[Interview] Lessons Learned from Selling a $360 Million AppExchange Company

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With endless opportunities to explore, experiment, and create in the Salesforce space, a convincing argument can be made that we’re working in a “golden age” of entrepreneurship in tech. 

As the brains and energy behind startups, Prodly (next-gen DevOps solution) and SteelBrick (CPQ), Max Rudman has invaluable experience in cultivating and productizing business ideas. Salesforce Ben’s, Ben McCarthy, spoke with Max to help shine a light on the challenging but rewarding road towards becoming an entrepreneur.

The Journey to Entrepreneurship

Ben: Max, please tell us about yourself and your journey.

Max: Right now I’m the CEO of Prodly, my second company. My claim to fame in this world – so far anyway – is that I was the founder of a company called SteelBrick, which built a native “configure price quote” (CPQ) solution on the Salesforce platform. That business is now called Revenue Cloud, which is CPQ and Billing – a fairly sizable business at Salesforce. 

Ben: I was listening to a podcast, and you were speaking about a time before you founded SteelBrick. You were thinking about a lot of ideas – CPQ was one of them. You also mentioned a survey and a lead tool you would describe as what turned into marketing automation. Considering this was quite early in your career, where were these ideas coming from?

Max: Honestly all of those ideas, I just kind of stumbled on them through consulting. I was still in college. I got hooked up with an ad agency. This was the mid-late 90s, just when the web was taking off. I was doing technical programming for the web. Back then you didn’t have all the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) tools – you had to go in and program HTML from scratch. 

I was the technical guy for an ad agency, so I got exposed to that business. The guys I worked with ended up starting their own agency and they used me as their “database guy”, as they called it. They had me build a couple of surveys and lead scoring. So that’s where I got the ideas for surveys and what is now known as the marketing automation category. 

Of course, I was young and green back then. The ideas turned out to be pretty good categories. I’m sure you’ve all seen that SurveyMonkey, which is the leader in the space, got acquired for a few billion dollars by Zendesk. Then there was marketing automation that produced massively big companies – Marketo, Hubspot, and Pardot, which we happen to use at Prodly. They became good, big categories, but I didn’t know how to execute them back then. 

I fell into CPQ in the same way. I was hired to build a quoting app by a Salesforce consulting partner back in 2006. They were implementing Salesforce for a client who wanted to quote functionality. This was way before Salesforce had the quote object or any sort of quoting functionality, let alone CPQ. So I was brought in to do that, and I’m like: This feels like something everybody would need. And the rest is history, as they say.

Ben: So, it was as simple as really paying attention to the custom things you were implementing and which things weren’t productized yet.

Max: Yeah, I’ve actually done quite a bit of service. As I was bootstrapping SteelBrick that’s how I financed the company before we raised outside venture capital. I think it’s a great way to find problems, especially if you work for a big company. It’s amazing how many processes, how much manual work, how much spreadsheeting, is still around even today. I read somewhere that every SaaS company started as a spreadsheet in a big company somewhere. I think it’s probably true. 

Ben: I can see a lot of comparisons in the Salesforce world. There’s Doc Gen, Project Management, Lead Assignment – all processes that would have to be manually coded before companies brought out apps such as Conga, TaskRay, and Distribution Engine.

Deciding Which Business Ideas to Pursue

Ben: Drawing on your experience from SteelBrick, once you had a decent business idea, what were the first things you looked at – maybe the first metrics? Was there anything you researched that made you decide you wanted to go down this path and put a lot of energy and time into the idea?

Max: I wish I had a great answer for that, to give you some methodology for validating business ideas, but I don’t. That’s sort of my problem. I’m probably like a bad angel investor – I tend to get excited about everything. This sounds like an awesome idea! It’s not like I didn’t do any research for either SteelBrick or Prodly, but I relied more on my firsthand experience and applying common sense.

This feels like a problem – I don’t know how big, and I don’t know exactly what the ultimate solution looks like, but we’ll figure it out.

