Our VP of Partnerships Zak Pines recently sat down with Derek Vargas, Co-Founder & Managing Partner of Spark.Orange, as part of our ongoing Partner Interview Series. Zak and Derek had a far-ranging conversation that touched on the creation of Spark.Orange, scaling up a growth Salesforce consultancy, and what makes a great partner. Here’s an abridged transcript of the chat.
The Creation & Growth of Spark.Orange
Zak: Let’s start with the basics. What is Spark.Orange?
Derek: We’re a Salesforce implementation partner headquartered in Syracuse, New York, with hubs around the country. When we first started, we were the only Salesforce partner within 100 miles, so we were very much a generalist firm.
We now work across all aspects of Salesforce—from Marketing Cloud to Sales and Service Cloud to CPQ, FSL, and Communities (pretty much everything except Commerce Cloud)—and specialize in verticals including technology, financial services, manufacturing, and higher ed / nonprofit.
Zak: How and when did you create Spark.Orange? What was the spark behind it?
Derek: I met my co-founder Aliza Seeber at a sales and marketing consultancy. We would take over sales and marketing for underperforming companies, and a proper CRM implementation was the backbone to support it. We worked across a range of CRMs, but then for one of our customers, we started working with Salesforce and fell in love with it.
We then started working for a solar company, myself as CMO and Aliza as the sales operations officer. We overhauled the sales and marketing process and doubled revenues in six months. That business was acquired, which we took as an opportunity to think about what we wanted to do next. Aliza and I loved solving problems and providing value for customers, so we decided to start up our own firm.
Zak: I grew up a fan of the Syracuse Orangeman, so I figure there is some tie-in there to the name of the company. What was the exact origin of the name?
Derek: We both saw a lot of people in Syracuse, New York, who had a defeatist attitude about the city as a whole. Over the past 10 years, though, there has been a huge spike in technology enablement, and we’ve seen the ecosystem in Syracuse grow. The downtown is flourishing, and the sky is the limit.
We wanted to be in the heart of that as a tech company, and Aliza is a Syracuse alum, so there are ties there as well. Since Syracuse as a whole very much identifies as “the Orange,” Spark.Orange is the culmination of the idea of us building something great here.
Scaling Up a Growth Salesforce Consultancy
Zak: I’m fascinated by how you go about scaling a consulting company like yours. I don’t imagine that is easy.
Derek: We’re presenting on that exact topic, as it relates to talent, at Dreamforce. It can be very tricky and nerve-racking at times.
We know we want to differentiate with people, and we have an absolutely amazing team here. We have a rigid hiring process, and our philosophy is that there’s no replacement for the right attitude. The right person with the right attitude can become extremely effective with context and experience. We can always teach the technology.
Zak: I’ve had the same philosophy over the years—first and foremost, hire for attitude.
Derek: Yes, that’s the way we see it. You can meet a Trailhead Ranger with seven or nine certifications, but if you don’t have the ability to apply that contextually to a customer’s business objectives, then you’re not going to be effective as a consultant.
Zak: Sounds like we need a Trailhead badge for that skill.
I read that you are an Inc. 5000 growth company. Another thing I’m curious about is how do you manage the business to keep your staffing up with the demand for your services?
Derek: Yes, we are the 704th fastest growing company in the country. We manage our project load out two quarters. We’ve cash-flowed the entire business, and we’ve consistently and successfully aimed for smart, organic growth.
Zak: How is your team and business organized?
Derek: We encourage our team to follow paths that are exciting for them. If you’re interested in marketing, go chase down certifications in Pardot and Marketing Cloud. We want people to grow their careers in any direction they want to. We have a great mix of subject matter experts who can do different things. So we align the appropriate people to the right projects.
We have an executive sponsor on every project who the clients know they can strategically escalate to. Then we have a project manager who sets expectations and ensures transparency in the engagement. And we also have a lead consultant, and there may be multiple consultants depending on the size and scope of the project. Finally, the team is supported by our developer and analyst teams as necessary.
Zak: I noticed on your website you have a service called “Rescue.” There must be a good story behind that.
