Presales—known by a variety of different titles, such as Sales Engineering, Solution Consulting, etc.—is a crucial, but often overlooked function in enterprise companies. There is an outdated perception that presales is the “demo team”, yet over 30,000 companies around the world employ presales professionals to support sales in closing business via their technical expertise. In fact, Harvard Business Review recently found companies with strong presales capabilities consistently achieve win rates of 40-50% in new business and 80-90% in renewal business.
Despite the data that points to the benefits of strong presales support, there’s a surprising lack of technology built for this crucial business function. Matt Darrow and John Bruce, two of Vivun's co-founders, felt this pain personally as they were building the presales organizations at their prior companies, Zuora (now NYSE: ZUO) and SignalFx (now Splunk). Frustrated by the lack of tools designed specifically for presales, they recognized there was an untapped market with a significant opportunity at hand. While armed with deep domain and engineering expertise, Matt and John understood getting a company off the ground would take more than a great product. They would need to tackle sales, operations, and making customers successful. To pull this off, they had to look no further than their partners, Dominique Darrow, who built and ran the global customer success and support teams across various products at Google, and Claire Bruce, an IP litigation specialist and prior general counsel for a large multinational footwear and apparel company. Together, they founded Vivun, the first platform designed specifically for presales. Vivun enables presales teams to scale their organizations, distribute insights across their companies, and drive alignment between sales and product management. Founded in 2018, the company has quickly added fast growing startups like Harness, pre-IPO unicorns like Seismic, and billion-dollar publicly traded enterprises to its list of customers.
We recently sat down with Matt, John, Dominique, and Claire to talk about their vision for Vivun, what it's like to start a company with your spouse, their advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, and more.
Unusual: Can you give us a little background on yourselves?
Matt: I studied mechanical engineering at Berkeley and went on to get my Master’s at UCLA. While conducting research and writing software that simulated the heat distribution across server racks, I thought, “This isn’t for me.” From there, I decided to focus more on business and joined Deloitte as a technology consultant. I really enjoyed understanding how technology could be used to change the way companies operate and sought ways to move from the delivery side to the front end of the process. That desire led me to my first job as a sales engineer at BigMachines, which was Godard Abel’s company (one of Vivun’s initial investors) over 10 years ago. At the time I wasn’t quite sure what a sales engineer was, but being the technical expert coupled with a company's strategic advisor was an alluring role. During my time at BigMachines, I witnessed more and more companies struggling with new, subscription-based pricing models. That experience led me to Zuora, the emerging platform to run a subscription company, which would become the dominant business model of our time. From Zuora’s Series B to IPO, I built out the global presales organization and then went into product management, running two of their four product lines. I knew I always wanted to start a company one day and after Zuora’s IPO, I had some time to step back, refresh, think about a big challenge I personally experienced, and recruit an amazing founding team to make it happen.
Claire: I studied Biology at UC San Diego and then attended Law School at Santa Clara University because of their robust Intellectual Property program. Initially, I thought I wanted to specialize in patent prosecution, but it turns out that was a little dry for me! Expanding my focus to IP generally allowed me to work on a variety of matters with a diverse portfolio of clients. Immediately out of law school I lead discovery efforts on major IP litigation cases. While I found litigation invigorating, I knew that I wanted to work directly with a company in-house to make a greater impact. For the last seven years, I was General Counsel for a multinational company, handling all facets of their legal work. I helped Vivun with their legal matters when the team first began building the company, and as the volume of customers quickly increased, taking over the operational matters was a natural progression.
After pursuing a degree in computer science at UC Irvine, I immediately dove into software engineering at Broadcom working on their Peoplesoft ERP platform, followed by Panasonic Avionics where I helped prototype next generation in-flight entertainment systems. Neither of these roles really seemed to fit, but I eventually managed to join Pandora (now Sirius) as one of their first 10 software engineers. I was able to couple my love of music with my career, move back to the bay area and tackle some really cool problems with an amazing team. But something still wasn’t quite right. I had, for all intents and purposes, my dream job, but still felt like my calling might be elsewhere. So I started looking for a role that would allow me to stay technical and get closer to customers at the same time. This search culminated in joining FreeWheel Media (now Comcast), a video advertising platform, as their first Sales Engineer. The second step on my Sales Engineering journey was Zuora (NYSE: ZUO) where I first crossed paths with my co-founder Matt. Together we led different parts of the presales organization, and the challenges we faced together planted the seeds for what Vivun would ultimately become. I eventually joined SignalFx (now Splunk) and led Presales, Customer Success, Customer Support, Professional Services, and Training from Series A to the acquisition by Splunk. Matt and I reconnected when he asked me to test an early prototype of Vivun with the SignalFx team. When I saw, first hand, the impact the product could have on a Presales team, it was a no-brainer for me to join Vivun.
