Our VP of Partnerships Zak Pines recently sat down with Carl Bouckaert, founder of Elixir Solutions, as part of our ongoing Partner Interview Series. Zak and Carl had a far-ranging conversation that covered European trends, aligning systems, people and processes, and what makes a powerful partnership. Here’s an abridged transcript of the chat.
Elixir Solutions Background
Zak: Can you start by telling me about Elixir Solutions?
Carl: I started the business in 2013 and recruited my first employee in 2016, so we’ve been in business for four years now. The company is based in Brussels, Belgium, and we are focused on CRM, marketing automation, and integrations. We are involved in many projects that align marketing, sales, and services.
Zak: What inspired you to start and grow the business?
Carl: I used to be a SAP consultant doing sales, marketing, and service projects. I felt a bit unhappy because I couldn’t always make my clients happy. I was doing big projects for big companies, and while we could do the job well in marketing and sales, the marketing audience wasn’t the ideal audience for SAP. At one point, I stumbled upon more progressive companies—marketing automation solutions like Marketo and HubSpot—and I thought it was fantastic. It was something I couldn’t offer clients, so I started building integrations between SAP and HubSpot, and gradually we did more with HubSpot.
Zak: How is your focus split today across those areas?
Carl: One-third of our business is pure SAP, another one-third is integrations, and the last third is sales and marketing, as well as onboarding around HubSpot.
The Customer Journey & Elixir Solutions Value Proposition
Zak: Are there any patterns in the types of businesses you work with as customers?
Carl: I have a bunch of enterprise-level customers who are turning over more than $1 billion. These are customers who we do SAP and HubSpot integrations for. And then you have mid-market customers and some smaller startups.
Zak: How about the roles your customers serve? Are they marketing? Sales?
Carl: We’re strongest when we can combine multiple customer-facing departments. Aligning the buyer’s journey across sales, marketing, after sales, and back office is in the DNA of our company. It’s how we got founded. We do integrations, but we’re much broader than this. It’s about aligning systems, people, and processes around a common goal, which is serving the customer in the best way possible.
Initially, we were not chasing the pure marketing automation projects because we were competing with agencies who were in the game longer than us. But recently, we’ve been combining sales with service, with marketing, with CMS, and with back office integrations, and we’re seeing success here, especially in the mid-market. We don’t only bring the business and process knowledge, but we have the technical competence to make things happen.
Zak: You had a very intentional phrase there. Aligning people, systems, and processes around a common goal. That’s a great statement right there. Do you have to work with customers to create a mindset around that as the goal?
Carl: It depends on the maturity of the customer. Sometimes you really need to convince customers that this is the way to go. And in other cases, they really have that vision already, and they need a partner who can help them realize it. So it depends.
It also depends on who you’re talking to. We have customers where marketing is leading the transformation. In these cases, they’re open to it, and they have the new tools, such as Formstack. Five years ago, it wasn’t like this. Then you have sales-led organizations, where in many cases they are more conservative because they’re more into the numbers. They may have a solution already or may have had a bad experience with change. And with them, we have to serve a bit more to get that new thinking in place. And then when you’re talking to back office or inside sales teams, they’re very open to making things more automated. So it really depends on who you’re talking to. It varies from person to person, company to company, and also management. If management has a clear vision, it influences a lot of the people who we work with.
Zak: You’re based in Brussels. Are there any specific local trends in your market or in broader Europe that you’re seeing?
Carl: First and foremost, 30% of our customers are in Belgium, 70% of our customers are outside of Belgium. As a Belgian company, we’re orientated towards customers outside of our country, especially neighboring countries. We have customers in the US, UK, France, Germany, and then it stops in the south of Europe, but we do have some customers in Israel.
So in terms of trends, they usually originate in the United States. They enter the UK through the Nordics, and they go down into Western Europe and then to Southern Europe. That’s what we’re seeing. This means we’re working a lot with US and UK customers in the beginning. Now we’re able to work more closely with German and Belgian customers. A typical Belgian customer is two years behind US customers. They’re more conservative, and we tend to look at what other companies do and then take the best learnings and apply them to business.
