As Ingram’s guest, AJ highlighted his sales origin story, his successful exit of TrendKite, and what led to the launch of QuotaPath. Together, he and Scott discussed compensation management, how to sell as a CEO, and the importance of investing in people.
Scott: Today on the Sales Success Stories podcast, my guest is AJ Bruno. AJ is the CEO and Founder of QuotaPath. And we’re doing something really special today. This is my first ever live interview on Sales Success Stories. We’re live at the Sales Success Summit. How’s that?
AJ: That’s pretty good.
Scott: We’re celebrating five years of Sales Success Stories. So it’s about time we do a live interview. I’m super excited to do it with AJ, and I’m super excited to have the opportunity for you guys to participate, ask some of these questions, and make my job a little bit easier. I’ll actually share just a little bit of your background.
AJ comes from a sales background. He was in a sales leadership role at Meltwater, then went and founded the startup TrendKite and had a really nice little exit at a quarter of a billion dollars.
Now he’s just cranking with QuotaPath and is on an incredible trajectory. I know he’s going to be talking a lot about how you guys need to come to join the team.
AJ: Yeah, I mean, we were hiring 1,500 people. I don’t know if you heard the story. If you check the Austin Business Journal this morning, I got a text from my old CEO at like 7 a.m. saying, “AJ, you’re really spending that Insight Partners money.”
In the screenshot is the front of the Austin Business Journal saying “QuotaPath, Amazon and Tesla lead Austin hiring,” and then it says “QuotaPath: 1,500 jobs hiring Austin.” I’m not even kidding. So that was on there for the Austin Business Journal. So we’re not hiring for 1,500, but we do have about 30 open positions.
Scott: Why don’t we start with that correlation. So what are the skills?
What are the things that you learned in your time in sales that you use every day as a founder and as a CEO?
AJ: I think we all here have a bunch of these stories. I’m gonna go back and paint the picture of the 2008 sales team that some of you probably know: You showed up. You had a phone and you made 100 calls. You didn’t have Salesforce as a CRM, and you had their internal CRM.
So. Let me rewind history for a quick second. I went to school, I went to Penn State, I’m from Pittsburgh, and then I moved to Philadelphia. I started my career in sales. I had an uncle that was very successful in business, and I always knew that I wanted to run and start a company. I was like, I’m driven, I’m going to start a company. I was an okay student, but I just felt that tie to entrepreneurship. I have an entrepreneurial family, and my uncle was super helpful. I was trying to think about the career that I wanted to join, and coming out of Penn State, there were so many different options.
I had an internship at NFL films. I could have gone to an economic consulting firm in DC. My uncle said, “Look, AJ, if you really want to be a CEO one day, cut your teeth in sales.” That’s the best advice I ever got. It was something that I took with me.
I looked for a sales job, and I thought, well, tech’s kind of good. This is 2008, obviously a little bit of a challenge in the financial crisis. I found this company called Meltwater. I interviewed, and it was a group interview. They had 30 people. Everyone was wearing Swedish suits. They were a Norwegian company, so they had these skinny ties. I was wearing pleated pants that my mom had bought me. I showed up and I was scared shitless.
I was driving from Pottstown to the train in 45 minutes, with an hour and a half commute each way. I had to get there at 8 a.m., make my 150 calls, and I could not leave before 6 p.m. I tell you this because I had a train that I could have caught at 6:07 that was an express, but I had to leave at 5:57 to catch it, and my boss would not let me leave for that train. So, I got back at 9:30 p.m. My day was miserable. I was getting home and the only joy of my day was watching “Meerkat Manor.” I’m not even kidding.
There was one night when I was taking the train back, and I didn’t realize until I was already on the train that I had a gap in my stop. It’s 2010, there’s no Lyft or Uber. I had a five-mile walk. My cell phone was running out of battery. I quickly asked someone with a smartphone to look up a taxi cab company. I called the first one, no answer. Second one, no answer. The third one, a guy answered. I woke him up and he said they closed an hour ago. I told him I need to get a cab, and I need to get it now. How are we going to make this happen?
