Ask Me Anything

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Ask Alex MacCaw Anything

Alex Maccaw is founder and CEO of Clearbit, which helps businesses grow by providing tools that help them deeply understand their customers, identify future prospects, and highly personalize every single marketing and sales interaction. Prior to founding Clearbit, Alex was employee #20 at Stripe.

Alex has built sales and marketing tools used by some of the best in the business, and has written extensively about how he approaches leadership. So, if you have a question for him, jump in below and ask it!

This AMA took place on Tuesday, February 18, 2020.

17

What is Clearbit X?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

Let me paste an internal memo:

How do you build a successful company? The mantra of Y Combinator, the famed startup accelerator, has always been: make something people want. In other words, make something useful, and people will beat a path to your door.

Perhaps that was true a decade ago, but look around and you will see companies with great products that are struggling - why is that?

It turns out there has been a shift in the fundamental requirements for success, especially in the B2B SAAS world. In the past, having a great product was enough. Today it's table-stakes. It has become easier and easier to build a great product thanks to AWS, new development frameworks, and open source libraries that save us years of development time. Because of the low interest rates and an abundance of capital, it’s never been an easier time to start a business. All of this has led to an explosion of SaaS companies (over 8000 in the Martech space alone).

What this means, is that it’s no longer enough to build the best product. Today, companies have to excel at both product and go-to-market (sales & marketing) in order to succeed.

The companies that are succeeding are taking a product-like mindset to their go-to-market motions. They've automated marketing processes, built experiment frameworks for testing, and quickly iterated to optimize the most out of their funnels. In other words, they've built growth engines.

Look around you at the technology companies killing it right now: Segment, Slack, Stripe, Zendesk. They all treat growth like a product, building scalable growth engines that are fuelling their incredible success.

At Clearbit, we've been right in the thick of this. One of the reasons we've been so successful over the last five years is that we've been selling shovels in a gold-rush. Our data is the fuel used to power our customers’ growth engines. We've noticed something interesting though.

Firstly, building these home-grown growth engines are very expensive. A growth engine requires unified access to all of the data you have, both first and third party, a tricky undertaking. It requires engineers to pipe it all together at near real-time speeds. And it requires hiring domain experts who understand the cutting edge of sales and marketing tech.

Secondly, these home-grown growth engines more or less look the same. They all have three characteristics: a way of creating demand (e.g. ads), understanding when people show intent to buy, and converting that intent.

So we asked ourselves a simple question: What would it take to build a growth engine that worked out of the box? That's why we built Clearbit X.

At Clearbit, we're already domain experts in the latest go-to-market tech. We also have the underlying backbone of data necessary. We can leverage all of that to build a world class universal growth engine, saving our customers the trouble of reinventing the wheel.

X is a ground-breaking technology that marries our customer's own database with ours. With X, you can:

Identify and reach your entire total addressable market (i.e. ads)
Increase conversion to intent by providing target accounts with a custom experience using Reveal & Personalization
Convert accounts that show intent by ensuring your sales team reaches out at the exact right moment (sales alerts)

Hope that answers the question!

15

What software is most impactful on your day-to-day role as CEO at Clearbit?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

Things I couldn't live without:

Asana - our entire company runs out of it. I'm in love.
Notion - our company wiki is in Notion. It has its issues (no API), but overall I love writing in it.
Things - keep all my personal tasks in there.
Slack, Zoom, etc for remote
Spotify

14

How has Clearbit's pricing evolved over the years?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

Short answer, a lot. Long answer:

We started out with an all you can eat plan for $99-$499. This obviously turned out to be a terrible idea. People did not want to pay for APIs they weren't using. It's also way to cheap.

We then moved to annual upfront deals starting at $12k. This worked very well, and our ACV is about $30k now.

12

Who do you consider to be Clearbit's most direct and formidable competitors?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

Today: DiscoverOrg - we compete head-on with a number of our product lines.

A few years from now: nobody. We've built a product (X) that is nothing like anything else in the market today.

10

Do you still code?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

Nothing in production (very sadly) but I do code some internal tools [1]. I coded for way to long which resulted in a big delay putting together our product team, which held us back.

[1] -

10

How were you able to attract talent in the early days?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

There are two ways founders attract talent in the early days.

