Godard Abel Transcript

Clint Betts

I'm here with Godard Abel, the CEO and founder of G2.com. Prior to G2.com, which we'll talk about here in a little bit, you were part of BigMachines, which was acquired by Oracle for $400 million in 2013. You did Steelbrick, which was acquired by Salesforce for 360 million. I believe that was an all-stock deal, is that right?

Godard Abel

Yes, we were lucky to get Salesforce shares.

Clint Betts

Yeah, you got some of that CRM stock, that's great. In 2016, tell me about your experience building those first two companies.

Godard Abel

Well, they were very different journeys. I mean, the first company BigMachines was actually a 13 year, I would say, struggle, until we got to a successful exit. Whereas SteelBrick, we were able to apply everything we learned at BigMachines in the first 13 years, and we really had just as much success in terms of getting to an exit, having impact on the world in less than two years, and so that was really exciting for me and our entrepreneurial family because we brought over a hundred people that had been part of Oracle and BigMachines into SteelBrick and then Salesforce and just to be able to use everything we learned, and do it better faster a second time. That was a wonderful experience.

Clint Betts

You're also the Executive Chairman of Threekit. Tell people what Threekit is.

Godard Abel

Yeah, Threekit is really a next generation of what we built before CPQ but it's all about visual configuration and visualization of products in 3D and AR or what now people are calling the Metaverse. What Threekit does, it really helps brands sell their products into Metaverse by creating amazing 3D digital twins, 3D visualizations of those products. It really helps in this age of e-commerce and especially with COVID, a lot of us are doing virtual shopping.

It's not safe to go into the store, but you could do a virtual try on, let's say, the shirt I'm wearing, or where you could see the couch in your room. We're working with Crate & Barrel, for example to create amazing product visualizations of the couches, and if you want to see your couch in the room in AR and VR and see what it's going to look like before they actually ship it to you with very realistic fabric, color details, shading, so you can actually really visualize how it's going to look in your room. That's the amazing technology that Threekits is providing.

Clint Betts

That's amazing. You also worked at McKinsey early on in your career, which is obviously a blue chip firm. You're known for G2.com though, which is the software and review platform. It's the world's leading software and review platform. I don't think anybody buys software without first going to G2.com to figure out what people are saying about it and all the reviews and everything like that. What had you come up with that idea and make you think that, that would turn into a business like it has? I mean, it's unbelievably successful. You've raised over a hundred million dollars for it.

Godard Abel

Yeah, no. Thank you, Clint. It was inspired by our experience as entrepreneurs building BigMachines and SteelBrick. We were always software entrepreneurs, software sellers and we saw firsthand, frankly, how hard it was for our customers to discover apps like ours. Especially my first company, BigMachines. It was our first time, we didn't raise a ton of money, and frankly most people hadn't heard of us. I remember one of our first big customers at BigMachines became Rolls Royce, not the cars, but they make truly big machines, they make big steam turbines, big power generation units.

They finally discovered BigMachines and became our customer. Then they said to me, "Wow Godard, I wish we'd discovered you two years ago. We've been trying to build this configuration software in-house and we didn't know vendors like you existed,” and so we saw this massive problem that oftentimes businesses didn't know what software would best help them solve their business problems.

On the other side, as entrepreneurs we also saw the challenge of breaking through all the noise because on G2 today, there's over a hundred thousand apps, so it makes it really hard for the buyer to find the right app to solve their business problem and it makes it really hard for the seller to break through the noise and discover their ideal customer when they're shopping. That's really what we set out to solve with G2.com. We wanted the "consumerized" shopping for business software because we just thought it was way too hard for buyers to discover apps and buyers also to trust the vendor, frankly and as I was the vendor of the pitch we realized most software buyers don't trust sales and marketing because obviously we're trying to sell our wares, and frankly tech has gotten so good at it our marketing's so shiny, our demos are so beautiful, but then I think everyone has fears in the business setting, "Hey, is this app really going to work?"

That was the other thing we really wanted to build in the G2, is to find trusted peer reviews, so you can really, Clint find someone like you and learn from them, "Hey, does this app really work as advertised?" If so, then you can make a quick buying decision.

Clint Betts

At what point did you realize that G2 was going to be successful?