I went through all the stages, the discovery of trying to figure out how we’re going to make it work with this guy. Finally, he drove 45 minutes to pick me up and drove me 10 minutes to get to my car. That was the first time in my life where I realized the real-life skills of a salesperson.
Scott: So, one thing I’m curious about is you intentionally chose sales as a lead-up to the entrepreneurial path. At what point did you feel like, Okay, that’s enough sales. Let me make this transition.
AJ: I was actually just telling the story to our VP of Marketing Carrie on the way over here about the transition to start a company from sales. So fast forward, I finally was no longer commuting an hour and a half from my parents’ house to Center City, Philadelphia. I had gotten an apartment in South Philly and was doing really well. I moved up to sales leadership in sales management. I was the managing director at the ripe old age of 24. That first week, I had to let someone go because of a performance plan. I think I was the one to cry, and that guy was trying to console me. I was trying to figure it out, got through that, and had the opportunity to open an office in San Diego. My wife and I looked at the map. Where’s the furthest from Philly that we can get away from the northeast? We landed there and I spent two years building the office and saw a lot of success.
In 2012, I felt like I reached everything I could at Meltwater. It was a 1000-person global company and 800 were in sales. My wife was pregnant with our first child, and we were going to move back to the east coast. My boss at the time, who I struggled to connect with, did one thing that was absolutely transformational for me. A lot of people in this audience are going to laugh when I say this. He took us all to go see Tony Robbins and “Unleash the Power Within.” I was going into this thing like, okay, this guy’s crazy. It was absolutely transformational. I felt really empowered, and I left there thinking three things. One, I’m going to start a company. Two, it’s going to go against Meltwater and go head-to-head on the competitive front, because I have a chip on my shoulder and I’m gonna prove something to someone. The third thing was to buy an airplane.
My dad’s a pilot, my mom’s a flight attendant. I’ve always loved aviation, and I’ve always wanted to fly airplanes and fly them for fun. I was gonna do this within three years. I came back. My wife and I are $70,000 in debt. I did the stupid thing where I told everyone that I was going to do this, I was just super transparent about buying an airplane and starting a company. And everyone’s like, well, AJ, you better start saving now, you’re $70,000 in debt, good luck with that one.
I went and started TrendKite in 2012. That was a crazy ride, basically, zero to $30 million in ARR. Within four years, we had 120 folks here in Austin, Texas. It was absolutely amazing. It was a crazy ride, we promoted tons of people. I ran a sales team, I was the founder and president of the company. Building it for yourself, you get to see the science of the sales, and the day-to-day, like the one-on-ones and all of the art and the trials and tribulations that you go through.
Scott: How did the chip manifest? You’re pissed off? You’re making 150 cold calls a day, like, you know, just old school bs sales?
What was the culture that you created?
AJ: We had this like, “Never Say Die” attitude. We go out and prove to the world that we can build this successful team. In Austin, at that time, we had, I won’t say an old guard, but you had Bazarrevoice that had just gone public. You had the HomeAways and the RetailMeNots, and you had some of these bigger scaled startup companies. Sparefoot had just been acquired for the second or third time. That was the culture. And I knew it was a great b2b sales talent town. I knew bringing that Meltwater mentality was going to work well but doing it in a way where, oh, there’s new tools, there’s email marketing, right? You had tools like Yesware and ToutApp that existed at that time, which were like the precursors to everything. Instead of just copying and pasting and having like this little IBM Lenovo notebook, we felt that we could bring those two together. The company was massively successful, but I was most proud that 80 percent of our 120 sales reps hit their monthly sales quota at any given time. In 2015, 25 out of 25 had hit their yearly annual target. When we’re talking about sales I talked about this piece of it being really, really important, because so many of us are going through times where quotas are changing and comp plans are totally up in the air. If you don’t have that Northstar framework that everyone on the team has an opportunity to achieve, then the whole thing can fall apart.