I do think there’s a lot of that in a startup. You can do all the research you want, but the best-laid plans go astray. Obviously, you want to give it some thought, especially if you plan to raise venture capital from the beginning. You want to make sure it’s a big category and you can support the rapid growth and a big exit the institutional investors expect. 

With SteelBrick, I guess I started thinking, hey these guys have a quoting problem. Salesforce has over one hundred thousand customers – they can’t be the only ones. And I was still building what they call a lifestyle business at the time. Only later did I realize this was actually really big. And I think the same way with Prodly – we started solving this very specific problem, but now we realize that making DevOps easy for Salesforce admins is actually a really big problem.

Ben: Kind of a side question here, but do you think that being a developer made things easier when you were first building SteelBrick? I’m not a developer, so if I ever think of a great business idea, I’m going to need to go out there and find a cofounder or pay someone a lot of money to build this thing. 

Max: Absolutely. Frankly, I think that’s what enabled me to do what I just said – go and just try it. I don’t need to build a business case, and plan and raise funding so I can hire engineers to build a product or recruit a cofounder – I can just go and do it. 

I think that definitely does help. And I think, certainly in this day and age, if you look at all the tools available, you have Amazon or Google Cloud – all the infrastructure is in the cloud – and you don’t need to buy servers. You can outsource just about everything at this point – accounting, programming even. 

We looked at a service the other day – they were offering programmers on demand – submit us your task, and we’ll price it out in credits and spit out the code. Even building products is so much easier. The point I’m making – the capital requirements, the barriers to entry, are virtually non-existent now.

So I think this is the best time, certainly I can think of, in the history of mankind to start a technology business. 

Ben: That is very encouraging. It would be good to hear how you came across the Salesforce ecosystem. Was SteelBrick a bit of a pivot? I think you founded SteelBrick before you started with Salesforce?

Max: Totally. SteelBrick was actually founded in 2002. I thrashed around looking for things to do, and like I said, I tried surveys, lead scoring, all these different things. I worked on some mobile apps back in the early days before the iPhone, doing SMS and interactions with a phone. I still honestly don’t know how it happened, but this guy who ran a Salesforce consulting firm got my name somehow and reached out – hey, we have this project, this quoting app. Do you want to help me build it?

So I got in there and figured it out – we were in Salesforce on the fly, before Apex, before Visualforce, or anything like that. They had this S-control technology back then, which was how you customized Salesforce, so I had to learn everything on the fly. But it was fun, and I really fell in love with the inklings of the platform at that time, so I decided to stick around.

Current Opportunities for Entrepreneurs in Salesforce

Ben: SteelBrick was a massive success, but how do you view the Salesforce ecosystem and the opportunities for entrepreneurs? Has this changed over the years? We’ve just talked about there being “no better time to build an app”, but how do you view the opportunity for professionals at the moment?

Max: It’s an interesting question. I’ll start by saying, I think the Salesforce ecosystem is just fantastic. It’s really high energy, and it’s the classic example of “success breeds success” – the virtuous cycle of the platform itself doing really well, and all this opportunity being created around it. 

When I say opportunity, I don’t just mean the opportunity to form companies – it’s all across. Salesforce talks about trailblazers and the Salesforce economy and giving opportunities to lots of people from different walks of life to start a new career and pick up new, in-demand skills. I think all of that is true, and if you look at it from that perspective, the career opportunity has never been better – it’s just so massive now. Salesforce commissions the Salesforce economy reports every few years – we actually used it in our investor deck to raise our Series A. The Salesforce economy will grow to 1.2 trillion dollars in a few years, so the opportunity is massive.

As far as starting companies go, I think it’s probably a bit of a mixed bag. In some ways, it was a lot easier when I started just because there was very little competition, and now the Salesforce ecosystem is very crowded. Salesforce has grown quite a bit; it’s got its fingers in a lot of pies and a lot of categories. From that standpoint, I think maybe it’s got a little bit harder. 

I do think there are lots of opportunities, and depending on what kind of business you want to start, particularly if you’re not looking to start a venture-funded business. If you’re looking to start a business, I think there’s a lot of opportunity in the Salesforce ecosystem – a lot of markets that are unserved by Salesforce or the big app partners. 

