Editor’s note: If you follow George Mathew around, you’ll find yourself in the midst of fast-moving, disruptive enterprise software companies. Currently president and COO at Alteryx, a disrupter in the business analytics space, he has a wealth of experiential insights into leading with agility and yet strong direction. His experience started with Fort Point, a startup in the early days of ecommerce, moved to Salesforce.com where he was an early employee and then shifted to SAP Business Objects prior to Alteryx. This interview in SandHill’s series profiling leaders in the software industry is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about how to push a company forward.
You’ve been involved in some very fast-growing businesses in your career. What do you think is necessary in leadership traits or behaviors to avoid pitfalls in a fast-growing business?
George Mathew: The thing that I’ve learned along the way is that when you’re in fast-growth environments, it’s essential to be agile in how you make a decision or series of decisions and push your business forward. It’s important to first formulate the strategy and direction you’re taking a business unit or an overall company. A lot of times leaders go ahead and fire, thinking they can aim later. But I think that some level of a strategy up front is necessary.
You don’t build that strategy by hiring consultants coming up with a five-year plan. It’s largely based on a very concrete view in your mind of where the market is actually headed. That view is largely formulated by aspects such as what customers are saying, what prospects are doing and what employees know about customers they are working with. From that information you can quickly formulate a vision and a very strong direction.
Leaders need to listen a lot to the signals in the market. This is something that I’ve always believed in and something that I try to bring to the table in whatever problem I try to attack.
You mentioned getting a clear signal of the market. In Alteryx, for instance, would you look at what’s happening in software platforms, or analytic processes, new competitors, or what?
George Mathew: In terms of defining a strategy, I focus a lot of my attention on the user experience. I think it’s really interesting how fast-growing enterprise software companies in the analytics and BI space today such as Alteryx and Tableau are quite different from the traditional BI/ETL/data-warehousing market that emerged in the previous decade. Unlike today’s buyers, the buyers a decade ago were not one and the same as the users. Users were seldom involved in the decision making regarding the software they consumed. But consumerization of technology has shifted the buying decision to the line-of-business users.
My former company, Salesforce.com, was revolutionary even a decade ago by shifting toward a user-driven software experience instead of IT driven purchases. In today’s enterprise software market, it’s important to define a user experience that is 100 times better than the status quo. In its early days, Salesforce was adopted over CRM companies like Siebel largely because it became a very compelling experience for sales managers and for sales operations leaders — the user experience. Fast forward to today and you’re seeing Salesforce needing to shift even further because their user experience has shifted further to end users, which are the sales, services, and marketing folks.
Since you were at Salesforce in the early days when it jumped out as a leader in its market, what are the top three things you learned about leadership of a company that is quickly evolving?
George Mathew: I give a lot of credit to Marc Benioff in driving Salesforce and its market forward in those days. Marc did a brilliant job of doing two or three things really well. First, he had a personal vision for what Salesforce was going to be in the market long before anyone else understood it. That vision was something that he cast forward to his employees, his prospects and his customers. He defined a market through that focus.
The second thing that I always credit Salesforce for is creating a level of disruption in comparison to the status quo. A lot of people talk about Salesforce’s disruption being the SaaS model. But one of the biggest points around the Salesforce experience was that its deployment was literally 10 times faster than competitors. So implementation of Salesforce in those days was in a timeframe of one month to six weeks to get users on board and working with their core CRM processes. Compare that to the 14-month deployment of Siebel CRM, which was the leader in the marketplace at that time. That speed of deployment was one of the biggest things in Marc’s very succinct vision for Salesforce’s success.
Honestly, that’s not too dissimilar from the disruption that is happening today in the analytics market. Larger players in the analytics arena are too expensive and too slow for end-user expectations. That’s when companies like Alteryx sweep in and fill in the gap very quickly. It’s the same paradigm with accelerated deployment time that we saw a decade ago with Siebel and Salesforce — 84 percent of our customers build their first analytic app within one week of using Alteryx and 26 percent within the first four hours.
I credit Marc Benioff’s leadership with that clear vision of making the deployment and user experience seamless and far better than the status quo.
How important is it that employees really trust the leader as opposed to just following the leader? And how do you build trust?
George Mathew: I think there is nothing more important for a leader than the mutual trust with your employees. You can’t build a company without employees believing in what you’re doing.
I segment a company’s growth in three phases: (1) growing from no revenue to the first few million dollars, (2) growing from the first few million dollars to a sustainable point where you have velocity ($20-30 million), and (3) growing to $100+ million. Employee trust is important at each of those points but especially in the first phase. My advice to entrepreneurs: Especially in the first phase of growth, you better absolutely know every single person and inherently believe that they would fall on a sword for everything that happens while your organization is finding its product market fit. Trust has to be ingrained into whomever the initial three to six employees that are often known as “founders.”
