Our VP of Partnerships Zak Pines recently interviewed Scott Hollrah, Founder & CEO of Venn Technology, as part of our ongoing Partner Interview Series. Zak and Scott had a conversation about the origins of Venn, the consultant-customer relationship, and investing in your own processes. Here’s an abridged transcript of the chat.
The Origins of Venn
Zak: Can you start by telling us about Venn?
Scott: Venn is my baby. Let me take you way back.
Zak: Perfect, because I typically ask for the origin story for the business.
Scott: I graduated college with a marketing degree, and I wanted to work for a big agency. But they weren’t hiring. So, I started as a one-man marketing team for an aviation company, and later, I tried mortgages. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
Zak: Oh, so you had agency dreams to start. Being a Texas guy, was it GSD&M?
Scott: It was! A friend of mine from HS was friends with the Gersitch family. I walked through that office, and it was a creative playground. Working for GSD&M or Richards Group was my dream at the time.
But then I moved on and discovered a power tool called Salesforce.com. I had always been a tech-y, but I had never written a line of code—which, by the way, is still true 11 years later.
Zak: No code, low code—you are perfect for Formstack!
Scott: I’m a config guy, and I quickly learned I could build some great stuff with Salesforce.com. I went to work for a platinum partner in the Salesforce ecosystem. I loved my time there.
In January 2015, I started Venn. I took a leap of faith. I left a job with great benefits and a good salary, and I jumped off a cliff.
I started out as a one-man show. I was selling the work, doing the work, following up on the work, and billing the work. When you own the company, your good days are even better; and your bad days are even worse. Fortunately, there have been more good days than bad days.
Today we have grown to two locations, Dallas and Washington, DC, and 14 people.
The business has evolved from when we started. We started as a Salesforce consulting firm that happened to do integration work, and we’ve evolved into more of an integration-first business that also specializes in Salesforce.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I later heard another CEO articulate it and it resonated with me. What I set out to do was create the kind of company that I wanted to work for.
Zak: You could set the culture for the company yourself. What are the characteristics of the business that evolved because of that mindset?
Scott: Cliché as it might be, I didn’t want to work 60-80 hours a week. I wanted a work-life balance for the team. That’s not to say we don’t have long hours or long weeks. We can have some brutal weeks, but we don’t want that to be the norm, and we mix in other activities to make it fun.
We have a strong sense of family. My dad is a huge baseball fan, and we had a tradition of going to see the Texas Rangers play on opening day and tailgating. We turned that into a company event filled with breakfast tacos, cornhole, and more. Another event is a BBQ and swim for all families we have at my house in the fall.
Another characteristic is that I view our sales cycle as an opportunity for us to decide if the client is a good fit for us. It’s not just if we are a good fit for the client. If we don’t believe it’s a customer that we are going to be successful with, it’s not an engagement that we are going to pursue.
The Consultant-Customer Relationship
Zak: That’s a great position of strength to be operating from. How do you do that?
Scott: The first litmus test is questions like, “What are they trying to accomplish? Does that align with our skill set? Do we have similar values? Do we treat our people the same way? Do they have the right temperament? Is this a client I feel comfortable taking on?”
Zak: This is a phenomenal topic for any consultant or SI to have a perspective on. Can you share a story about when you knew a customer was a great fit, and also when you thought a potential customer may not be the right fit? How did you handle that?
Scott: I’ll give you an example on both sides. On the positive side back in December, we were working on a fairly large deal. There were a lot of intricacies with the scoping of this project. The owner of the company had a handful of hesitations, and we said, “let’s just talk.”
He’s the kind of guy I’d love to sit down and have a beer with—level headed, reasonable, pragmatic. We clicked right away and knew it was going to be a fit. He asked about a clause in our legal agreements and I said to him, “you have zero reason to believe me when I tell you this, but we have never once enforced that clause.”
His response to me was “I’m about to do a lot of business with you, I better trust you.”
Zak: You hit the nail on the head with that word, “trust.”
Scott: Yes! Does our customer trust that we will act in their best interest? If we have that trust, everything will go smoother.
Conversely, a potential project we are working on now has been on and off for two years. Customer asks for things, then we get ghosted. I believe communication is vital. Even if we are hearing news that we don’t like to hear, it is always more preferable than getting no communications from a client. We want that as a pillar of our relationship.
We are all about relationships—relationships, not transactions. We have customers that we have done 20 statements of work with. We don’t want to just get in and get out. We want that ongoing relationship.
When you walked into our previous office space, we had a wall of plaques with logos of our key partners and customers. I loved walking past that everyday thinking, “These are the people that make us successful, and it’s our job to make them successful.” Success is a two-way street.
Zak: We think of partnerships the same way. I use the term bi-directional partnership. Both sides are going to help each other.
So, back to the question, what are you looking for in a customer or a customer engagement to make it a success?
Scott: It’s funny you ask that, because I have written a blog post on this topic called “10 Things Your Consultant Wishes You Knew to Make Your Project More Successful.”
And this is the conversation we’ll have with the potential customer I mentioned earlier. We need commitments from them before we move ahead with a project.
Zak: What commitments are you looking for from your customers?
Scott: They need to have ownership for their own success. They need to know what they are aiming for. They need to have a good understanding of their processes, and where they want to improve, and have people within the organization on the same page for where they want to go.
For the duration of the project, the customer needs to know they have two jobs—their day job and the project. They are going to have deliverables and those deliverables need to be delivered for the project to be a success. Data needs to be provided. Testing needs to be performed.
Zak: I’m hearing a consultative approach loud and clear as you walk through this.
Scott: That is one of my go-to phrases. I say to our team all the time, “We are consultants. We are not order takers.”
