“It still amazes me that people don’t understand that just like a house, you build a technology business brick by brick.”

Lessons in Exiteering: The Qlik Story

“It still amazes me that people don’t understand that just like a house, you build a technology business brick by brick.”

Perhaps the best way to describe Qlik in one sentence comes from one of the company’s recent blog posts: “Qlik was modern BI… before modern BI”. The business was founded in Lund, Sweden, way back in 1993 – at the birth of the modern internet, and long before databases could be easily connected or SaaS models became commonplace.

Its product was QuikView, a desktop software tool which today would straddle Business Intelligence (BI) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), and for several years it was sold only in Sweden. The product development cycle was understandably long and revenues were minimal. But Qlik’s ace card was ‘In Memory Analytics’, a BI methodology to improve the speed and reliability of scenario planning which made the business analyses produced by BI much more valuable to customers.

Måns Hultman invested in Qlik in 2000 and stepped in as CEO, growing the business and refining the model until it was investor-ready. From 2004 to 2009 he also served as Chairman. In 2004, Qlik attracted a $12.5m round of funding led by Accel Partners (Sweden’s Industrifonden and Jerusalem Venture Partners also participated).

Not wanting to serve as CEO of a quoted company, Hultman stood down in 2007 (with his CFO taking the helm), just before an IPO slated for 2008. The financial crisis intervened, but Qlik Technologies continued to post exceptional growth into 2009. By the time of its IPO, now headquartered in the US, the business had grown to $200m having raised only $25m in capital along the journey.

Qlik finally went public on the NASDAQ in July 2010. It had expanded its portfolio of products to include the breadth of corporate analytics; including data visualisations. In its latest turn, the business went private again in June 2016 thanks to a $3bn acquisition by the Thoma Bravo private equity house, which specialises in enterprise software plays.

Hultman studied Economics at the University of Lund, Sweden. A management consultant, he has over 30 years’ experience in technology businesses and founded Sweden’s Sundet Investment AB in 1992. He sits on the boards of several businesses in executive and nonexecutive capacities, including Itslearning (one of the largest learning management systems in the world), Industrial and Financial Systems AB (ERP software) and Ikano (Real Estate, Retail & Financial Services conglomerate owned by the IKEA founders). In 2012 he cofounded Zobito, a growth capital firm “with a twist”, the twist being hands-on guidance and counsel. In Zobito’s words, “Ideas are King but Execution is King Kong”. He is also a Special Advisor to 83 North, formerly Greylock, the venture capital firm.

You have to narrow focus and learn fast.

"When I joined in 2000, the technology was all we were hoping for and more, but the business had been poorly run. I rationalised our sales activities – initially with no more than chance and a sense of curiosity – and narrowed our focus to 400 midsized Swedish manufacturing companies, for which the product was a good fit. That gave us a clear target group where we could generate repeated sales, speeding up the sales cycle and showing results. With that focus we managed to achieve a network effect so sales became easier and easier."

Everyone can be responsible for sales if they know what to aim for.

"We built a solid sales process based on this narrow market. When you define a market, you can learn how to attack it, because the nature of the customer is no longer so variable: it’s something predictable, and so you can refine your sales process.

"One of the big breakthroughs for us was discovering the compelling event in the process. For us, it was the moment when the customer saw their own data. They would immediately stop asking about the tool and start talking about their own business. Then it stopped being a discussion about our product and became one about where it could add value to the customer’s operations. We taught everyone in the company and every single new employee how to get a new customer to that compelling event. The sales process is not something you run with your teams to help them sell. It’s something you run with your customers, to help them buy. A “buying process” would be a far better definition. When we raised money in 2004, we built a spreadsheet that modelled the number of sales per salesperson. In 2007, we were no more than 10% off plan. So we had an entirely validated, repeatable sales model and buying process."

Never lose sight of your Spirit.

"The Accel funding kicked off a growth plan that had been ten years in the making. We were on track to double the size of the organisation, but I was worried about losing the essence of the business that had helped us survive and achieve success so far. So I started a project to capture the ‘Qliktech Spirit’ which was fully embedded in our performance culture.

"Visualise a road. In the distance is the lodestar that guides the way. Our lodestar was a four-word vision statement: “simplify decisions for everyone”. Simplification would apply not only to the product but also the whole customer experience. And decisions weren’t just for executives: we wanted to reach staff across our clients’ organisations, from the boardroom to the factory floor.

"On one side of the road are signposts with our shared values – the way we work with our customers and with each other. Ours were:

  • Challenge: set challenges, meet challenges, challenge decisions, always aim to exceed the status quo.
  • Take action: we empowered people to get things done fast, even if there would be a few mistakes along the way.
  • Transparency: be open and honest with each other. Sometimes it can be a little painful, but it will generate quicker results.
  • Responsibility: always take responsibility for what you do. If you make a mistake, you’ll be forgiven, but only if you take the responsibility to fix it.
  • Teamwork: work as a team to achieve results. Together we are stronger!

"On the other side of the road were our cornerstones; the sacred cows we won’t sacrifice:

  • Simplicity: in the product, in our processes, in our contracts and in the way we interact with customers and stakeholders.
  • Tangible results: we deliver tangible results to our customers; in fact, our customers should always get more value than we do. We had a simple mantra: we deliver in a quarter of the time, at half the price, and deliver twice the value of any of our competitors. Seeing is believing: instead of just making promises, show prospects what we can do for them.
  • Stick to the product: we are a software company, not a professional services company. If the client wants professional services, they can work with a partner.
  • Focus: we build our market brick by brick, and instead of spreading our resources too thinly, we focus on each brick until we are ready to move to the next one. It may look like a slower path to success, but it’s much faster. All of this can be expressed on less than a page of paper. When everyone is running as fast as possible towards growth, keeping sight of the goal is essential. When we scaled into the US from 2005, we made a lot of mistakes. It was only when we refocused on hiring to our core values that we broke America."

The big regret… "If we had moved earlier to a recurring revenue model, which we discussed in 2001, I think it would have added $3bn to the market capitalisation."

And the big take-away… "In the late 80s people thought sales was an art form; now they know it’s a science. Today, people have the same challenge with culture; a lot of people think building culture is an art form, but it’s very much a matter of setting goals and working methodically towards them."

This story was taken from Notion’s The Art of Exiteering Report

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