Scott: You just touched on maybe my biggest soapbox thing. Let me go on a rant here, and I’ll let you kind of respond because I think you’re proving my point. I think I’ve diagnosed where this is coming from, it’s coming predominantly from the VC community, right? Because I think part of the issue is there aren’t enough CEOs who come from a sales background. There’s this structure where we’re setting the target, where it’s really not reachable. The expectation is 60 percent of people are going to make the plan, which means that 40 percent of people aren’t going to make plans, right? Winners win and losers lose, right? When you create that dynamic, and when you have people who are not making their number and go down that downward spiral, it’s horrible. Nobody wins in that scenario.
If you set the bar to where people can achieve and feel good, and I think there’s also we feel like the compensation and quota have to be the same thing. I don’t think they necessarily need to be viewed that way. I view quota as my job. If I’m not doing 100 percent, then there’s something wrong with me, I need to work on that. Compensation can be a little bit of a different thing. You’ve got to create that. I mean, we’re here, we’re raising money for UNcrushed and mental health in sales. It creates a bad dynamic. If you create a dynamic where people are winning and feeling like hey, I’m making my number, I’m doing a good job. I’m succeeding, that’s going to build and they’re going to get into the accelerators and they’re going to generate more revenue. Do you agree?
AJ: Yeah. Well, I mean, I got bad news for you. It’s getting worse. So the venture community is going the other way with this right now because you’re seeing that comp and that quota are getting a little bit out of whack. We all know that on-target earnings have gone up, I think at least 20 percent this year. When you have that comp and something that we think about as the CEO, the board level, which is sales CAC, you know, the cost of that acquisition? Well, if you have someone that is a $250K OTE, and you’re working in a transactional sales cycle, then their quota needs to be what 1:2 or 1:3, the numbers just don’t quite work or add up.
Thankfully, we have these conversations with the team at Insight Partners and Stage 2 all the time. What we’re seeing in the market and how that’s changing and how comp is changing there is a total mess. But when push comes to shove, there isn’t enough sales leadership voice that’s heard. You have finance, you have F&A teams, you have controllers, you have, of course, the board, and you have more and more capital at the growth equity coming into the fold that is used to these very predictable models and is coming into venture and they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They’re used to the go-to-market upswing, and they’re now coming into the product-market fit to go to market upswing and just aren’t clearly understanding what to do. You have CEOs that don’t have a sales background that doesn’t understand. I’m super fortunate. I have a board that truly understands sales to a tee. The best of the best. And then I myself have a sales background. And Caroline Tarpey, our VP of sales, was at a Vista Equity company. So she understands all of that. Like it’s really good there. But I’m also just looking around like holy shit. What’s this gonna look like in 12 minutes? 12 months?
Scott: All right, we’re gonna figure out how to fix this.
Let’s talk about you exiting TrendKite. Where did the idea for QuotaPath come from? What prompted this whole thing?
AJ: I mentioned the craziness of TrendKite as we were growing and going so fast. I had a rep come up to me one quarter and say, “Hey, AJ, I think I was paid incorrectly.” I was like, “Get the hell out of here. Go away. That doesn’t happen ever.” None of you have ever been paid incorrectly. Right? I looked at it. I was like, whoa. I went to the VP of finance and said, “Hey, Sam, I think we paid incorrectly. Like all great finance leaders, he just completely ignored me and rolled his eyes. It’s a no-go, go talk to RevOps. You just hired Cole. He’s the guy that needs to handle this. I had the spreadsheet, but I closed it and sent it to accounting, and went to accounting. Accounting said they could open it up, but you have to get Comptroller and GC and People approval. I was like, What the hell? This is ridiculous. There’s got to be a tool that has solved this stupid commission thing. And sure enough, there was one tool and I won’t name the tool.
