Our VP of Partnerships Zak Pines recently sat down with Tom Hoffman, Salesforce Practice Lead at Spark.Orange, as part of our ongoing Partner Interview Series. Zak and Tom chatted live in Atlanta at a Salesforce Regional Kickoff event and had a far-ranging conversation that touched on Tom’s amazing backstory, including his work as a prison counselor and his journey to Salesforce consultant and MVP. They also discussed Spark.Orange’s approach to growth and delivering value to customers using Formstack Documents. Here’s an abridged transcript of the chat.
Zak: Can you start by telling me about Spark.Orange?
Tom: Spark.Orange is an electric produce company…I’m kidding!
Spark.Orange is a Salesforce consulting partner, heading into year seven, headquartered in Syracuse, New York. I lead up our efforts in Pittsburgh and new markets.
For me, Spark.Orange represents a chance to do something different. I joined a few years ago, coming out of a partner with 75,000 employees, but here we are building something.
Zak: What types of companies do you typically work with as your customers?
Tom: That answer has changed quite a bit. Two years ago we worked with mostly smaller, emerging businesses. As we’ve proven ourselves and grown our brand, we are attracting more enterprise-level clients. We now do business in the Fortune 100.
Our customers span a wide range today: multinational businesses, nonprofit organizations, companies coming out of Series A and B rounds, and well-established locally owned businesses. Manufacturing and professional services businesses are two common verticals for us.
Zak: Are there any themes across your customers?
Tom: We do our best work when companies are willing to create a shared vision with us. They don’t look at Salesforce as a problem that needs to be solved, but rather view it as a pillar that will help their business grow and reach the next level.
Zak: Do you have a favorite type of customer engagement?
Tom: I love the reclamation projects. A company who has soured on Salesforce. Maybe they had a poor implementation that missed expectations, or they did not adopt it correctly, and we are getting the chance to turn that around. Sometimes in five minutes I can show them how to do something, and they said “oh wow,” and it gets them excited about Salesforce again.
Zak: Don’t you have a specific offering around that?
Tom: We call them Rescues, with the idea that no one is irrevocably lost on Salesforce. There’s always a path forward. As a company, we believe that.
We can see problems and processes, then help a company create the experience they had in mind when they bought Salesforce.
Sometimes the gap isn’t that big. We can look at it and help you turn around quickly.
Zak: What stands out to you about what makes Spark.Orange different?
Tom: We win new customers on our ideas and our approach. We love being part of competitive situations because we know our value is going to stand out. We do great work, and we do what’s best for the client and their success. The key to our growth is helping our customers grow. We have a 90%+ repeat project rate with our clients.
We want our customers and their business to keep growing so they want to add more business process, and as they grow on the platform, we help them do that effectively. That’s true of our Salesforce AE relationships too. Take the SMB AEs that we are working with—we build trust and show them that we can deliver, then when they become Commercial AEs, we’ll have a three-year track record of killing it together. We will be a partner in their success, and they will be a partner in ours. Our partners like Formstack are a part of that too. We want to grow the right way, with the success of our customers and partners and with a great reputation.
Tom’s Amazing Backstory
Zak: I’ve checked out your biography, and you’ve had a bunch of interesting roles. I’d love to hear more about your backstory, going back as far as you’d like to go.
Tom: Some of this has been documented on the Accidental Admin blog, in all of its destructive and redemptive qualities.
Zak: You have my attention.
Tom: I grew up in rural Delaware. My grandfather moved to Delaware from Puerto Rico. My father’s family was from Ohio, and he moved to Delaware for the Air Force base.
My grandparents worked every day of their life (still do). My dad was enlisted in the Air Force, and the expectation is that you work. From 12, I got my first gig as a carney at the state fair for $20 per day. I often worked multiple jobs.
In high school alone I worked at the local state park, commissary on the base, a casino, NASCAR track concessions. I worked for my grandfather digging trees in the summer. Sign me up for whatever needed to be done.
I was also a successful student, and I was going to be the first one in my family to do more than just a few classes at the local community college.
I went to Duquesne in Pittsburgh. And then I started doing everything wrong—partying, gambling, hanging with the wrong crowds. I didn’t make good decisions.
Zak: I appreciate your openness in sharing this story. What happened next?
Tom: I ended up back in Delaware, with $60,000 in student loans, living in my dad’s basement, working at Jake’s Wayback Burgers, and taking community college to avoid loan repayment. I didn’t own my situation. It was everyone else’s fault.
It took a huge wake-up call for me to turn things around. The wake-up call was wrecking my car at three in the morning and then seeing my mom fall to her knees when she saw the condition of my car.