Derek: The reason that’s there is because over 50% of our business is re-implementation of Salesforce. A customer has Salesforce, but it’s not helping them in the ways it should. They aren’t getting the results they need or that they expected. It’s always better to take the time to be consultative up front the first time, but we’ll come in and help do that after the fact. Our goal is to build long-term partnerships with our customers, and it shows with our 94% retention rate, which we still want to improve.
Zak: As Managing Partner of this growth consultancy, what does your day-to-day look like?
Derek: I’m heavily involved in the strategic direction of the business. I also need to ensure all teams have what they need. So I’m checking in with our leaders and removing roadblocks that come up for them. I’m working on strategic planning finance and budgets—managing for our growth trajectory. And then I’m also working in business development and with our customers. I also still love strategy consulting, so I love to get involved with large-scale or complex projects! Aliza Seeber, my business partner, is our Chief Architect, and is easily one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, so it makes focusing on my end of the business a lot easier.
What Makes a Great Partner
Zak: Do you recall when you first came across Formstack?
Derek: Formstack…a long time ago. WebMerge, which I know is now Formstack Documents, about a year and a half ago. It makes a lot of sense to help our customers go digital in what’s becoming a paperless world. Moving processes online is a major source of operational efficiency for customers, especially when it’s so closely tied to Salesforce.
Zak: How do you think about that—the relationship between, say, a Formstack for Salesforce or a Formstack Documents and Salesforce?
Derek: Applications allow us to do more with Salesforce, so it helps us better serve our customers, and it helps our customers have better processes and get more done with Salesforce.
It’s beneficial these are scalable products that don’t involve coding. Instead of going out and building a completely custom solution, if we use standardized AppExchange apps, it’s going to be easy to manage, easy to maintain, easier to hand off from one person to the next, and much easier to scale.
Zak: As we’re scaling our partner program, we’re thinking a lot about how we can be the best possible partner to consulting firms like yours. What do you look for in a Salesforce technology partner?
Derek: There are two main things. You need the solution piece. We are always going to present the best solution for our customer. It has to start there. We’re solving a problem. It has to be easy to implement. It has to be something a customer can take ownership of and manage.
And then it’s about the support for the relationship. Is there somebody to call? Are we going to get help in sales situations? If we have a tech challenge, can we get the right resources to help us quickly?
Partners who can do that are going to be a great fit for us. The end goal is to serve our customers in the best way possible.
Zak: That’s great, and it’s very aligned to how we think we’re setting up our program—with resources to help each other grow, from training and certification to sales enablement to priority support to co-marketing. What you just said really resonates with me. If we have one theme, it’s we want to grow together.
Derek: Build together, grow together—yes. Our differentiation is always going to be built around our approach and our people, and we need to always be maximizing value for our customers.
Zak: Well said. Let’s wrap up with the lightning round. Do you have any hobbies, Derek?
Derek: I don’t have as many as I used to, with Spark.Orange and kids now. I work out when I can. I’m a dad of two daughters, 12 and 9, and I like to spend as much time as I can with them.
I’m constantly reading and trying to learn. I’m now getting into mindfulness and meditation. It helps with my mind, which can be racing with a million thoughts a minute.
Zak: I’m the same way.
Derek: Yep, that’s why I never found myself able to be a runner! Too much going on in my brain to manage a run. I have a million thoughts by the time I run one block, and it feels like a mile.
Zak: You know what? I’ve never been able to consistently run, and I think you just pointed out why for me. And I just thought I was lazy [laughs]. Thank you for that.Shifting gears, do you have a productivity tip you can share?
Derek: I try to get to bed at the same time every night. I wake up early in the morning. I’m up and out to the gym by 4:30. I try not to pick up my phone first thing because I don’t want to be distracted. I like to establish what my priorities will be for the day before I touch the phone or email.
Zak: Do you have a favorite TV show?
Derek: I love “Billions.” I have been recently catching up on “Ballers,” too. Anything about deal-making and business.
Zak: What’s your go-to lunch during the workday?
Derek: We have an awesome restaurant in Syracuse called Original Grains. It’s fast and healthy food, mostly in bowls.
Zak: Very different to my wrap-up question for you: Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Derek: No, a hot dog is a hot dog. I grew up in Brooklyn, and that’s just quick food you get at a cart walking up the street.