Godard Abel

Well, I think the hope and belief was always there. It's quite true as an entrepreneur, you believe in the vision somehow.

Clint Betts

Oh yeah, for sure.

Godard Abel

In that sense, that was always there but then frankly, also, most entrepreneurs two years in were like, "Wow, this is much harder than we thought." We didn't have any revenue yet. What was really hard about building a review platform was actually getting the reviews and what we also learned, and we read blogs from Yelp, and Yelp was really a pioneer in consumer reviews for restaurants, bars. I think we've all used Yelp. I remember their founder wrote a blog that was interesting, and really what he said is, "99% of people never write a review."

I hate to admit this, but before I started G2, I never wrote reviews either. I had a free ride and most of us do this, always read reviews about shopping on Yelp or on Amazon is great, helped me pick better restaurants, better products, but I didn't want to take the time to write them because I'm busy, and that's true for most humans, so I think that took us a long time to figure out, "Hey, how do we get enough reviews on software products?" We started in the CRM category, which we knew, but how do we get enough reviews so that we get meaningful insight that when software buyers come, there's enough reviews, enough content that can actually help them make a better buying decision. That took quite a while to get that going.

Clint Betts

Having gone through selling two companies prior to G2, what advice would you have? It seems like there's tons of M&A happening right now. I'm sure you've noticed this. What advice would you have for entrepreneurs who are looking to sell their company right now, having gone through that process twice?

Godard Abel

Well, one I would say don't start out looking to sell your company because I think in both cases for us, it wasn't us trying to sell the company, but we had a great partnership first company actually with Salesforce and with Oracle, but Oracle, we had a lot of joint customers with their Siebel CRM on demand product, and then when Oracle wanted to get stronger in the Cloud, they actually came to us at BigMachines and said, "Hey, we'd love to turn BigMachines in Oracle CPQ Cloud, which it is today." Frankly, same thing with Salesforce. First, we were a partner, and I think our mindset was always that we knew CRM integration was really important because we were making sales quoting software, and every sales rep in the industries we're serving was already using a CRM system to update their sales pipelines, to manage their customer contacts and accounts.

We knew to offer our customers a good experience with our quoting app, it had to tie into the CRM, and so then still our technical work to make SteelBrick very seamless, we called it native integration to Salesforce, but make it so the sales rep didn't even notice they were leaving Salesforce to use SteelBrick.

We started with the customer in mind and said, "Hey, to give the sales rep the best quoting experience, it has to be totally seamless with Salesforce." We also said, "Hey, to enable that, we really want to be a close partner." Then eventually that led to a strong partnership where Salesforce also invested twice and they got to know us better and better and we already had hundreds of happy joint customers. Then at some point, Salesforce and Marc Benioff said, "Hey, we'd love to bring this to all our customers."

I think that's true of most great acquisitions in tech. Also John Somorjai, who's the EVP of Corporate Development runs Salesforce ventures. What John Somorjai always said is that great companies are bought, not sold. I think that's a really important mindset for an entrepreneur is to build a great solution. I do encourage partnering and especially in B2B software, if you have a great solution with a bigger partner at some point it may naturally do the outcome where they want to buy your company.

Clint Betts

What's it like working with and doing a deal with Marc Benioff?

Godard Abel

Well, for me it was amazing and I felt lucky. I think he's an entrepreneur I very much admire. He's also written books that I would recommend like Beyond The Cloud and very openly shared how he's built Salesforce, and also he has come up with a unique business model, including his 1-1-1, his philanthropy and so I was fascinated by Marc as a partner. I think ultimately our acquisition, the impetus where it occurred, I had a chance to meet Marc and share our SteelBrick demo, share our vision, how we could really help Salesforce customers with their quoting, with their billing and make them much more effective.

From that meeting, he just loved the demos so much. I think he's also intuitive where he saw, "Wow, if we could bring this to hundreds of thousands of Salesforce customers." That would be amazing for our customers and obviously help his business. I could tell he just got energized and I'm not sure he had the idea before the meeting. I'll never know, but I just saw his energy and then he was obviously very convincing, where being part of his company for our team and for our customers would be a natural path, so we were ultimately excited to join Salesforce.

Clint Betts

You've also been on the other side acquiring companies. What advice do you have for CEOs who are looking to buy companies right now? I mean, obviously this M&A stuff is a big deal right now.