Ben: Years after bootstrapping SteelBrick, you decided to bring on outside investment, as well as Godard Abel, to take it to the next level. I know he wasn’t really a cofounder, but I think you said in the podcast you enjoyed him coming on board because he had so much experience. What would you say to entrepreneurs thinking about going for funding? When should you potentially do that and when shouldn’t you do that?

Max: There are lots of layers to that question. Godard wasn’t just funding and that was kind of the point. Essentially I did bring on a cofounder many years later. I sort of built the app – all my companies seem to not have a straight line from start to finish. So I built this quoting app and productized it. And then it sat on the shelf for a few years while I went off and did services on the Salesforce platform. Then I came back in late 2009, and Godard came in 2014. So there were about five years in between when I really bootstrapped the company and got it from zero to a million and a quarter in ARR and 125 happy customers. 

It was hard, I’ll be honest. I was the only investor, I owned 100% of the stock. I was the boss. It was a very small team. I pretty much built the product myself. For the first few years, it was just me. I was building it. I was marketing it. I was servicing it. I was implementing it. So, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into it. It was hard to let go and bring in an outsider. I decided to do that, and I think it was a brilliant move, even though it was hard, because that allowed me to capitalize on this massive opportunity.

When I started SteelBrick, it was a sort of a lifestyle business. We were charging 19 dollars a user back then. Salesforce charges 150 now, by the way I was like, oh great – I get 1000 users, that’s $19K a month. I’ll be living like a king. So it took a while to realize it’s a massive opportunity, this whole CPQ thing. 

This was around the time Apttus raised their Series A – $40 million or something. So I felt like this was the moment when I had to decide: do I continue on this path of a lifestyle business? Or do I go away and raise capital to make a play for it? We had a much better product, I knew that. But with enough capital and time, everybody was going to catch up. Our advantage wouldn’t last long.

What really was attractive about Godard was that he came with initial capital, and we raised a lot more from venture funds later on. More importantly, he came with experience and a ready-to-go team. BigMachines probably had 500 people before they sold to Oracle, and Godard recruited the crème de la crème to SteelBrick, and that was the perfect storm: same category, same team, better product, lots of funding. That’s what enabled us to go from a million to $15 million in ARR in basically two years. 

And so, to answer the second part of the question, should you do it? It depends because raising outside capital from investors enables you to go a lot faster and makes things a lot easier in a lot of ways. But it also constrains you in a lot of ways, because your investors will want an exit, so with the funding comes a certain expectation and growth profile. 

It could even limit your exit options depending on how much capital you raise, valuations, and the perverse logic of VCs, who may prefer to go for the big exit – even if it means incurring some losses on the way or driving some companies into oblivion. 

And to be clear, I am not saying a VC fund would rather you go bust than sell for a low valuation. What I meant is that, because of the Power Law distribution of their returns, they are incentivized to push portfolio companies to grow faster to be that higher multiple returns, even at the risk of the business failing – to swing for the fences as they say. So it’s a big decision. 

I think venture capital is not for everyone. It’s perfectly acceptable, and there are lots of examples where people build successful businesses with no outside funding and certainly no venture capital funding.

Ben: For people thinking about bringing on a co-founder, do you reflect back to when you first started SteelBrick – do you wish you’d brought on a cofounder to help in some areas, or were you quite happy by yourself and the way things transpired?

Max: I’m happy with the way things transpired. It’s a little hard to say. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in those five years when I was building the product and doing everything myself. I remember when my wife went into labour when we had our first child. I was on a phone call selling a product. I gotta finish the call, and we’ll go to the hospital! There was a lot of that – pretty much, that was my life. I didn’t take any vacations. I was working day and night. From that perspective, I guess I wish sometimes I had some help. But there’s also a lot of risks that comes from picking the right or the wrong cofounder – probably the most damaging thing one can do to a startup. 