Zak: I’m a parent—I know you’re a parent now—I’m taking a deep breath thinking about the moment from her perspective and your perspective.
Tom: It was the wake-up call I needed at that point in my life. From there, I finished my degree in psychology, and I ended up working at a newspaper doing pre-press work and getting a job as a counselor in the prison system.
I would work at the prison from 7:30 to 3:00, then work at the newspaper from 4:00 to midnight. And I also picked up shifts at Jake’s Burgers.
Zak: Three jobs?
Tom: Yes. It was both to make money and also to keep myself out of trouble. From there, I enrolled in grad school and attended it while working two jobs. I got a master’s degree in administration of human services.
After working at the United Way of Delaware, I moved back to Pittsburgh and got a job as a clinical supervisor for the behavioral and substance abuse program for the State Correctional Institute in Pittsburgh.
That was a key time for me. You needed a lot of self-discipline to do that job–working with prisoners and teaching them how to live better. At that time I also did behavioral counseling with autistic children.
From there, I joined the AMD3 Foundation at UPMC Magee Womens Hospital. It was the first job where I was really able to be creative. I was told “this is the general direction we are looking to go,” and it was my job to figure out how to get there–to put together the plan and then execute. At AMD3 Foundation is where I first got exposed to Salesforce.
Zak: Ah, the connection to Salesforce begins. What year was this?
Tom: 2011. AMD3 was using list servs to manage contacts and excel spreadsheets to manage its donors. I said we should move to Salesforce because it was free for the first 10 users for a nonprofit like ours.
We began to use Salesforce for everything–the foundation, quality improvements, managing events, managing campaigns, donation management, fundraising.
Then fast forward from there, when I outgrew that role in 2015. I had become very intrigued by Salesforce and the idea that there were consulting firms out there dedicated to helping companies get the most out of Salesforce.
I started talking to everyone about getting a job as a Salesforce consultant, but I didn’t get any traction. I kept getting the feedback that my experience didn’t speak to them.
So I started thinking, “How do I do a better job of translating the work I’ve done?” I started attending every local tech meetup group. I went to a customer event with Salesforce.org, which turned into my starting a local nonprofit Salesforce user group.
And then the turning point for me was meeting Bibuti Aryal at the user group. Bibuti had started the Rukmini Foundation to provide education for girls in Nepal. We met for lunch, and I talked him through ideas for how he could be managing his nonprofit. He then told me “I work for SDLC Partners, let’s bring you in for an interview.” That interview led me to get an offer not only from them, but also from Summa Technologies. I started there as a Salesforce consultant and got my first certification as a Salesforce admin in November 2015.
Zak: If there’s a lesson in this story, it’s explore all avenues you can and keep pushing until you find that opening for yourself. The Salesforce community is full of opportunity, and it should just be a matter of time for those who really want it.
And here you are today as a Salesforce practice lead at Spark.Orange.
We have more to chat about, but before we get there, I want to double back to some of your journey here. How about this question, which you are uniquely positioned to answer: How did working as a prison counselor prepare you for your role as a Salesforce consultant?
Tom: Standing up in a room of 120 inmates will prepare you to speak to any audience. And as a prison counselor, you need to know how to build trust. You’re working in an environment where no one trusts each other. That’s a great skill to have to bring over to consulting with customers.
Zak: You’re a very thoughtful person. Can you share with me how you’d describe your consulting philosophy?
Tom: At the end of the day, it’s the user experience that matters. Is the person that is going to be using this happier for having it as part of their work?
I tell clients “just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.” If it doesn’t deliver a better user experience, what’s the point?
So when we work with customers, we ask those questions. Are your end users going to love this? And also, what do you plan to do with this information after we give it to you? How’s it going to help you grow your business?
I want to build what’s right for you as the customer to be successful and grow. Sometimes that requires saying no. Or suggesting an alternative or different approach. Or digging in deeper.
Zak: Cheers to that, Tom. How about the Salesforce knowledge—what are your secrets to keep honing your craft around Salesforce?
Tom: I love learning and finding new things. I love finding new ways that people say can’t be done. When people say this can’t be done, I say let me take a whack at it.
For me, most valuable is the Answer Community. I read other people’s questions and try to answer them myself. That’s raised my game so much. It makes me think across every Cloud, every tool, every industry.
And it’s not guessing either. I’m in there working in my dev org, writing out formulas, writing out process builder to make sure that it works, and sharing it back. It’s time consuming, but it makes you super sharp. You start to see solutions, and you know error messages off the top of your head and where you should look.
Zak: Do you have any humorous Salesforce admin stories you can share?