Zak: I was taught over the course of my career, working with many European partners and customers, the importance of in-person meetings. You and I are talking now on a video conference. Have the rules of engaging with customers evolved over the years? Is video conference playing a major role in how you manage your customer relationships?
Carl: Yes. I have a bunch of customers in the UK, and I’ve never visited them. Our biggest customer is in Denmark, and I’ve never been there.
With that said, for our Belgian customers, you have to go in person. If you’re from Belgium and I’m from Belgium, then we have to meet in person. Zoom calls are okay, but it’s such a small country that you sound lazy if you don’t go.
Dutch customers are okay if you can drop by. French culture is biased because we know them so well. Go see them; be friends. It’s not far away, and we speak the language. You have to speak the language and go there and show your ability to build a relationship. Germany is the biggest economy in Europe—very strong and closed economy. When I do business with them, we have to go there; we jump on the plane and meet them. You meet these wonderful, nice, empathetic people. They’re structured and organized, but they want to meet you in person. The interpersonal touch is important.
Zak: You mentioned Belgium is quite small. How big is it?
Carl: We’re 10 or 11 million people—6.5 million are Dutch speaking and 4.5 are French speaking, with three cities that are German speaking. You may say that the biggest chunk of economy is in Flanders and Brussels. In comparison, London is 10 million people, Paris is 10 million, Belgium is 10 million. This is one city. We’re small, and it’s very densely populated, especially in Flanders—every 5 kilometers there’s a village, every 15 kilometers there’s a city. We have nothing but traffic jams, and in the countryside, you have smaller factories. We’re extremely industrialized. There are a lot of roads and people; it’s hard to find a forest here.
Zak: Thanks for sharing that cultural texture with us.
Zak: Let’s shift gears. How did you come across Formstack?
Carl: I discovered Formstack as an interesting tool when I had one of my customers who was in the market for a new forms solution. They were also a HubSpot customer, so I had to find a very powerful form solution for them that could integrate with Hubspot and that wasn’t extremely expensive. So I went through the selection process, and Formstack stood out. I compared five tools, and Formstack came out as number one.
Zak: Do you recall some of your key criteria that you used for that evaluation?
Carl: One of the most important criteria was that people should be able to fill in the form partly and then be able to continue the application form at a later stage. That was a very important requirement for this customer’s use case. Sometimes it consists of so many questions that people are not able to complete it all in one sitting. Other criteria were user-friendliness and how easily you can deploy it. And then also integration with HubSpot, which disqualified a bunch of tools. Formstack checked off all the boxes, including the Formstack-HubSpot integration.
Zak: Both of us often work with marketers, and I used to think of forms as leads, but that’s actually just a small subset of the possible use cases. And when you think about HubSpot’s scope broadening into other departments, you have job applications, HR processes, request forms, payment forms, onboarding—there are so many use cases where forms can help companies digitize paper-based processes. Can you share any particular use cases with me?
Carl: Yes, exactly. We have background in some of the old school tools, so we are learning and absorbing the new possibilities. One use case is for sales reps who are on HubSpot and need offline capabilities. Right now, they are limited. We use offline forms through Formstack to complete a visit report and, once it’s saved, sync that data over to HubSpot. It’s a fantastic approach since HubSpot doesn’t have offline capabilities. Formstack gives them an easy way to take notes of their visit and make a report while onsite with the customer, without needing an online connection.
Content Marketing & HubSpot Partner Learnings
Zak: It’s a pleasure working with a HubSpot partner who knows content marketing. You became certified, and the next day, you were writing content about it. (This refers to the article Laure Francois from Carl’s team wrote: “Sync HubSpot and Formstack forms: Build even more powerful forms!”)
Carl: I think it’s mandatory! In a business where we sell ideas, knowledge. We put the bar higher for our customers. Every time we learn something, we need to show the world what we learned and hope they can learn from us. So if Laure is certified, she knows she needs to write a blog about it. It’s good for you, good for us, good for the customers. So I’m excited about her work with your team.
Zak: Another interesting HubSpot tie-in: HubSpot has done a phenomenal job with their partner program, and I’ve looked to learn a lot from it in terms of partner mindset. It’s about helping partners, giving them lots of avenues to collaborate with us. I’m curious to know what it’s like being a HubSpot partner. Any lessons learned that Formstack could learn from?