I was reading a Jason Lemkin article on that – he talks about the things that you think will screw up a startup and the things that really do. And number two is picking the wrong cofounder. I haven’t had that experience myself, but I can see how it would be true. But if it’s a great cofounder, I can see how it could be helpful. Of course, when it came to exit, I was glad I didn’t have one per se. I owned 100% of the stock, so the rewards were all mine.

The Evolution of Prodly: DevOps vs AppOps

Ben: Currently you are CEO of Prodly. Congratulations on $10M Series A. Can you tell us a little about what you’re doing over at Prodly?

Max: I have this running joke which gets at least a smile from most people. I say that with my second company I’m solving the problem I created with my first. What I mean is, the big innovation of SteelBrick wasn’t actually CPQ – CPQ, as a category, had existed for many years, in fact, decades. The big idea, the big breakthrough, was making CPQ low code, making it declaratively configured, as opposed to programmatically customized. As part of doing this, we’ve taken a lot of the config from code (which is metadata on the Salesforce platform) to record-based, data-based configuration. 

That created the immediate problem that we experienced at SteelBrick, which gave us the idea for Prodly. It literally took our best, most experienced solution architect a whole weekend to manually deploy the entire CPQ config, the entire CPQ project from sandbox to production to go live. Even back then there were dozens of different objects, dozens of different tables, just for the configuration part of the data model. Between them there were hundreds of relationships. Exporting and importing them one by one manually, and rebuilding the ID relationships is what took the entire weekend.

But of course, now our vision is bigger and emblematic of the much bigger problem that exists – it’s only growing bigger as the low code revolution takes hold, as more and more low code applications and platforms become the norm. And with the corresponding rise in the “citizen developer” (or “declarative admin”), who is the primary manager of these applications, this problem is only going to grow bigger. The declarative admin needs the tools to manage these low code applications and the declarative config that’s at the heart of them. And that’s what we’re building at Prodly – we’re building a DevOps platform for low code applications. 

Ben: As I understand it, Prodly is defining a new category, AppOps. We’ve been hearing a lot about DevOps this year, especially with all the money flowing in and the company growing massively. So how does AppOps differ from DevOps? 

Max: I think we’re still figuring out whether it’s a new category or it’s the next generation of DevOps. AppOps is short for application operations just like DevOps is short for developer operations. It’s this idea of the “citizen developer” (as opposed to the professional developer) managing declarative configuration (clicks) as opposed to imperative configuration (code). The premise, broadly, and the reason why we’re building this next generation – DevOps or AppOps – is that the declarative admin needs their own set of tools to do their work. DevOps was built for developers and code, and it doesn’t work, at least not for this new class of declarative admin. That’s the difference.

Ben: Does that mean that a company would use either AppOps or DevOps, or would it be normal for them to use both?

Max: Yeah, they could use both. I think it depends a little bit on the company. It’s “low code”, not “no-code” for a reason. The reality is, and we acknowledge it, most large enterprises do and will continue to have some customization. I think what you’re going to see is the ratios flip, just like in CPQ. SteelBrick is not “no code”. There are lots of customers who have customized with code. But on average, in general, whereas before SteelBrick, with the legacy solutions you would do 30% config and 70% code – somewhere in that neighbourhood. With SteelBrick we flipped it around – it was 70% config and 30% code. I think you’re going to see the same thing play out with DevOps. We are already seeing it play out in Salesforce in general.

So, depending on your specific company and how heavily customized your Salesforce and your other SaaS applications are, you may have a stronger or a weaker need for legacy DevOps. But, in general, we do see it as coexisting with the legacy DevOps solutions. They are a great tool for developers writing code, and we are the tool for declarative admins writing config.

Ben: How do you see AppOps and DevOps developing in the future? Do you see most Salesforce orgs implementing either an AppOps or DevOps solution, or do you think it completely depends on the number of deployments they are doing?

Max: We would hope that it’s mostly AppOps. The business value of what we call “unblocking IT” – of shifting the responsibility of maintenance of these critical business applications away from expensive, scarce developers, into less technical but more abundant admins and ultimately business users – it’s just so massive and this is what’s fuelling the low code revolution. This is why Salesforce has been so successful in a lot of ways. This is why you see other low code platforms popping up. 