Exactly. Anyway, we had this tool Exactly. We tried to onboard it. It took eight months, the sales team was super furious, because they’re still getting paid incorrectly. We’re double the size now, the reps are doing shadow accounting on their own spreadsheets. We had our own spreadsheet, and we were trying to onboard this tool that was taking eight months and it was a total disaster.
I was like, Okay, done. I got it. I’m so pissed off that I’m going to fix this stupid industry and build a tool. It’s just easy to understand. A sales rep can onboard in less than 10 minutes, can integrate with their CRM, and can do more of the inspirational things that actually matter. So less about the quota. Even though the name is QuotaPath, it’s more about goal tracking.
We always talk about the president’s club or buying a house or getting a car or wedding ring or whatever. With all these goals, we put that into the app for sales teams to really get behind it. But, it goes back to sales leadership. They need to have a stake in compensation and really understand what motivates and makes their team tick. Our goal is to help push that up. We started as what is now considered product-led growth, we didn’t know product-led growth. We started with user delight. And today, we’re absolutely that. But we also have our own sales team, and we’re growing pretty fast. 1500.
Scott: Well, and that’s how we started the day today. You were in the product-led growth space before we had a name for what that was. And I’m also just curious about the evolution of QuotaPath because you’re three and a half years old right now.
What are the things that you’ve learned that kind of surprised you or maybe hypotheses that were a little bit not quite spot on from the get-go?
AJ: TrendKite was such a direct business-to-business sell. It was such a straightforward value prop and had such a challenger sell mentality that we took on QuotaPath so differently because it has such a persona-driven sell. There’s so much multithreading and championing, but we’re also working with a lot of smaller teams, so getting everyone on board and getting them to buy into it, it just takes a lot more coordination. I thought it was gonna be super easy, like oh, product-led growth is just transparent pricing and in-app billing, and whatever all the buzzwords are, I’m sure that’s the way to do this.
But it takes such an adherence to make sure you strike the balance between product and engineering. I think our company is more customer-centric growth. At the end of the day, the customer and empathy that you show for the customer around discovery need to transpose to the entire customer journey from end to end. I look at the product as the tip of the spear for that, of course. But that then goes from marketing to the sales team to account management and then loops back around. You have to have really tight communication between all those groups. Then you can start doing things like product qualified leads, which we have this channel that lights up whenever a certain event happens in our app that a free user is using. It’s been a journey for us for sure.
Scott: How’s it going? You’re at a pretty cool point right now.
AJ: We started the year just getting product-market fit at about 15 customers. We’re well over 200 customers today. That’s in seven months of growth.
Scott: After today, it’s gonna be 300.
AJ: We’re really working with some fascinating customers and companies that are trying to solve real business problems, the problems that we’re literally talking about right now. That gives me strong inspiration. It’s going really well, we’re hiring really well, and we have outstanding people that are on the team. I look at my exact team/ I mentioned Carrie and Caroline and my co-founder Cole, who was the director of revenue operations at TrendKite. Graham, my chief of staff, who I’ve worked with for six years. I have this great connection to a team that is very empowered to make decisions and make them in a relatively flat organization and will stay relatively flat as it relates to decision making.
Scott: You’ve always been close to sales and you’re in the middle of continuing to grow a sales team. What have you found to be kind of the profile? What are you looking for?
AJ: The things that I looked for at TrendKite or Meltwater, a lot of those still remain. Curiosity is just so important. We talk about teachability and flexibility and all of that stuff. What I realized for QuotaPath, and this goes for all of our employees, is that being genuinely interested in a person’s business goes a really, really long way and shows because you’re asking questions with much more intent, and much more understanding. As we look and think about our hiring, we’re really focused on that key trade.
Scott: Let’s talk about compensation management. You came to this from your own experience and went “Wow, this is fubar.” What has surprised you as you’ve gotten into this? How are 200 different companies dealing with this?
What’s surprised you about the challenges your customers see around compensation management?