Godard Abel

Yeah, I'd say a lot of times it emerges in a very similar way on the buy side. To give you an example, one of the companies we acquired at G2 is called Advocately, and they were actually a partner to G2. They discovered, and Patrick, their founder and CEO, was a sales rep or sales leader at a company that was actually using G2 reviews. He also realized, "Wow, it's way too hard to generate reviews to get his customers to validate his product, and so he decided to build Advocately really all to help and it's called Advocately to Unleash Your Customer Advocates to help them write reviews.

He actually focused on G2 because he saw we were becoming the most influential platform, and he had about 70 companies that were using Advocately to generate more reviews on G2. I got to know him at a couple of SASRA conferences and loved his vision. It was like what Marc Benioff said, "Wow, now we have 2,700. If I could take this from 70 to 2,700 G2 customers by having you join our team, that would be amazing for our customers. It'd be good for our business.” The other thing is always the chemistry. I do think that's important in tech, the cultures fit, and I do think it starts with the CEOs or the entrepreneurs also having a common vision, common values. I definitely felt that with Patrick, you also have to just feel the vibe. Do you both get more excited, more energized when you talk about the prospect of bringing the products and the companies together?

That was clearly the case with Patrick, and then I got excited, built a business case, took it to our board and they agreed they would accelerate our business, so I do think partnering, getting to know each other and building relationships and having the trust, because I also think in tech, very much Salesforce philosophy, our philosophy, if you buy company and everyone just quits day one, there's really no point in doing the deal because all these tech products are works in progress. I think you only want the deal to happen if you're confident the cultures are aligned, you're going to enjoy working together, you're going to have a bigger impact on the world together.

I think that only happens through building relationships and partnerships. Sometimes you hear stories, and I've never used an investment banker either. It's always just natural relationships. Obviously some people sell their company that way, but to me the best deals happen through natural partnering relationship building, and then at some point it's just the right time for both companies to come together.

Clint Betts

What do you think about fundraising? You've obviously raised a lot of money for all of these various ventures. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs or founders or CEOs going through that right now or seeking that or the best way to finance your company? I know you're close to Ryan Westwood at Simplus, who I think is a real innovator in the way that he went about funding his company using all sorts of different strategies, both VC, debt, all the variety of ways that he did that. How do you think about fundraising now?

Godard Abel

You're right, I think Ryan Westwood, great fundraiser at Simplus and obviously scaled that company super successfully now, it's part of Infosys as you know. I think one of the things he did that I would recommend, I mean he raised money through relationships, we were his partner at SteelBrick. He went in on SteelBrick CPQ even before we were bought by Salesforce and it was similar, he and I met as entrepreneurs. We had equal values, excitement. We both walked away really energized. Ryan said, "Hey, I'll go and I'll SteelBrick,” and we said, "Awesome." We were still a nascent startup. In fact, at the time, Infosys, Accenture, the big partners wouldn't have wanted to work with us anyway but then I also wound up investing because you all asked me, but I wound up personally investing because I really liked Ryan.

I believed in him. Obviously, I saw the value to our customers, our partners and I think he did the same with many Silicon Slopes entrepreneurs. I think Ryan is based in Utah where you are, Clint, and so I think getting to know entrepreneurs in your local community, and I think he had also had Josh James founders, CEO of Domo, another very famous entrepreneur, invest. He started out with building relationships in the entrepreneurial community and entrepreneurs that have success, having them invest.

I do think investing, especially at an early stage, is such a trust business that I think if there isn't a personal connection and you don't have a relationship to build on, I think it's really hard. Obviously some companies just have the perfect metrics. I've never honestly had a company like that. I've heard stories about Mark Zuckerberg, he turned on Facebook, all of Harvard was using it overnight, so some businesses, but I think they're one in a billion, have just perfect metrics. Frankly, if you have perfect metrics, Tiger will call you and fundraising is easy, but I think most of us don't as entrepreneurs, and then I do think building relationships first and building personal trust is the key.

Early stage, usually there aren't many metrics, so the person writing the check has to trust you and believe in you, believe in your vision, and believe that you're going to turn their money into a great business.