Tom: The funny Salesforce stories are my own failures. I have a saying: 90% of what I know about Salesforce I learned through failing, and the other 10% I Googled.
The failures are where you learn the most. Sending out a few thousands emails while doing a data load. Or messing up a data load so I’m fixing over Thanksgiving weekend with my wife seething at me.
Spark.Orange & Formstack: Delivering Customer Value
Zak: Do you recall when you met Formstack?
Tom: I met Gabe Caldwell on your team at one of the community events. When I talk to ISV partners, I’m going to be as direct as possible. I know your competitors. What makes you different? Gabe gave me a robust answer and then a demo. From there, I pulled in the rest of the team—Derek (Vargas) and Aliza (Seeber). We had some follow-up work sessions from there.
Zak: We’re here in Atlanta for the Salesforce Regional Kickoff. You have a really interesting joint customer story you’re briefing the Salesforce account executives on. Can you share that here?
Tom: Our client is a manufacturer, and they have this design worksheet with many tabs. It’s an engineering file that represents their plan of work with a customer.
We set up so they can drag-and-drop and upload that into Salesforce. And then Formstack Documents builds their quote document, terms and conditions, everything the sales rep needs. The idea is that we do as much as possible for the sales rep, so they don’t have to worry about it.
Zak: What are some of the specific things Formstack Documents is doing to create that quote document?
Tom: It inserts different related tables, with formatting based on conditional rules. It pulls in and appends a design page from an image file. It appends standard or customer terms and conditions based on rules.
We sort the quote lines differently based on different criteria. We conditionally display the design notes.
The reason we love Formstack Documents for this is we can set up those rules right in the Word document. A solution like Conga would require different queries and buttons to do this. With Formstack Documents, we can write a rule like “If Sort Order = True,” show this table.” If “Sort Order = False,” do something different. The logic lives right there in the template versus coding it somewhere else.
Zak: How does this help your customer?
Tom: The big value-add comes down to the engineering and sales teams can do what they are great at. Engineering can put together complex solutions in their plans. The sales guy can take that plan and very quickly and automatically turn that into a quote document. So they can spend more time selling.
And there are major improvements on the manufacturing side. Now they have visibility into what specific items are included in quotes. They can use probabilities to forecast what their demand will be in the months ahead, right in Salesforce. It’s taking their business planning to a whole new level.
Zak: What did this look like from a project setup standpoint, for the document templates and rules in Formstack Documents?
Tom: End to end it was less than 35 hours of effort, including the automation and different pieces layered in. In the document automation space, that is a low figure. Less time on a project also means less time project managing a project, less risk for the customer, faster speed to market—so there is real value there for us and our customer.
And then lastly, we can train our customer on how to manage it. We can show them here’s how you make changes, here’s how you can adjust content when you need to.
Zak: Which ties back to the growth and success mentality you have with your customers.
Tom: Yes, absolutely. And the other part that’s a win for our customer is the pricing is also tied to value. It’s based on documents generated. So it shows the customer here’s what you’ll pay today, and it’s going to scale as you need it to scale. And they can tie to value; they know the more the quotes they are generating, the more business they will be generating too, so they are happy to pay for more. As opposed to other solutions where you need to pay for people who may need to generate quotes. Formstack Documents is priced on the number of quotes or documents, which is directly tied to the value you are creating. That is great alignment to have with us as a partner and our joint customer.
Zak: Let’s wrap up with the lightning round. What are some of your personal interests or hobbies?
Tom: Baseball. I’m a big Pirates fan. My son is about to be five, and this will be his sixth opening day including in utero. Opening day will be his 113th Pirates game.
I also like books, TV, movies, home improvement, running, and biking.
Zak: Do you have a productivity tip you can share?
Tom: I tend to work too much. I’ve been trying to get better about being respectful of my time.
I started blocking off time to go dark, with good results. I might go dark for four hours to work on a solution. That helps me to solution design effectively. It’s like those crime boards you see on TV. I have my discovery photos, my SOW. I need to have time to read and think. I can’t have email or Slack if I’m going to do it well.
Zak: Do you have a favorite TV show?
Tom: That would be too hard to decide, but I’ll give you my favorite movie: “Top Gun.”
Zak: What’s your go-to lunch during the workday?
Tom: A wrap with sriracha mayo, sharp cheddar cheese, and roast beef or chicken breast.
Zak: I think that’s the most specific answer I’ve gotten to that question. Which leads to my last question: Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Tom: Technically, yes, but in the same way you would say a tomato is a fruit. But no one is sitting there saying, “Oh I want fruit. Let me grab a tomato.” So by definition, yes. But, no, it’s not a sandwich; it’s a “dog.”