Q&A with Apsona about Salesforce Add-on Web Apps
Editor’s note: Self-funded Silicon Valley startup Apsona provides add-on Web applications for Salesforce.com and ecommerce, which simplify data import/export, filtering and reporting. In this interview, CEO M. A. Sridhar explains how companies benefit from Apsona products. He also shares experience for other startups in applying customer feedback to product development.
SandHill.com: When did you launch Apsona and what was the original business problem you were hoping to address?
M.A. Sridhar: We started in San Jose, Calif. in May 2008. The original idea was part research project, part pipe dream. We wanted to create a generic user interface for Web applications, one that would include all the features that a typical user would want: searching and filtering, data import/export and multi-table reporting. It would run in a Web browser and would use Web 2.0 techniques to be as quick and snappy as a desktop application. And it could be bolted onto any Web application so that even legacy Web app users could have all of these benefits available to them.
We created a prototype and successfully deployed it on four open-source shopping cart applications. We were surprised and delighted by the success of that attempt, so we started looking at other commercial applications and eventually targeted Salesforce.com in January 2011.
SandHill.com: Please describe your market.
M.A. Sridhar: Our first product is offered via Salesforce.com’s AppExchange marketplace. It has found very good adoption by Salesforce.com users that are small and medium-size companies or non-profit organizations.
Since then, we have created a few other applications. One is a browser-based reporting tool that offers many features lacking in native Salesforce reporting. Another is a data-migration tool from an older Windows-based CRM application to Salesforce.com, targeted at medium and large non-profit organizations.
SandHill.com: Besides Salesforce.com’s AppExchange marketplace, what methods have you used to market your products?
M.A. Sridhar: One strategy we have used very effectively to increase adoption and gain market presence is to donate free seats to non-profit organizations, which already receive donated licenses from Salesforce.com. These organizations typically do not have very many tech-savvy people on staff, so they greatly appreciate the ease of use and effectiveness of our products.
They in turn spread the word about us, and this has resulted in a very effective viral marketing process that we could not have paid for.
SandHill.com: How active have your customers been in providing feedback for improving your products?
M.A. Sridhar: Our customers and partners have been our primary sources of ideas for enhancements and new products. We routinely work with our customers via telephone or GotoMeeting. These sessions are invaluable; they help the customers solve their problems, and they help us gauge the usability and effectiveness of our products.
More recently, we have been setting up partnerships with consulting companies, and they have been a fount of ideas for building further value into our products. The two newer products we offer were created based on partners’ needs.
One key lesson we learned repeatedly was to be willing to change orientation according to user needs.
SandHill.com: Please describe one of those lessons and where it occurred in the time line of your product development.
M.A. Sridhar: Our initial focus was to create and offer a product on which clients could build their own Web applications with high functionality and a quick user interface. This turned out to be difficult, for many reasons: crowded marketplace, lack of sales channels, and so on. So we thought about retrofitting the user interface and spent a good bit of time finding communities where people who use specific Web applications congregate, where we could test our ideas.
We then converged on a few shopping cart applications, to which we ported our user interface layer. This effort turned out to be very popular but not financially viable. So we changed direction again. This time we focused on Salesforce.com. The results are very positive so far.
SandHill.com: Is there anything you would do differently if you could start all over again?
M.A. Sridhar: If I were to start over, I think I would try to gain a better understanding — or perhaps a clearer definition — of the customer segment to go after and the specific real-world problem that the proposed product or service would solve. At the time that we started this process, I heard this advice from several people: “Define your target clearly.” But I did not really understand what that meant, and I think I understand it better now.
SandHill.com: What challenges have you encountered that you didn’t anticipate?
M.A. Sridhar: We were quite surprised at the amount of support and hand-holding we had to provide to our users. Both of us co-founders were relatively inexperienced in this aspect. I was primarily a developer, and my partner was a marketing person.
We spent countless hours on the phone and in screen-sharing sessions with our customers, and we discovered that we were taking far too much for granted about how easy our product is to use. The user feedback proved invaluable, because we had to discard and redesign major components of our application to make it more accessible and easier to use.
SandHill.com: What non-software business or social leader has most influenced your approach to your personal life or your career?
M.A. Sridhar: I can’t say that there is one particular individual who has been most influential to me. But there are core values espoused by several of the great ones: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. For me, the main takeaway from learning about their lives is the focus on personal integrity and honesty, a spirit of trying to be useful to others, furthering others’ goals ahead of one’s own, and to the extent possible, creating things that others find useful.
At the level of our company, these values translate into being customer focused, making sure that their questions are quickly answered (so as not to impede them) and putting product value ahead of company revenue.
SandHill.com: From your observation or experience, what is the most challenging aspect of innovation, and how have you overcome that challenge at your company?
M.A. Sridhar: To me the most difficult aspect of innovation is defining the product focus and features such that they would appeal to users and be useful to them. One can always dream up ideas that one thinks might be useful, but worthwhile ideas are those that can be proven under the scrutiny of real-world situations and user feedback.
On the other hand, users often cannot tell you what they really want. When you ask them about their pain points, or what tasks are difficult for them, the answers you get will often seem to have no relevance to what you are doing. And that is entirely reasonable because the user is looking at the problem from their point of view, which can be quite far removed from a designer’s or engineer’s perspective.
So the difficulties lie in translating what the user says she needs into ideas and structures that are amenable to a design or a software implementation, to assess whether the attendant effort is worth the results, and to work it all into a reasonable road map.
SandHill.com: When you encounter challenges or setbacks, how do you pull yourself back up and become inspired again?
M.A. Sridhar: Setbacks are not at all infrequent; not everyone likes what we build, and so sometimes we are disappointed with outcomes. At such times, I try to remind myself of the core principle that drives this effort. We are in this game to build useful software, but we cannot control the outcome of our efforts. So I try to bring focus back to making the software better and more useful, without too much regard to particular outcomes.
SandHill.com: Who do you admire the most in the business world?
I think the answer to this would have to be Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s CEO. I have had my share of interactions with many other companies, and none come close to the level of openness that seems to pervade Salesforce’s general attitude toward their partners. Most of the people there seem to be very approachable and willing to help. When I have had problems of any kind, their case resolution system has been quite effective and quick at resolving them, which again goes back to their customer and partner focus.
And Salesforce’s AppExchange is an amazing ecosystem with such a wide variety of offerings. I can’t help but think that a lot of these come down to the kind of leadership that Mr. Benioff has provided. The lesson that repeats itself to me is that customer and partner focus is primary, and the company’s success is a by-product of that focus.
M.A. Sridhar: What do the next 12 months hold for your company?
SandHill.com: This is a very exciting time for us. The Salesforce.com ecosystem is exploding with activity, with lots of customer growth into many areas. And we are seeing the impact of that activity because of a great deal of interest from various quarters.
As we work with these customers and understand their pain points, we are also creating new products and enhancements to our existing products, mostly based on customer feedback. This customer focus of ours has been very well received so far, and we expect to at least double the revenue from last year.
Dr. M. A. Sridhar is CEO at Apsona. He has been studying computing for over 30 years. His initial focus was algorithm design; he later moved to programming languages and Web applications. He has published in international journals and written a book on C++ programming. He was a tenured faculty member in a major university and has consulted for AT&T, NCR, Hewlett-Packard, Robert Half International and Cisco, solving real-world problems in Web applications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor of SandHill.com.