I want us to understand the problem the customer is trying to solve, and figure out the best way to solve it. We are not just taking customer input saying “I want this. Do it this way”.
Zak: You just said “one” of my go-to phrases. I’m picking up on the fact that there are probably others.
Scott: There are some themes as I talk to the team day to day.
Zak: What are some others?
Scott: “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.” We don’t want clients to get hung up on small things, especially when they are reversible decisions. Sometimes we have to give clients that push and let them know that you don’t have to be 100% perfect to proceed. If we need to make it perfect, we’re never going to get this off the ground.
Zak: One of Formstack’s core values is “Be agile and iterate.” And our customers and partners are able to be agile and iterate with our software as they work with us.
Scott: That’s a variation of the Mark Zuckerberg quote “Move fast and break things.”
Investing in your own processes
Zak: We went deep on that topic talking about the culture of the business. Are there other key principles about Venn you wanted to highlight?
Scott: There’s the expression, “the shoemaker’s kids never have shoes.” We don’t want to fall into that trap. We want to be the ones out there using the technology that we are implementing.
So every quarter we take a full day, and we don’t schedule client meetings. We have an internal hackathon. We keep a running list throughout the quarter of internal processes that could use improvements, and through these hackathons we have developed systems which are enviable for a firm of our size.
Zak: Can you share an example that you are especially proud of?
Scott: Here’s my hands-down favorite.
We are addicted to Slack. We don’t just use Slack for communications and messaging. We have integrations and automations built into Slack. We have an integration watching our calendars and a minute before any calendar event you get alerted in a Slack channel.
If it’s a Zoom, you get the link to the Zoom. And you get a dialog in Slack where you can log your time into a time-keeping system, and it’s partially filled in for you.
Zak: That makes a ton of sense. It reminds of some Formstack for Salesforce use cases with data prefill. I love the concept, and it’s a huge timesaver for your team.
Scott: It’s a huge pain point for any consultant, and I’m proud we came up with a solution.
Zak: This is another thing we have in common. The Formstack partner team is always using our own products for our internal processes. We use Formstack forms for partners to create their own profiles and be listed on our website, and post-meeting feedback. We also just implemented Formstack Documents and Formstack Sign for our entire quoting and proposal process out of Salesforce.
Another topic I’m interested in talking to our SI partners about is how they recruit to grow the team?
Scott: You’ve hit on such a key topic. Recruiting is one of the hardest parts of running a business. Not only do we need people that have the technical chops, but we also need people that have so many other things.
I have another Scott-ism for how we recruit.
Zak: Of course you do, let’s hear it.
Scott: There are three things that I’m looking for. First, can the person do the job? Do they have the skill set?
The second is do they want the job or A job? What I mean by that is: is this the place they want to be? Are they bought in? Or is it just a temporary stop before the next place?
We use a system called Culture Index. We fill out a questionnaire that helps us define the profile of the ideal candidate.
Zak: With those standards, how are you finding or recruiting people?
Scott: It’s a competitive market. Without a doubt, the best source for good candidates has been referrals from other people—employees or trusted relationships with those outside the company. That will usually get us to people with a similar mindset and values.
Zak: I want to get a little more of the profile of Venn as an SI partner. What types of companies do you work with? What specific industries?
Scott: For a long time, nonprofits were 55-65% of our revenue. In recent years, that has flipped to not quite as heavy. It’s about one-third today.
We also work with software companies, professional services firms, hospitality, manufacturing. It can be all over the board.
Zak: How are you organized in teams?
Scott: On the delivery side, we have two groups. We have an integrations team and a Salesforce team. All integrations team members are well versed in Salesforce. We succeed together and fail together. Another one of our core values is “One Team.” We help each other. This isn’t a competitive, dog-eat-dog kind of consulting firm. Nobody is stepping on anyone else to get ahead.
Zak: Where is Venn headed from here?
Scott: I have all kinds of ideas. The clearest path is to go deeper into what we already do. More work around Salesforce and Intacct, or a combination of the two. When I start to dream a bit, I can see us adding consulting services in complementary areas, such as BI or eCommerce.
Zak: Before we go, I heard I’m supposed to ask you about a YouTube video.
Scott: Yes! One of our team members has a degree in audio engineering. I asked him to write a song as we got ready for a conference. He came back with an unbelievable demo, and then we worked with an agency to produce it. It’s called Integrate. Automate. Be Free.
Zak: This has been a great discussion Scott. Let’s end with the lightning round. What are some of your personal interests or hobbies?
Scott: It starts with family. We are officially a skiing family. Also, I love photography.
Zak: Do you have a favorite productivity tip?
Scott: One of the things that bogs me down is when I have ideas and to do’s rattling around in my head. I can cut out the noise by writing them down. Then, I can release it from my mind and move on, but it’s key that I capture those notes.
Zak: I am the same way! My team will tell you how critical my handwritten notes are to me. What’s your favorite TV show?
Scott: The Office. I’ve seen the entire series a half dozen times.
Zak: That’s a popular one around Formstack too. What’s your go-to lunch during the workday?
Scott: We have this local Thai place—a hole in the wall called Thai Riverside. You can’t go wrong.
Zak: And, last question: is a hot dog a sandwich?
Scott: I was on your partner kickoff webinar a couple weeks ago and I heard this question. I have been contemplating it since then. My knee jerk reaction was “no,” but I have to say that a sandwich is bread and combination of meat, vegetables, condiments, or other spreads, and a hot dog with your frank and bread does qualify. But I’m still not entirely comfortable with that answer.
Looking for your next step? Check out Formstack’s partner program for consultants, agencies, and tech partners.