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Startup Bozeman - Insights from Jeff Trom, Co-Founder of Two $100m Software Companies

March 24, 2015View for printing

Last night, Startup Bozeman held its inaugural "Learn from the Masters" Speaker Event. Jeff Trom, CTO and Managing Director at Workiva https://www.workiva.com/, presented the first talk, Building A Development Organization.

By Will Price

Jeff's track record, technical co-founder of two $100m+ revenue companies, enables him to provide authentic, hard worn lessons to Bozeman's start-up community.

While HQ'd in Ames, IA, the development team, led by Jeff, is based here in Bozeman, MT. Today, Workiva employs ~800 people with 300 in development. Workiva, formerly Webfilings, is the market leader in automating SEC filings with 65% of the Fortune 100 as customers and over 2,000 total customers. Prior to Workiva, Jeff served as a co-founder of Engineering Automation (EAI), which provided simulation software and services to the aerospace and automotive industries.

Jeff's talk provided insight and guidance in both the business and technical aspects of building a company. His summary points follow:

Business

Focus

Relative to EAI, at Workiva, Jeff and the team decided to exclusively focus on a single pain point and customer problem. They started with a real problem, the painful, manual way in which corporate America filed SEC documents, and provided automation, workflow, and efficiency tools that transformed the process and integrity of the filed numbers. Solutions to real problems, notes Jeff, require less selling

SaaS

Again unlike EAI, which sold perpetual licenses, Workiva is a SAAS model with ~$100m+ in recurring annual revenue. The model compounds on itself and rather than start the year with 15% of last year's revenue, with 3% churn, Workiva starts the year with 97% of trailing revenue.

Pick a small market to dominate

The team focused and dominated SEC filings and are now well positioned to expand their product footprint, hence the name change, into their customer base.

Maintain a direct relationship with the customer

At EAI, major CAD system vendors controlled the accounts and EAI proved, fatally, to be at the mercy of their "partners." When the downturn hit, EAI was cut out from the dialogue, relegated to a tangential position, and, ultimately, paid the price for being dependent on a channel. Workiva is a direct to enterprise model.

Technical

Be agile

As with many leading companies, Workiva is an agile development company characterized by daily releases and the a tight feedback loop driven by users.

Build microservices vs monolithic applications

Workiva builds componentized software that allows for independent development teams aligned around a common product vision and integrated via APIs.

Ignore the competition

Jeff repeatedly stressed the importance of remaining focused on the customer's feedback and needs and NOT on the competition. He claims to have never seen a competitor's product:)

Push the technology envelope

Keep pace with the latest developments in software and technology. The best engineers and the best customers want to be on the cutting edge and the risk of trying unproven new technology is far less than the risk of stagnating and losing your market position and top developers.

Pay your technical debt

As you mature, spend time cleaning up and refactoring your product and code base. New features at Workiva have to fight hard to get into the product and the team's pay plenty of attention to legacy issues that will ultimately become boat anchors.

Close the Loop

Demand independent feedback every step of the way, keep yourself honest, and close the loop by integrating feedback into future product releases.

Embrace change

Jeff notes that in a start up things are always broken and always changing. Like a shark, a company not moving will die and there is a huge need to be comfortable with change. Jeff also highlighted that not everyone will survive each change or has the capacity to live in a perpetual state of flux.

Thanks to Jeff, we all left the inaugural talk full of valuable insights and ideas.


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