I read somewhere that Gartner is projecting this low code platform market to grow at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 25%. It’s already a multi-billion dollar market, growing very fast. Everybody is going for these digital transformation projects that Salesforce talks a lot about. What’s one of the most critical components of a digital transformation? It’s business agility. If you can’t change your systems fast enough, how agile can one become? Not very. 

So, that’s the fundamental factor that’s driving a lot of demand and a lot of customers to adopt an AppOps-like solution. It doesn’t mean that there’s no place for legacy DevOps. There’ll be customizations – some customers will have very low, some will have a lot. Depending on the profile, you could be inclining towards DevOps or you could be on an AppOpps solution.

We believe the majority of the market will want to adopt low code because they’ll want to maintain their business agility. When they do, we’ll be there to provide the tool to manage all that config with.

Motivations of an Entrepreneur

Ben: What keeps you motivated and focused each day? Any routines, habits, and hobbies that keep you on track? 

Max: I wish I had some amazing story like I run marathons or something, but I don’t. I started the habit of doing these 45-minute hikes around the area where I live. So that actually has been surprisingly beneficial in terms of just clearing my head. I have lots of good ideas as I hike. The problem is, I can’t write them down so I have to rely on my memory. But I do it every day so I have an opportunity to revisit them – give the ideas time to gestate.

Ben: What system do you use for keeping track of tasks?

Max: Recently my productivity hack is, I started using this email client called Superhuman, which I love. I love the company, I love the founder – I haven’t met him, but he sends out these newsletters on, not only the features and the product, but also the productivity. He talks about the different hacks, and I really enjoy reading his newsletters.

We started using a platform called Wrike for our task management, so we have lots of different mechanisms we use both for personal and the company’s productivity. That’s the fun part of the job – this continuous evolution, we’re continually tweaking and evolving our processes. We fiddle together and come up with the operating system for the company. That’s the stuff I enjoy doing given my engineering background. 

Ben: Do you have any specific advice or words of wisdom for budding entrepreneurs looking to start a business in Salesforce?

Max: My general advice is: don’t fear it. Entrepreneurship is exciting and there are lots of different ways to build a business. I think there’s a bit of over glorification going on at the moment in the media. You read about these massive fundraising rounds. That’s fine but that’s not what it’s about. I know the general rule states that anyone can become an entrepreneur. But in my experience, I actually don’t agree with that – I don’t think everybody can, and not everybody should. 

There are lots of people that are not really cut out for it, so I guess my advice is, figure out if you’re really up for it. But give it a shot. The barriers to entry are so low now and therefore the risk is so low. You can try working on something in your spare time. Try it for a while and see how you like it. But just do it.

And you may find that you love it, you may find that you hate it. But at least you won’t have regrets and what ifs. 

Ben: I agree, it’s not for everyone. But at least it’s fairly low risk in the Salesforce ecosystem to go ahead and try something. And if you don’t find it fun, that’s fine, you can go get another job. 

Max: Especially a services company. An entrepreneur doesn’t have to be an ISV – you can start a services company. The probability of success is extremely high. Will you be the next Accenture? I don’t know. But you can certainly make a very nice living being a consultant in the Salesforce ecosystem.

Ben: Max, thanks so much for joining us today. It was a pleasure speaking to you and I’m sure our audience will get a huge amount from your story and lessons learned over the years.

Summary

Thanks to Max Rudman for sharing his insights into the world of entrepreneurship. It’s encouraging to hear from an innovator who has walked the entrepreneurial path more than once – especially when there is “no better time” to experiment with business ideas in a low-risk space like Salesforce.  

Max’s own journey, which began in the ‘90s, is unique to the tech landscape he has worked and evolved in. However, the values and attitudes required to transform ideas into successful businesses can be applied universally – as well as a great idea, you’ll need dedication, perseverance, and a healthy dose of fearlessness.  

While you’re pondering your own path towards becoming (or supporting) an entrepreneur, you can read up on Prodly’s declarative admin-friendly platform, AppOps.

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