Tue, 23 July 2019
Back in the Game
How Nimble’s Jon Ferrara returned to the startup world to revolutionize customer relationships for a second time, all while maintaining a life he loves.
Jon Ferrara was frustrated.
As a young computer software salesman and son of an entrepreneur, he firmly believed that one of the most vital aspects of business was relationship building. But in the 1980s, managing those relationships was a giant pain. He was stuck fumbling with paper leads, appointment calendars, spreadsheet forecasts, and no great way to keep or share records. He wanted to fix the problem, and thought he might just be able to.
Of course, he could have stayed content where he was and raked in a sweet $200,000 a year, while waiting for someone else to solve the problem. But surrounded by aging coworkers who regularly lamented the shots they didn’t take, Ferrara didn’t want to be just another guy with a good idea who didn’t chase his dream.
So at 28, he quit his job to see what he could create.
Three decades and two successful companies later, Ferrara changed the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) game—and then changed it again! Through his work in founding GoldMine and Nimble, Ferrara strives to boost the R in CRM by improving the way salespeople relate to each other and to their customers, first by integrating email, contacts, and calendar, and then by drawing in social media.
“As I went into my career and struggled to sell in the technology arena, I found it hard to scale connections and relationships and pipeline and marketing, and I looked for a tool to do it,” he says. “I couldn’t find it, so I built it. And it turned into a gold mine for me.”
The path Ferrara has traveled has not been a straight line. But thanks to a willingness to pivot, seek partnerships with high-profile businesses, and put relationships before profit, he has built businesses, and a life, he is very proud of.
With no Windows, Outlook, or Salesforce, the life of a salesperson in the 1980s was an endless wilderness of loose scraps of paper.
The salesperson was handed a lead that they would cold call, making notes on the piece of paper and scheduling further meetings in a separate-but-also-paper appointment calendar.
If the paper was lost, so were the notes. Forget about other team members sharing information to build well-rounded relationships with a client. And the bigger the company got, so grew the problem.
This was the root of Ferrara’s frustration.
“What I wanted was a tool that integrated contacts and email and calendar with sales and marketing automation, not just for me, but for the whole team,” he says.
No matter how hard he looked, he could only find pieces of the tool he sought. A marketing tool here. A calendar there. A pipeline tool way over there. But nothing that brought it all together. So, he set out to create it himself.
Ferrara sketched out the idea for GoldMine, and Elan Susser, a friend from college, made it into a reality. Using the money in their savings accounts, Ferrara and Susser created a CRM that integrated every tool a sales team would need and designed it to be accessible across a network.
They had created something revolutionary, and that filled a prevalent need, but they had no money to advertise and no real connections to reach out to.
“There we were, two kids in an apartment with $5,000 in the bank with basically Outlook and Salesforce before either existed,” he says. “So, how do you sell that?”
They say our struggles become our greatest strengths. And it’s in his past sales struggles that Ferrara found the key to GoldMine’s success. During his two-year stint as a software salesman with Banyan, Ferrara was often beaten to the punch by the local resellers of a competing company, Novell.
“The Novell resellers used to kick my butt as the enterprise Banyan sales rep because I had to sell at the top level, the enterprise, all the way down to everybody in the company, and that took months if not years,” he says. “Whereas the Novell guys sold into work groups.”
Rather than focusing on the top dogs at well established companies, Ferrara’s competitors got to know the small groups in coffee shops that would one day form successful startups and eventually large corporations.
With their bottom-up approach, Novell representatives were becoming the trusted go-to software salespeople of small workgroups, allowing them to spread more quickly and eventually become the corporate standard in a fraction of the time it took for top-level executives to make decisions.
So when Ferrara wanted to spread the word about GoldMine, he sought out his former competition. He called top Novell sellers and showed them what a difference GoldMine would make in their own businesses.
As they fell in love with the software, the trusted, local reps recommended it to their customers. Ferrara says that this proto-influencer marketing tactic was the secret sauce that allowed them to reach their first $100,000 in sales.
But as the business grew, so did the needs of the GoldMine customers. While Ferrara’s company initially targeted solopreneurs and small teams, they were rapidly being asked to cater to the needs of organizations with as many as 5,500 people. They needed a more scalable model.
So, when Microsoft approached Ferrara with a deal, he knew it would be mutually beneficial.
“They said, ‘Well, we just built NT Server, SQL Server and Exchange Server, and we want an independent software vendor to help us drive adoption because nobody’s going to buy SQL Server without a business application that calls for it and makes it sticky,’” he says.
As Microsoft created new servers, the company needed to find a way to sell them to business owners who were reluctant to leave the comfortable. By partnering with up and coming business applications that would run only using their newest servers, they drove sales of both products.
Ferrara decided to create a new version of GoldMine that supported the needs of larger corporations by relying on the tools provided by the Microsoft servers. In turn, Microsoft pushed GoldMine to its customers.
“We became corporate standard at 50 of the Fortune 500 companies, and that’s what propelled us to $100 million a year in revenue,” Ferrara says.
But as he stood on the mountaintop of success and looked down at what he had built, he began to question whether he wanted to keep climbing or if it might be time to take another path.