Clint Betts

You know what's interesting about Ryan? As you were talking about that, it reminded me of a story. I've known Ryan forever. We both grew up in Utah, both grew up on farms, both grew up in the same area. Actually, we both managed a franchise of a deli just one town apart, which is really funny, so I've known Ryan for a long time, and early on it wasn't called Simplus, I can't remember what he was calling it prior to Simplus.

Godard Abel

I think it was called…

Clint Betts

There was this organization…

Godard Abel

...Beach.

Clint Betts

Yeah, something like that.

Godard Abel

Yeah.

Clint Betts

There was this organization here in Utah County, which is where we're from, the county inside of Utah that we live in. It was called Utah Venture Entrepreneurial Forum. It'd been around for about 30 years, but it's been like when Ryan and I started getting associated with this organization, it had been languishing. There were a lot of service providers and things like that inside the organization, and so what we did, it was really funny. We took over the organization. Ryan was the chair of it. I don't know what I was inside of that thing, but I was something. He created a board where everyone else on the board was a venture capitalist.

It was every venture fund in the state of Utah who was on the board of this thing. I think we even rebranded it to the Utah Venture Entrepreneur Forum or something like that to make that clear, and he built all those relationships. I believe a number of the people who were on that board invested in Simplus and are still investors to this day in that company, and then when he left, it's just like, all right, I think we folded into the Silicon Slopes or something. The way he did that was so beautiful in building relationships, like you were saying.

Godard Abel

Yeah. No and I think you're right. I think Clint, frankly what you're doing today, I know you're CO Silicon Slope, I think you're making a lot easier entrepreneurs or in Chicago where we started G2, there's an incubator now called 1871, and I think most entrepreneurial communities now have some kind of hub, but I think Silicon Slopes, and I think you make a lot easier because the VCs, they come to your events, and I had a chance to speak at your Silicon Slopes Summit, but you bring together all the entrepreneurs, the VCs, the partners and that obviously makes a lot easier.

I think at those events, if you're the entrepreneur, you really have to also put in the energy and the effort to go and meet them. At the beginning, really all you have is your energy and your passion, but I think then having the courage and the conviction to build those relationships, and it is hard the first time.

I think as a first time entrepreneur, it's really hard to raise money. Now, Ryan, I think some day he'll probably build another venture. My second and third, and now I'm involved in two more. Obviously with every success you have, it's easier to raise money but I think that first time it's really hard because you have no track record and there are more people also trying.

Yes, there's more funding dollars, but I think if you look at it, there aren't actually more deals being done. It's like the companies that can raise money can raise more and raise it really fast, but it's still a struggle, I think, for most entrepreneurs to raise money for their first company.

Clint Betts

I'm sure you're thinking about this and following it quite a bit. What are your thoughts on Web3? What's happening in Miami? What's happening in New York City? What's happening even like Wyoming, and obviously here in the state of Utah? And I'm not sure about Chicago, but I'm sure that everyone's talking about this. How are you thinking about that? That feels like this whole new wave.

Godard Abel

Yeah. No, and Clint, I think Web3 is tremendously exciting. I was also lucky, I did hear about the Blockchain Bitcoin a few years ago and luckily bought some Bitcoin. I've always loved the concept of adding more trust to the internet by having a really trusted ledger that can really connect parties, facilitate transactions.

I recently heard Marc Andreessen speak about it, but I think what he says is it's adding the layer of trust that's always been missing in the internet, in the Cloud by really authenticating people and enabling transactions, enabling trust, so I do think it has tremendous potential.

Clint Betts

Do you think Silicon Valley will ever be Silicon Valley again?

Godard Abel

I think it'll probably never have the same percentage of global entrepreneurship. I think I used to look at it, global tech, half of it was in Silicon Valley, and I spent time there.

After SteelBrick and Salesforce, actually I moved out to Palo Alto when we were acquired because I was working out of the headquarters of Salesforce, and I think the Silicon Valley, traditionally, always had about 50% of global tech was in the Valley, which is just incredible. And then 50% was everywhere else in the world: Utah, Chicago, India, wherever and I don't think that'll ever happen again. I think Silicon Valley will continue, there's so much money there. I think it'll keep growing, but now entrepreneurship, I think is growing faster everywhere else, including Utah, Silicon Slopes, that's booming. Chicago, but G2 we're also a very global platform.