Carl: Great question. As a HubSpot partner, we feel validated by the work we do. We are also heavily supported in the sense that HubSpot is investing a lot of resources and time in terms of enabling us to be successful. HubSpot has pushed a lot of companies in our direction for use cases that they thought we would be the best partner to do the job. It means that a lot of customers come directly from HubSpot to us. In terms of collaboration, it’s massive. I don’t know many software companies I partner with who have a prospect and ask to work with us to close the deal. They see our value, and they come to us, and we close the deal together. Our goal is to ensure the prospect feels comfortable in purchasing the product and our services, and they feel trust. We step into the process together, and we’ve closed so many deals together. Apart from all the other stuff they’ve done, it’s sales that matters most, and doing that together helps create the bond.
They also have a training program; they give us assets, and they helped me with my website in the beginning. But that doesn’t matter if you cannot collaborate on the sales side. There are other partners who can give you assets, certifications, trainings, but if we don’t sell together, it’s not the same depth of relationship. Many partners expect you to bring customers to them, they thank you, and off you go. That’s not the standard of HubSpot. They expect us to bring in customers, but they also bring deals to us when it’s the right fit. For me that makes a huge difference.
HubSpot is the driver of the demand, but I hope in time we can sell Formstack without HubSpot—like we’re selling HubSpot without SAP. There’s a reason we’re talking. I truly believe that in Europe, there’s a substantial amount of opportunity for Formstack as a productivity solution.
Zak: You can use our products in a unified approach to help customers become more productive within their business. Data capture, putting that data to work around document generation, and eSignature—there’s a lot that can be done for businesses. The trend of going from paper-based to paperless process, and you’re sitting in the midst of that across Europe.
Carl: Yes! Traditional companies are moving more and more to digital. And look at something like coronavirus—travel is less and less, and online tools are becoming more important for how work gets done.
Zak: Let’s wrap up with the lighting round! Do you have any personal interests or hobbies?
Carl: I play indoor soccer, five against five, for 15 years now. I’m not too athletic, so I like playing indoor soccer, which is more for technical players. I’m more quick and technical and play in a national division. It’s all about friends and fun and getting out all the energy that we build up during the week.
I have a 25-year-old Porsche, so if the sun is shining, I’m taking the car and driving around town. Also, bringing my kid to soccer and normal dad responsibilities. I also like cooking Italian food! Every Sunday I cook for the family.
Zak: What’s your number one Italian dish?
Carl: I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t have one special Italian dish. What I can tell you is that in Belgium, we’re close to France, so in the supermarket, 80% of the wine is French. In my cellar, I only have Italian wines!
Zak: What color is the Porsche?
Carl:. Triple black. It’s a 993 Carerra, if you know about Porsche’s. Black leather, black outside, black dashboard.
Zak: Do you have a productivity tip you can share?
Carl: I’m not sure I’m productive! I work very hard. I tell my team they should work at least four hours on one customer so that they can focus and get things done. Some have too many customers, too many questions. Some questions can wait until tomorrow. That’s for my employees. For myself, I can’t do that because sometimes I’m juggling 20, 30, 40 customers at the same time. If I have a big deal to close, then I try to work only on that. Try to focus on the most important things. And delegate—that’s important too.
Zak: Do you have a favorite TV show?
Carl: I must say, if I get tired, I watch Netflix a bit. In Europe we have some great cinema, but I don’t live in a big city. So on Netflix, I’m watching “Narcos.” It’s good for my Spanish, although I only learn swear words! I like “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” too.
Zak: What’s your go-to lunch during the work day?
Carl: Something in the kitchen if I work from home, or sandwiches if I go into the office. My preference if we go out is Italian. If I go to a big customer, I tend to go to a very expensive restaurant. In Belgium, we like good food.
Zak: Last question, and it’s a silly one. We have a bit of a debate within Formstack: Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Carl: It’s absolutely a sandwich because it’s bread. So the definition to me of a sandwich is bread filled with stuff. So it is definitely a sandwich. We have a similar question. If we’re recruiting a developer, the question is do you like Star Trek or Star Wars. If they don’t like any of them, they’re disqualified!