In the second growth phase, the leader’s ethics, vision for where the company and market are headed, and belief in defining or disrupting a market need to extend past the folks that are in your direct line of sight to the next level below. That is a hard transition because you need to rely on that level of leadership around you to also instill trust in the folks that are reporting to them.
This is a critical moment for leaders when a company is trying to create scale. It’s something that we think deeply about every day at Alteryx because we’re in that growth phase right now.
Over time as the company reaches escape velocity and gets to a size where momentum drives the direction, trust circles back to the leader’s original vision for the company to determine whether that vision needs to be redefined.
As a leader, I’ve seen all three of those phases. And in all those points the leadership has to define a very clear vision to step forward and build a level of trust in the employee base. It’s absolutely essential.
How do you as a leader deal with the threat of a competitor’s disruptive technology?
George Mathew: I look at a lot of the emerging things that occur in newly funded startups and interesting projects coming from the academic community, which are relevant to the markets that I serve. If you don’t do that as a leader, you could be caught flat-footed very easily. You can’t forget that two guys in a garage might disrupt your company in a few years.
We’re at a point with technology cycles where it no longer takes a decade or two for market disruption. In enterprise software, there can be a whole new level of playing field in just three to five years in any market. Any healthy market will have completely new entrants that won’t be visibly seen in the market for three years.
Besides Marc Benioff, is there anyone else that you really admire as a leader?
George Mathew: Marc Andreessen is one of the people I’ve been following particularly through the last five or six years or so. I find him interesting because he has reinvented himself at least three times.
The first time was as a graduate student who invented a new way of consuming the Internet, which was NCSA Mosaic, the world’s first Web browser upon which he founded Netscape, which served as the foundation for the Internet economy. The second time was when he created Loudcloud and raised a fair degree of capital and then went through a very dramatic hard pivot to shift himself into software around managed IT infrastructure. That’s how he and Ben Horowitz created Opsware. Those guys went through some really serious struggles to get themselves to an eventual successful outcome with HP’s acquisition of Opsware.
For Marc’s third act, he is completely disrupting the venture capital industry. He took all of his experiences and frustration he had with building companies and realized there was a better way to do it. He invests in companies with a huge portfolio operations team and managing partners that help entrepreneurs create scale for themselves like they’ve never been able to do in the past.
I’m inspired by Marc Andreessen as a leader. He acts with a clear vision to visibly disrupt at least three industries so far.
From personal experience or from observing others, what do you think are the most challenging aspects of leadership in the software industry today?
George Mathew: I think the challenge is that technology markets shift at an unbelievably fast pace. One great example of this is what it really takes to start a software company today versus what it did when I graduated from college in 1995. If I were to start a company today, all of the necessary infrastructure resources are not only rentable in the cloud but are also 20-25 times cheaper than ten or 15 years ago.
Entrepreneurs don’t need $10 million to start a company today. They can successfully develop a set of criteria for product/market fit and build compelling B2B or B2C software experiences with only a few hundred thousand dollars before needing to raise any sort of real capital.
This is driving a whole different level of agility in how you have to lead a company forward. I think it’s kind of crazy and, frankly, exciting, especially in the enterprise software space. It’s more challenging because of the increased number of entrants since the barrier to entry is lower. So there are more participants that could enter an existing market and create disruption and/or fragmentation.
It also makes it more difficult to differentiate your company. Suddenly you have five or 10 competitors today when a decade ago it was hard to find one or two distinct competitors at an early stage in a company’s maturity.
The analytics space is definitely changing quickly based on user experience. So you and Alteryx are in a market where your customers’ requirements are rapidly changing. What impact does that have on your leadership?
George Mathew: I would highlight two things. I started to see cracks in the armor of the big business intelligence vendors (e.g., IBM, Oracle, SAP, MicroStrategy) a few years ago because of the rise of do-it-yourself, end-user-driven BI from QlikTech and Tableau. Then Tableau redefined that market — as Salesforce did in the CRM market — with a clear vision for faster deployment time and a tremendous user experience in comparison to the status quo of the stodgy BI market.
From that disruption in the BI market, I saw the opportunity at Alteryx to create a similar disruption by going after the leaders in the analytics space, improving the deployment time and treating user experience as paramount. That drives the decisions forward in our company’s leadership team and for me personally.
Companies like Alteryx are creating an enormous amount of space and opportunities in analytics by disrupting this status quo. But my viewpoint is that we’re just in the third or fourth inning of this ball game and have quite a few more innings of opportunities to drive a stronger user experience. I’m excited to be a leader in the analytics renaissance that is underway.
George Mathew is president and COO of Alteryx, where he oversees marketing, products, development, and strategy for the company. George joined Alteryx, bringing over 18 years of executive leadership experience in enterprise technology, software-as-a-service, and ecommerce. Most recently, George was the group vice-president & general manager for Business Intelligence (BI) at SAP BusinessObjects, the fastest growing business in SAP’s diverse portfolio. Follow George at @gkm1.
Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor of SandHill.com.