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From our CEO - Culture Amp: A seven-year overnight success

About seven years ago, after 13 years of working for Hollywood and five years as CEO for Rising Sun Pictures, I realized that I had woken up every morning for months asking myself: Didier, what is it you’re most passionate about? In my heart, I knew it wasn’t what I was doing. 

As I kept asking myself, “What am I most passionate about?”, I kept coming back to people and culture. I knew that I wanted to build something in the organizational development space. How could I create something with software that would help people and help companies?

The original core idea, which is still true to this day, was that I wanted to write software to help people scale culture. The day I scribbled two words on a piece of paper - Culture Amp – was the day I knew I had my company.

It’s simple math: 10,000 x $10K = $100 million

I started out with the world’s most naïve business plan. I decided I’d build a business where ten thousand organizations were willing to spend ten thousand dollars a year with my company. So from the beginning I focused on B2B at a time when everybody else was B2C. I figured people are willing to pay, to some extent, relative to the size of the problem that you’re solving. I wanted to solve a problem that could change working life, and that was not going to be worth $9 a month.

On the other hand, I don’t believe that the future of software is million dollar deals. I made a goal from the beginning to create simpler, lighter tools: technologies that everybody could use rather than just trying to solve a problem for one small part of the market. Balancing those two thoughts, $10,000 a year seemed a good, round number to aim for.

Co-working at Inspire9, and the start of Culture Amp

After attending a conference, fellow speaker Tom Howard from Adioso invited me to a dinner, where I met Jon Williams and Doug English. When Jon and Doug found out I was working from home they told me they worked out of a co-working space called Inspire9 on the edge of Melbourne CBD. I never looked back.

For the next six months, I sat side-by-side Jon and Doug as we each worked on our own businesses. We shared our discoveries and struggles of our respective projects until finally someone suggested the crazy but inevitable: we should join forces. We brought in a fourth founder, Rod Hamilton, and that’s how Culture Amp was started.

The early days: Hustle and persistence

When people ask what I think someone needs to be an entrepreneur, I say there are two things above all else: hustle to break doors down and get people to talk to you, and persistence to keep going when people build those broken doors back up and slam them in your face. You need to keep going past the point where any sane person would have given up.

For a year and a half we didn’t take a cent from the business. I can’t count the number of times I asked myself would it ever work? There were several times when I’d spent pretty much every cent I’d made over the rest of my working life, and I’d turn to my wife and ask, “Why am I doing this? Is this ever going to turn around?”

We went through phases where we didn’t know how we’d pay our bills, and each time pulled it out at the last minute, grabbing a bit more work to make it happen. I learned not to carry any debt, so that if somebody was going to get burnt, that only somebody would be me.

For the first 18 months, we had almost no validation. We had no revenue. We had a product, we had belief, we could convince people to take meetings, but there was no guarantee it would turn into a substantial business.

I think this might work…Landing Adobe as a client

Every success story has that moment where you get that glimmer of confidence that the dream is going to work. For me, it was landing Adobe as a client.

We had a couple of product failures – a performance review product and a product based around a book called The Checklist Manifesto – which caused us to start over. But that meant by the time Adobe came along, we had a product that was refined and that we knew could solve Adobe’s problem – we just had to convince them of it.

Adobe was skeptical of our ability to deliver, but we had a champion who put herself on the line, because she believed in us and in our product.

I was lucky to have worked in film, where I was used to being thrown big problems that you had to work out how to solve. No matter what, you never dropped the ball. You always deliver. I went to them and I actually said, “You’ll be demanding, I’m sure, you can’t be as demanding as Spielberg was. I’m sure we’re fine. We’ll make this work,” and we did.

Thankfully, it worked out well for everyone. I can’t describe the feeling of validation when a giant like Adobe says, "You’re the people that can solve our problem. We believe in you."

Never lose the fear

We’ve been lucky enough to be on a pretty meteoric rise at Culture Amp. Every month we’re doing better than the last and we’re growing spectacularly.

But you realize that as a startup, whether you’ve raised money or not, there’s a fine line between life and death. Even in a fast growth environment, even when you’ve got a lot of cash in the bank, you’re only ever a few months away from your business not being relevant anymore. Particularly in this market, if you fall off the curve even a little bit, by the end of the day nobody knows who you are. For us, that’s an ever-present thing.

I take that fear, I embrace it and I use it to make sure Culture Amp doesn’t get complacent. You never get to sit back and say, "I’ve made it." But I’m happy to be able to say, "We’re definitely heading in the right direction."

 

Didier Elzinga is a People Geek and CEO/Co-Founder of Culture Amp. You can follow Didier on MediumTwitter or LinkedIn.