AJ: I was really surprised how often comp plans are changing within the year. Within a quarter, we had a customer that I was working with that changed their comp plan three times within the same month. Why don’t you just put these on daily quotas like these? That doesn’t make any sense. I’d love to say that that’s a little bit more unique. I think most aren’t going that far down the rabbit hole. But changing your comp plans is just a struggle. I think what’s happening is the board is just like, well, I’ll just make these changes. It’s fine. They’ll get over it. And so you’re seeing a lot of teams where sales leadership is not involved in the compensation. Then the sales leaders have to deliver the comp plans to their teams. Your team is going to be pissed.
That happens a lot in the mid-management, sales management, and director level. I think that’s why so many people think this sales culture is not for them. It actually does tie to comp it’s like this idea that these worlds are not talking to each other. And not being in office is absolutely a part of that. I also think there’s a disconnect between leadership and salespeople where a salesperson is no longer a person. They’re just a thing. That venture or growth equity is thinking it’s just dialing for dollars. That it’s easy and anyone can be in sales, right? It’s getting worse. Not better.
Guest 1: I wanted to know what you exactly meant when you said “selling as a CEO?”
What are some things that you do in your day-to-day now, specifically?
AJ: Recruiting, I think that’s the easy one. I color coordinate my calendar. I know that there’s this idea of where you spend your actual time. I spent about 40 percent of my time today on recruitment. That’s 100 percent sales. We all know this. But I think it’s one thing that CEOs in today’s world are just not doing, which is being like the first person to talk to a really high-end candidate. I plan on doing this with at least 150 employees. After 150, it gets a little weird, but the first 150 into QuotaPath, that’s where I want to make sure I spend my time. Recruiting is number one, to literal sales.
I spend another 25 to 35 percent any given week on customer conversations, at least five to 10. That’s typically actually with the CEO or at the CRL level. I like to spend my time there and have those conversations, that curiosity piece that I mentioned earlier, that goes for me like I wouldn’t start as a founder when starting a company. If I wasn’t genuinely curious about businesses as to why we actually went down the product-led growth bucket. I was like, this is interesting. This is a unique business model. Let me try it. And I would have pivoted if it wasn’t working. But there’s some level of it that we have this what we would call flywheel that you try. Then the rest of it is on strategy, which I would also argue is sales related, which is big picture and vision to the company, where we’re headed, and what we’re thinking about. Of course, we’re doing all the 2022 planning and I have my management offsite on Thursday. That’s where I want to make sure that I’m spending my time. I feel like I have great board alignment. I don’t need to sell my board. I’m very transparent as a CEO to both my team and to make sure that the board knows we celebrate the wins, we’re always gonna have failures, and we just kind of keep learning from those and keep growing.
Guest 2: Walk us through your day, your week. How are you structuring it? What is that color coding?
AJ: I start my workday without fail, at least at 7 a.m. I have always done that. I now run in the morning at 5:30 a.m. My wife gets up at 4:30. That’s when she starts her day. She also owns a business, a childcare center. If you want to talk about a job, that is really tough to get into. Anyway, I start at 7 a.m. What I always thought about was like that seven to nine, or like my golden hours, that’s two hours a day, 10 hours a week, 40 hours in a given year now 10 hours a week, 40 hours a month, I get an extra week, every single month, right? If I can have an extra three months in a calendar year, to out-hustle, outpace anyone, I’m going to do it. I’ve always been a firm believer in that seven to nine, and just like, that’s when I get shit done. No meetings.
I take recruiting coffee meetings because I kind of have to, but I definitely feel like I can get on top of things a little bit easier. That’s when that happens. I am usually back to back. I intermittent fast, so I don’t eat lunch. I’m back to back from nine to 6 p.m. every day. I have an advisor named Liz Kane, she’s with OpenView Partners. Prior to that, she ran NetSuite’s BDR team. She and I have worked for a quarter to unlock my calendar a little bit. But I finally got like a cadence where I have a few blocks and breaks. I look forward to that hour for sure. But like I feel the energy and it doesn’t matter if it’s at the end of the day at 6 p.m. I could be doing a call at 9 p.m. I love feeding off people. I love having that cadence with people. I also mentioned that I hold one-on-ones with my team, my direct team every single week. We have our office here in Austin, there are about 25 folks on East Manor. I’ll make sure to have one on ones with them and I always do my one on ones walking if I can. So I’m a big believer in walking one-on-ones because I get distracted very easily, super hyperactive in distraction, and so walking is what ultimately helps me focus and talk to the person in a one-on-one setting.