We acquired a startup in Bengaluru in India and so I also went right before the pandemic, they had an event called SaaSBOOMi, and now the example is Fresh Works. That was a company started in Chennai, India. They did a massive IPO this year. Another company has a lot of success on G2, UI path. They went public, $40 billion market cap, and they started in Romania, and so I think the reality is it's really cool now you can build a startup anywhere, especially SaaS in the Cloud. I do think that trend is going to continue where I think great entrepreneurs, great companies, will be built more and more anywhere in the world, not just in the Silicon Valley.

Clint Betts

What's the best leadership advice you've ever received?

Godard Abel

Well, one is core career advice before I was even really a leader. I remember I was working at McKinsey, and you mentioned it earlier, I was a very well-known management consulting firm. My first couple of years I was fresh out of school MIT, so I prided myself probably like most MIT students, but I was pretty good at math, good at analytics but I prided myself as, "Hey, I'm just the spreadsheet guy and I'll do the analysis, I'll run the spreadsheet, I'll drop the slide but then when the meeting's happening with the client or the senior partner, I'm just going to stay quiet and if somebody asks me a question, I'll do that." Then it was really interesting. I remember John Perlese was one of my first senior engagement managers, one of my projects and he just said to me, "Hey, you've got to speak up."

I was like, "What do you mean? I thought I was doing a good job." He's like, "Hey, when we're in the meeting with the senior partner and you know something from the data that the partner's not seeing, you got to speak up. You have to share your insights, share your knowledge."

That was just a really empowering moment for me, and then I started trying it and I'm like, "Oh wow, people will actually also listen to me and value my opinion, not just my spreadsheet skills." I just remember that being a breakthrough moment that I think also a lot of young people... And then I think also as an entrepreneur it's very important. That's talking about relationship building.

I remember one of the things I did early on, my BigMachines days and Marc Benioff, a Salesforce era partner, I remember he was speaking, it was right before their IPO. He was speaking at a big conference in Chicago and frankly just having the courage, I just walked up to him and talked to him and told him my idea, and so I think having that courage to speak up, share your convictions, share your insights, that to me was a big breakthrough moment to shift from just being a nerdy engineer and smart analyst to really having a bigger impact in business.

Clint Betts

Do you read a lot of business books? What's your favorite in that category?

Godard Abel

Yes, I do. I do love business books. I love reading about entrepreneurs and I like reading about Carnegie. I read his biography, Rockefeller. Some people would say, "Well, that was 150, 200 years ago. It's not relevant today." I actually think the basic leadership principles, people, innovation, that's never changing. Obviously tech is a whole new medium, so I love reading some of the classics, if you will.

Then I think more contemporary, one that really inspired me recently is No Rules Rules. That's from Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix. He talks a lot about how together with Patty McCord, their chief people officer, how they built a really unique no rules culture at Netflix and really focused on talent density and just an extraordinary company.

I just hired a chief people officer, Preti Patel, and we're both drawing inspiration from that. We're like, "Hey, how can we build such a unique culture that someday we can write a book about it?" That's one of the recent ones. I am also a big fan of Marc Benioff and certainly Behind the Cloud, and he wrote another book. But anyone in SaaS and Cloud, I would certainly recommend his books.

Clint Betts

Oh, I totally agree. Well, I want to be respectful of your time. Last question, What does the future of G2 look like?

Godard Abel

Well G2, we want to realize our vision. We want to be the place you go for software. What we want, Clint, is every time, and you're a knowledge worker, you're a CEO business leader, but every time you need software to make your work better, we just want you to think of G2.com, and we want to be the most trusted, influential site and marketplace for software.

I think today that's true in some categories, but I hope in three to five years that will be true for a billion knowledge workers around the world and as we achieve that, we do hope this time to ring the bell and build a meaningful public company, so that's my unfulfilled dream as an entrepreneur.

Clint Betts

Oh, you're going to do it with this one. I think G2 is an incredible company. It's amazing what you've built, my friend. Thank you so much for coming on. It really means a lot and I'll read your book when you publish it.

Godard Abel

Thank you Clint. I hope to come back to the Silicon Slopes next year and see you and the great Silicon Slopes community again in person.

Clint Betts

Let's do it. Thanks my friend. Appreciate it.

Godard Abel

Oh, thank you.

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