. Businesses must effectively evolve their strategies, operations, and overall product-market fit to target and win those enterprise accounts.

Airtable CEO Howie Liu shared Airtable’s journey into enterprise, what he’s learned from scaling the company, and his best advice for other SaaS companies looking to make a similar move.

1. Build the right foundations.

For leaders and operators, knowing the big vision for success and growth is easy—sequencing it is what’s hard. Businesses must have clear convictions about the market they’re going after and how they will get there.

Before you think about scaling for enterprise, you must first build the right company foundations. There are two main ways to build a company:

  1. Build something quickly and serve it to the market. See what sticks, improve what does, and eliminate what doesn’t.
  2. Hold off on building something at first and solidify premeditated ideas that solve a known problem—preferably in a space with potential.

“One of the biggest challenges with the journey is finding the balance between company vision in the future and remaining executionally focused on the details needed for what we’re building now.”

Having a clear idea of the opportunities for your business makes it easier to break the business process down into steps. At Airtable, accomplishing this was all about finding the things they needed to de-risk and following through with the solutions. Business leaders must always know what the next milestone is to move forward. Don’t get stuck in the here and now—balance forward-looking strategy with present execution to build a strong foundation.

2. Choose your competitors wisely.

Especially when you’re creating a category instead of competing within an existing one, you have more say in the businesses you compete with than others realize. The competitors you frame yourself against are conscious decisions concerning where you see the company growing in one to ten years.

When Airtable launched, it was a given that they would be pitted against task management companies like Asana, Trello, and the former Wunderlist. But leadership at Airtable saw themselves moving into the overall agile workspace years down the road and chose their competitors based on that goal.

Of course, you don’t have control over how investors or analysts will assess your competitive landscape and categorize your company. Still, you control how you execute your GTM plan and the accounts you prioritize. Plus, competitors can change along the way as businesses scale into the enterprise market.

3. Shrink your total addressable market (TAM).

It sounds counterintuitive and intentionally misleading, but it’s not—sometimes, businesses need to shrink their TAMs to succeed.

Many business leaders in SaaS are paranoid about not having a large enough TAM instead of niching down. This often causes a bloated product that tries to be everything at once, leaving customers and employees confused about what to focus on and the product’s benefits.

“The best business strategy comes from the fusion of what’s already working organically and connecting different apps together, thus creating a single shared source of truth.”

When thinking about your TAM as your business scales to enterprise, ask yourself the following questions. (You might find shrinking your TAM isn’t as scary, after all.)

  • What is the main reason people purchase our product?
  • What are the most successful markets for our business so far?
  • What’s the most widely adopted feature within our product, and how can we repeatedly build and sell that specific product to different markets?
  • How can we create the best possible experience for every customer with the same needs this product solves?
  • How can we listen to our dedicated customers instead of offering a watered-down product to customers we ignore?

4. Leverage product-led growth (PLG) in your enterprise sales methods.

Does everything come down to choosing between product-led growth and enterprise sales? It certainly feels that way for a lot of companies. Most people ground their mental models around historical data, and history has shown that PLG and enterprise haven’t always worked well together. However, that’s from a lack of examples—not from a lack of success.

Getting the combination right is a challenging experimental process, but it can happen and result in profound benefits for everyone involved. Keep in mind, though, that it’s harder to retrofit delightful PLG experiences after the fact than it is to start with PLG and add enterprise sales later in the game.

5. Master consumer-grade delight and enterprise-grade complexity.

How can businesses manage the complexity of enterprise sales with a focus on product and consumer delight? It takes a lot of intentional investment to scale with enterprise customers in addition to self-serve or SMB markets. However, ensuring you have the right frameworks and tools to allow more complex deployments to be managed at scale is critical here.

“It’s much easier to stick to an older business model and playbook—enterprise software companies have been doing it for decades. But that model will become increasingly outdated, irrelevant, and inefficient relative to a new product-led approach.”

While it’s tempting to take the easy route and focus on one over the other, mastering the product roadmap and customer delight metric alongside the focus on resources at the enterprise level is vital for success and continued growth.

 

Published on December 21, 2022

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