Guest 3: We’re in sales. We don’t have a background in product, or software development or anything like that. But we see a problem and think we can turn it into a product to address the solution. How do you actually make that happen? You don’t have the ability to do it yourself.
How do you find the team to do so and actually make it into a thing that takes off?
AJ: Ignorance. I’m not even kidding. I was 27. I didn’t have that background, either that you mentioned. Matt and I, my co-founder. We’re in Austin. We came here for Startup Week, September 2012. The reason we came here is that we wanted to go through this accelerator called DreamIt Ventures. We knew the partner there. We had this idea. So we sat down with her and we basically created a PR report ahead of time and sat down and said here’s our product. Here’s a printed-out PDF. What do you think, and she loved it. So we had 15-minute office hours at the Capital Factory in 2012. That really sold her and then every single day, we just continued to focus in. When we put out a job posting for a technical co-founder and we had things I looked at I think I still have that we had like, oh, it must be must know dotnet. And if you’re interested in the cloud that would be good or helpful. It was terrible. Because Meltwater was coded in a language called Pearl, which is a super throwback if there’s anyone with computer science background here. I didn’t really know anything or like, oh, what’s Scrum? We’re just continuing to learn as fast and iterate as fast as we can and meet as many people as we could. Eventually, some people were like, wow, these guys are crazy about this idea. I don’t think they know what the hell they’re doing. But maybe I can help and join them. It didn’t matter if it was full-time hires, or if it was investors, we were funded. We did our $1.2 million Series A in 2013, with Silverton Partners here in Austin. Six months after, we founded the company. The ball kept rolling. And every single day we were just trying to learn. There are so many courses now that you can take that will help you learn about production process and product iteration and project management. I just ate all of that up. I continued to hone my craft in sales. Along the way, I learned board management. I read books, “Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist” by Brad Feld, “Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days” by Jessica Livingston, “The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls” was like a bible for me.
Scott: Let’s go one step deeper into that. We’ve had this ongoing conversation at the summit over the years around the career path, right? Does it make sense to stay an individual contributor? Does it make sense to go down the sales leadership path?
Given the environment today, the resources that are available today, if you’re in a sales role, and you want to go down this entrepreneurial path? How would you do it?
AJ: If you’re financially capable, I prescribe to the go. Just jump in with both feet. And even if you didn’t have an idea, but you know you want to start a company, you can start to iterate on that and go full in. Most people aren’t going to do that, I would probably start by just networking with founders that are earlier in their founding career like that, or like just a stage, a seed-stage, pre-seed stage, even, maybe have just gotten funded by at x Venture Partners, which is an earlier stage. Those are instant, first institutional because those founders will be more willing to talk to you a little bit about it, versus ones that are at Series B. You’re not going to talk to the CEO of big B round, right? So that’s where I think a lot of sales folks, see a lot of thought leadership that exists out on LinkedIn, and I get it, there’s a lot and a lot of those people are accessible. But I would argue a lot of them are running businesses for themselves. They build a business for themselves. That’s very different than productizing an adventure startup, those are two massively different things. And sure, they can take home a million and a half a year, that’s fine, that’s great for them. But that’s not a scalable business in terms of products or SasS, so to speak.
Scott: What I heard is, it’s really no different than what this community is about, right? Like this community is about learning from the people that are at the top of the game that we’re playing. You kind of have to choose. I think you made a good call out there’s more than one entrepreneurial path, right? There’s like a product startup founder that the track that you’re on that’s totally different from building a really nice lifestyle consulting type of business.