Let’s say you’re a new company in the business-to-business technology sector. You’ve found some early success, but you’ve already called everyone you know, and you can’t quite afford to hire new salespeople to help you reach the next level. What to do?
Lifelong entrepreneur Steli Efti believes he has the answer: Alongside his partners at acclaimed micro-funding service SwipeGood, he founded Elastic Inc., a Silicon Valley-based startup offering what it calls "sales as a service." Working on commission, they assist other companies with both short- and long-term campaigns designed to build a predictable and scaleable sales process. And like any successful idea, this one came directly from personal experience.
Founded in 2010, SwipeGood raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity by enabling users to donate a portion of their credit card transactions, but after an initial wave of popularity, it started to become its own not-profitable entity. “It was just not sustainable from a financial point of view,” says Efti, a high-school dropout from Germany who founded his own financial consulting firm at 17. “We got to the point where we wanted to boost our sales force, and started brainstorming on what would be the sales force of the future. It’s a problem that every business is facing, and we realized that this was a huge opportunity to do something about it. We thought, 'Let’s not just fix this for us, let’s fix this for everybody.'”
Efti says the pivot from SwipeGood only took about three weeks, thanks in part to their decision to chuck the conventional startup process. Rather than spend hours in theoretical discussions and PowerPoint presentations, he and his partners--as well as two other entrepreneurs that were living in their office at the time--just started cold-calling people. They got instant feedback from strangers on what the market wanted, and within a week, Efti says, they had six potential customers. “We realized, Wow, we’re really on to something here,” he says. “But back then we didn’t have enough resources to take on six customers, so we just chose one.” The irony of this is not lost on him. “That’s the kind of situation you want to be in as a new business,” he laughs.
Nine months and 20 full-time employees later, here’s how Elastic works: Companies in need of a sales force approach Efti and his team, and the first step is a close analysis of what they’re selling. “We talk to you very extensively and try to figure out if we’re actually able to help you,” Efti says. “That means you’ve already built a product, you already have paying customers, and you’ve done the minimum homework of tapping into your network.” Step two is internal discussion, giving Elastic staffers the chance to decide whether or not they can sell it. “If we’re passionate about the company, it makes all the difference in the world,” Efti says. “It makes everyone more excited to come to work. Selfishly, we want everybody here to have a good life. That’s a really simple way to make sure that’s happening.”
If a business meets both criteria, the Elastic team starts the grunt work of experimenting with different sales models and determining the best course of action, then taking it to the streets. An in-house software platform built by Elastic engineers (a.k.a. “Hackers”) allows customers to track exactly how salespeople (a.k.a. “Hustlers”) are executing the plan. “This is a hybrid between technology and human resources,” Efti explains, and he says they chose the titles of “Hacker” and “Hustler” very consciously. “They project the kind of culture that we’re building,” he says. “We could have said ‘senior engineer’ or ‘senior sales rep,’ but changing the language actually does a lot. The people that are interested in being a Hustler at Elastic are the kind of people that are a little bit more fun. They’d rather be part of something great and help accomplish things beyond ego or resume building.”
And despite their success since the pivot--beyond the 20 in-house staffers, they’ve got 30 to 40 people working remotely, and a waiting list of customers that Efti estimates in the hundreds--Efti likes to joke that Elastic remains the best-kept secret in Silicon Valley. “Nobody knows that we’re driving a lot of the growth and expansion of these companies,” he says. “We’re very comfortable with that, to be honest. As long as we deliver massive value and growth to a lot of great companies, and we get our share of that value and growth, we’re building an amazing business. We’re happy with that.”