The life of an entrepreneur can be tough. Building a company, particularly a large one, requires high levels of dedication, brainpower, and time.
“Ten years of scaling a company to $100 million in revenue took everything I had,” Ferrara says, “and it cost me time and moments with everyone around me.”
He started searching for his exit.
It was 2000, the stock market was soaring, and Ferrara suspected it wouldn’t last, so when he was offered $125 million in cash to sell GoldMine, he took the deal.
Four months later, Ferrara says, the dotcom bubble burst, sending stocks plummeting. But even as he sighed with the relief of a bullet dodged and settled into the stay-at-home husband and father life, another much more insidious threat was already growing. One year after Ferrara sold GoldMine, doctors found a tumor in his brain.
“Life is going to hand you blessings, and it’s also going to smack you, and you can’t control that,” he says. “The only thing you can control is how you react to it.”
Ferrara chose to react in the way he knew best: through research and relationships. He visited a variety of doctors while also learning about Eastern medicine, and through a combination of these treatments, he says he healed his body while also taking a deeper look at his soul.
“I came to a simple conclusion about my purpose in life,” he says. “I think we are on this planet to grow our souls by helping other people grow theirs. Rinse and repeat. That’s it.”
Even though he had only planned to be away from the business world for a short period, his brush with mortality caused him to reevaluate where he invested his limited time.
“They don’t write on your grave, ‘kickass entrepreneur,’” Ferrara says with a laugh. “They say, 'beloved father, friend, husband.' So I decided to dedicate time to being a present father, husband, and contributor to my community…and to be able to do that at 40 years old was priceless. It was precious.”
So for nearly a decade, Ferrara was almost entirely absent from the world of technology. Then in 2009, as his 50th birthday approached, the rise of a new technological power caught his attention: social media.
Still with an eye for relationship building, Ferrara recognized that social media was about to reshape the way people related to one another and also how consumers related to businesses. He also knew that the current CRM options weren’t built to integrate with social media.
With contacts spread across CRM software, company software, and every kind of social media platform imaginable, salespeople were once again as overwhelmed trying to manage contacts as they were in the days of pen and paper.
“So I said to myself, ‘Imagine if you could build a CRM that worked for you by building itself from the disparate data you already have in your business—the email, contacts, and calendars that you have in GSuite, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn,’ and I built it,” he says.
In 2010, Ferrara built an exploratory team. In 2011, he launched a beta test. In 2013, the paywall went up, and so Ferrara returned to the entrepreneurial world with the creation of the social CRM, Nimble.
Back in the Game
It was like déjà vu. Once again, Ferrara felt he had a valuable piece of software, and once again, he had no easy avenue to market it.
“I’d been out of technology for 10 years,” he says. “Most people in technology have only been in technology for 10 years, let alone out of it.”
No one remembered who he was, or even what GoldMine had done. But while he may have lost name recognition and connections during his absence, there is one thing that had only continued to flourish in his time away: his ability to build relationships.
So, Ferrara dove into social media, sharing and commenting on the posts of thought leaders in the entrepreneurial space.
“Rather than me having to go out and write my own content, I shared content that resonated with me in and around the value that my product provided, which generated eyeballs to my brand,” he says.
Over time, this led to moments of interaction with the influencers whose content he shared. But he avoided diving right into a pitch for Nimble. Instead, he would hop on a call with them and ask them questions based on research about their lives and businesses.
“If you let somebody talk, you’ll learn what you need to learn to add value, and they’ll love you because people love to be heard,” he says.
As the connections grew, he would offer them meaningful introductions or even business ideas. Only when he was asked would he share his current venture, Nimble. And as he shared, some of those he spoke with decided to give it a try. Then those happy customers shared their experiences with their followings.
And while this approach to marketing took time, Ferrara believes you can’t put a price on authenticity.
“Real, solid relationships are one to one,” he says. “They’re heart to heart. They’re relevant and authentic. And when you blast, people feel it.”
His patient methodology led to over 100,000 Nimble subscribers and such high-profile investors as Mark Cuban and Google Ventures, all without a single cent spent on marketing. And, after partnering with Microsoft once again, Ferrara sees explosive growth in Nimble’s future.
With the rise of cloud computing, he has his eye on which businesses are finding the most success in that arena. And Ferrara points out that, according to the numbers, it’s undoubtedly Microsoft. He says that while G Suite has about 7 million users, Office 365 has 175 million.
“Essentially it’s really game over in the cloud productivity wars, and Microsoft dominates and will grow from here. “Most businesses that use Microsoft products rely on their local reseller to facilitate their adoption and implementation. Microsoft has hundreds of thousands of them around the world, and nobody has that.”
With Nimble’s status as the simple CRM for Office 365, Ferrara says they’ve signed up 30 of the 50 top Microsoft distributors and over 1,000 Microsoft resellers in just the last six months. And it’s only onward and upward from there.
But even though lightning has struck not once but twice in Ferrara’s journey as a tech entrepreneur, he feels that his greatest achievements are those he has made as a husband, father, and member of his community.
“Life isn’t about money,” he says. “It’s really more about the moments that create the memories. All you leave are the moments you’ve been truly present with the universe around you—with other human beings—and the ripples that you leave behind.”
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Erica Comitalo