Algolia: Getting Sales Off the Ground

With 65 employees and 2,200+ customers in 100+ countries, Algolia powers search on some of the world’s top media (Medium, Periscope, Twitch), eCommerce (LVMH, Calvin Klein, Arcteryx) & enterprise (Front, Aftership, Meta) apps. While some customers integrate it directly into their Zendesk help center or their Shopify store, others access the API directly for more customized implementations, making the use cases for the product pretty broad.

After implementing Algolia on David Skok’s SaaS blog forEntrepreneurs, the improved search experience helps readers access the most relevant content, faster. We recently sat down with Gaetan Gachet, VP of Sales, to learn more about the company and how they built a flexible sales process that works with the many types of customers they sell to.

What was the state of sales when you joined Algolia in 2013?

Gaetan: When I joined, Algolia was just Nicolas & Julien (the founders) and our VP of Engineering Sylvain, who joined a few weeks before me. We were selling to friends and a few other clients, including SocialCam. We had about 4k in MRR.

The team was all engineers and we talked about the product from a technical perspective, which is not very compelling for potential customers. I began to develop our strategy around the product and messaging and focused on understanding everything about the product to be able to pitch the technical aspects in a way that is accessible.

Was there a typical type of customer you saw coming in initially?

Gaetan: Initially we saw a lot of e-commerce players, which made a lot of sense because that’s the industry for which the search engine is the most connected to revenue.

The second most common segment was media — one of our first users was Product Hunt. The value of a media website is in the amount of content they offer and how fast people can reach it. As their user base grows, more content is needed to satisfy each user. But, as more content is created, it becomes harder to filter it and surface the most relevant results for a particular user.

While website traffic might be growing, user experience is actually declining. A really good search engine solves this: as the user starts typing, Algolia immediately connects them with the <1% of content they’re actually interested in, filtering out the noise in milliseconds. For the media segment, we connect users to the tip of the iceberg that really interests them as fast as possible. They don’t even see what’s under the surface that isn’t relevant.

How did you think about sales needs and scaling the team as you started to close more deals?

Gaetan: When selling an API, customers often know a lot and may even be more techie than we are. Acting like a know-it-all doesn’t work. We always ask lots of questions, build credibility and guide people toward the best way to use the API. We’re selling a toolbox that can be used in many different ways.

We knew we need to scale the sales team by the end of the first year when we had closed a few deals in the $50k range. Our largest deal at the time was $80k per year. When you close a $50k deal you’re not talking to one person; it’s not just your champion who is the decision maker. There is a champion, a decision maker and often opponents internally. The sales team needs to talk to all these internal parties inside the account. So, at the end of 2014, I started looking for the right people to join the sales team and started thinking about scaling.

What are some of the sales challenges you faced?

Gaetan: The biggest challenge we have today has been the same since the beginning. Larger prospects often have internal search they’ve built themselves. These accounts essentially have internal competition.

What we’re seeing for the backend is that anything not really specific to your business can be handled externally as a set of services. There’s Twilio for messaging, Stripe for payments, Firebase for database management (acquired by Google), and Algolia for search. We believe these pieces should be handled by experts like us. We can provide the best search experience because we’ve seen many different use cases and the API today so robust that it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel.

How do you approach this particular situation and convince a large company to switch from internally hosted search to Algolia?

Gaetan: It’s a longer sales process for larger companies. We keep conversations alive over time because we know eventually they will question their IT organization.

We often see companies reach the point where they decide change is needed. They cut their backend into pieces and decide what should be built internally and what should be outsourced. Most of the accounts with whom we had roadblocks internally went through this phase and decided search is not something they want to develop internally. That’s when the deal gets closed. The key is continuing communication through this process and keeping the conversation alive until that happens.

How do you hire people who are a great fit for the type of selling you do?

Gaetan: When we started hiring for the sales team, we wanted to make sure to hire people who can sell through Skype because it’s central to our approach. A lot of people can fill quotas but were not the right kind of folks for us.

Our hiring process is really tough. In the final step, we organize a mock meeting with the candidate. Our existing sales team members play the role of a very large, retail company (we pick a known company). Forty-eight hours before the meeting, we give the candidate access to a ton of resources. By doing this, we’re able to test their capacity to learn about a product extremely quickly. During the onsite they present a plan to the entire company. Our Paris office joins through live-stream; it’s a high-pressure environment.

Right now, we’re doing a few of these per week. We’ve been using this process for a couple years and it’s expanded and become the test for every candidate in every role on the sales team. It’s really useful because it means even our engineers can assess the quality of sales candidates. It also preserves our culture of being a cohesive organization that avoids disconnect between sales and engineering.

Coming soon: Algolia’s Early Sales Tactics that Moved the Needle

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