Dominique: I studied economics at the University of California, Berkeley, which led me to my first career in finance. Straight out of college I was lucky enough to work with some amazing people at an ultra-high net worth brokerage firm and then at Standard & Poor’s before realizing the finance industry wasn’t for me. I landed my first job in tech at Wildfire, a social media marketing startup on the peninsula. The company’s tight knit culture and creative drive on it’s growth journey was inspiring to say the least and I never looked back. I then landed at Google for 5+ years, where I worked on multiple products and built out their customer success teams. When Matt shared the idea for Vivun, it just felt right to pivot back into a smaller company where I would have the opportunity to build a team and culture from the ground up.
Unusual: You all have different areas of expertise. How has that helped as you’ve gotten Vivun off the ground?
Claire: I consider us to be a puzzle with all the right pieces. We’ve struck a balance that is so unique. Matt and John have 20+ years of experience in product and engineering and have such an innate understanding of the presales function. John is incredibly forward thinking and Dominique knows how to work with customers so well. I handle all the operational day-to-day gritty things and ensure we are in the best possible place from a legal perspective for future investments and data privacy.
Matt: There was no accident in terms of the team we’ve assembled, which allowed us to bootstrap the company for the first 12 months. We didn’t take the strategy of one person coming in with a deck and idea, raising a bunch of money, and then trying to build the core team. We wanted to build the team first and then prove we could execute. This team has the expertise to handle everything from corporate compliance, customer contracts, building and shipping the right products, closing business, and making those customers successful after we onboard them. The core team was able to achieve all of this before we ever raised capital.
Unusual: You are unique in that there are two married couples as part of the founding team. What kind of reaction do you typically get and how do you balance the professional with the personal?
Claire: The response nearly 100% of the time from people is that they don’t think they could ever work with their spouse! In contrast, we’ve found there’s no one else we would want to work with. Founding Vivun has given us the incredible opportunity to work side-by-side with the people we respect most. We have a kind of counterbalance, not only between the four of us, but the couples as well. For example, John is data-driven and I am skilled at consensus building. We’ve been able to work with each other to bring out each other’s strengths.
John: I think if our skill sets had overlapped more, it may have been harder. But again, coming back to the way that the team is structured, we don’t step on each other’s toes. We have definitely received questions about the team itself, but the proof is in what we’ve been able to execute on and achieve. Additionally, all of our eggs are in one basket, which answers the commitment question: we are all in and very, very invested in making this work.
Dominique: Reactions have varied from delighted surprise to disbelief, which is expected since our founding structure isn’t common. When you’re building a company, and a team in general, trust is super important, which makes this partnership ideal.
Unusual: Can you tell me more about Vivun’s mission and vision?
Matt: We’ve built the very first platform for presales, which is normally the second largest department in the enterprise behind sales. Other names for roles within this department include sales engineers, solution consultants, technical architects, solution advisors, and more. These professionals are the folks who are experts in technology and simultaneously support closing business. John and I intimately lived in this space for decades, with 20+ years of experience between us. Like our beginnings, most people stumble into presales and say, “I didn’t even know this was a thing.” Not only is it a thing, but the presales function is critical for technology companies. This function helps customers understand the technology, helps product managers prioritize roadmaps, helps business scale with efficiency, and helps salespeople figure out the best deals to pursue in their pipeline. Yet, there’s no technology available to enable presales to scale their operations, distribute their insights across the company, and ultimately, become a strategic business unit and not just the demo team. These are all experiences John and I lived firsthand. We came up with the idea for Vivun while at Zuora and felt we needed to make it a real platform, so every company with presales could capitalize on its value. We’re currently laser focused on presales because it’s a huge market opportunity in its own regard; however, presales is just step one towards our larger goal. From an expertise point of view, presales team members are half product manager (PM) and half sales rep (AE). The normal DNA of someone in presales is that they know the technology as well as the PM, but they’re out there selling and driving revenue every day. We recognize that the companies that are going to win in the next 5-10 years are the ones that are going to close the gap between the teams that drive revenue and the teams that build the products. The only group that’s going to make those worlds converge is the group that has a foot in both camps, which is presales. So for us, our ultimate vision will be to make one linear reality from product to sales.
Unusual: You often hear the glamorous side of entrepreneurship, but what about the flip side? What’s the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Matt: Building a company is very different from building a product. That’s the thing about our journey—we’re here to build a great business. That means there is a lot more on our plate than engineering, for instance: Can we calculate our subscription metrics? Do we have compensation plans and payroll? Do we have an expense policy? Are we collecting on invoices sent to customers? How do we onboard and offboard employees? It’s the complete machinery of the company that needs to be put in place.
Claire: Working with your spouse means that you have to be really cognizant of not allowing work to consume you 24/7. It can and will when it needs to, but you need to carve out time to exist as a couple and have a conversation about your own bills and your own chores. But really, it hasn’t been a challenge yet because we’re all so excited and driven to make Vivun successful.
Unusual: On the flip side, what has been the most fulfilling part of being an entrepreneur?
John: A) Knowing that we created something that is helping customers demonstrably make their life and business easier, better, and faster; and B) people wanting to join us on this journey. It’s incredibly humbling when you realize that people are staking their livelihood on the success of this idea that we as a founding team are bringing to market. I can’t overstate how humbling it is to look over at Claire, Dominique, and Matt and just think, “Wow, this is something—we’re really doing this.”
Matt: The one thing that I would add that I’ve found particularly fulfilling is that we are a category creator. We’re not Slack 2.0—we’re not any other tech company out there. We’re bringing something new to market that has only previously existed in John and my mind, and seeing people not only like it, but really benefit from the product, is extremely fulfilling.
Unusual: Is there anything you all wish you knew before you started on this journey of building Vivun?
John: As an early stage company, a big mile marker is raising venture capital. I thought I understood the process because I saw how the machinery worked at SignalFX. I quickly came to realize that I saw how a company raised capital from Series A on, but I had no idea how to get an investor to write that first check. I had a lot of people in my network who had successfully raised money and told us, “This is what it’s like. This is how you need to do it.” Turns out we were getting different advice from different people. Don’t get us wrong, we were super appreciative for all of the coaching we received, but we quickly realized everybody had their happy path that they spoke to us about. When we were going through the fundraising process and we weren’t on that supposed happy path, it was a little disheartening. I wish I had known prior to this first fundraising round that there simply is no happy path. Every company is going to be a little different and every founder will have their own journey. Oftentimes, what people tell you is kind of an abbreviated version of what the path actually looked like and the amount of effort that truly went into closing that round. If I had known that before, it would have made our fundraising process a degree or two less stressful.
Matt: I wish we had known we didn’t need to wait as long as we did before kicking off our fundraising process. We put a lot of onus on ourselves to prove out the business, which entailed getting the core team assembled, earning the first dollar, winning the first contract, having a GA product in the market with customers using it—all before raising funding. In some cases, we found this to be a detriment because we had more data points to discuss and investors wanted to draw out the process with much more diligence vs. founders who would say to investors, “I have an idea, I’m willing to bet on our team’s background, let’s go.” I also think if we had gone through the fundraising process sooner, we’d be six months ahead of where we are now because we could have hired more people earlier. I really thought we needed to have more of an ironclad ship before fundraising, which I’m glad we had, but at the same time realized we really didn’t need.
Unusual: What is the biggest tip you’d give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Matt: Pursue something you have personal experience with which you care deeply about. Don’t create a startup just because you want to be an entrepreneur. That might be trite, but I feel like that helped us during our fundraise. John and I have over 20 years of industry experience. We’ve lived the pain, we personally care about it, and it’s what we’ve built our careers on. It just so happens that we want to be entrepreneurs and there was a market opportunity. We didn’t sit there and say, “Hey, we really want to build a company. What is trending right now that we could go after?” Instead, we felt very strongly that we knew this problem better than anybody else and that’s what will make us successful in the long term.
Claire: When you lead with integrity, you build a team that aligns with your values. When that happens, you create a team that you love working with to build something you are proud of.
Dominique: Outline your ideal company culture at the very beginning and always work towards these goals. The values you define early on can be instrumental in how you build your teams, the policies you create and the overall motivations that can drive your company forward during the best and worst of times.
John: I was introduced to the notion of a pre-mortem recently. It essentially entails looking in the future to analyze the ways that your company can fail. From that plan, work backwards to ensure those scenarios never happen. What you’re trying to do is figure out any kind of existential risk to your company. It’s an exercise I don’t think a lot of people go through. If you do this exercise with eyes wide open and dig into all the inputs, you’ll get some really interesting answers. It makes you reconsider whether you should start a company at all. On the other hand, you might find that all the things that could go wrong are actually manageable and that you can put a plan in place to overcome any issues.