  1. Pure charisma. Being someone people want to work with.
  2. Being exceptional good at picking diamonds in the rough - untapped talent (usually at the start of their career).

The early people at Clearbit were all friends of friends. They are all here five years later!

9

Why is Clearbit's Prospector API only available on enterprise?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

Because startups churn like crazy. Especially for this product.

9

How do you balance 'company building' vs. 'day-to-day execution' activities? How do you structure your management team to handle both objectives?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

By 'day to day execution activities' I'm assuming you mean individual contributor (IC) work.

CEOs should be doing no IC work. I'm an expert delegator, 99% of the work on my plate gets delegated to my leadership team, who delegate it again.

Many CEOs are bad at delegation. They create busy work for themselves because they believe 1) they are better at doing it than others and 2) being busy 24/7 will set a good example. Both are mistakes.

The line is a bit fuzzier on the leadership team. Generally, 80% of their time should be spent on high leverage company building work, while 20% is on IC work. Even in those cases, they should constantly be looking out for things they should be delegating.

Every now and again I do audits of my team's calendars to ensure they are focussed on the right things.

9

If you had to start again Clearbit with today's knowledge what you had done differently in terms of founding?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 
  1. Raise less money in the seed round (probably half as much)
  2. Hire a customer success team earlier on - only hire people with prior experience.
  3. Take more photos of the early days

Overall I'm pretty happy with our execution. We were saved early on by getting coaching (Matt Mochary [1]) and with Conscious Leadership [2].

[1] - https://www.amazon.com/Great-CEO-Within-Tactical-Building-ebook/dp/B07ZLGQZYC
[2] - https://blog.alexmaccaw.com/conscious-leadership

9

Why earl grey?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

Because I'm British, and I love Star Trek.

This is my favorite Earl Grey:
https://www.smithtea.com/products/lord-bergamot

8

Best tips to achieve mental clarity?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

Slow down, pause. Think about context over content. How are you feeling - are you above or below the line? Are you feeling creative or defensive? See [1]

Also, meditate.

[1] - https://blog.alexmaccaw.com/conscious-leadership

5

You said that you're charging annually, how do you track growth? Are you tracking only the ARR?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

We track topline growth a number of ways, but primarily via ARR.

5

What aspect of Clearbit are you most proud of?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

I'm most proud of our culture. We have hired some really awesome people that I just love to be around. I get to work with many of my best friends every day. What could be better than that?

5

You mentioned you would have raised less during your seed round if you could do it again. What trade-offs do you evaluate when thinking about when raising?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

The tradeoffs are clear: risk/reward. Raise too much and you get too diluted, raise too little and you may not have enough money to show progress to get to the next round. Often your valuation is a little aspirational and you grow into it.

Is owning 50% of a 10M ARR company better than owning 5% of an 100M ARR company?
It depends on your goals in life. If you want to fast track your learning & personal growth than start a venture-backed business. If you want a chill time run a lifestyle business. Both are fine choices.

Have VC add-on services actually been useful?
Generally, they are vastly overstated. Assume value-neutral to value-negative. Some of our investors are the exception, but they're rare.

Does taking investment change the things you prioritise?
Of course - growth :)

4

What's your fitness regimen? Do you exercise/diet?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

I go to Barry's Bootcamp Monday & Wednesday, and gym Tuesday and Thursday. It's very important to get exercise most days if you have a stressful job (like being a CEO).

4

what are your thoughts on building a company in SF?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

If I was building a company from scratch again, I would either build it entirely distributed, or I would build it in Canada and take advantage of the exchange rate / lower wages.

SF is insanely expensive; building a large company here is no longer viable. However, what is still viable is a small headquarters. The advantage being that you can hire really talented people, especially for leadership roles.

4

If Clearbit hadn't taken off, what would you be doing with your life?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

Probably running a lifestyle business, traveling, and writing.

4

What's the most transformative / memorable feedback you've received?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

Two pieces of feedback come to mind:

  1. "You suck at public speaking" - probably not the most consciously worded feedback, but inspired me to get a speaking coach.

  2. "You need an exec coach" - I wrote about this here: https://blog.alexmaccaw.com/ceo-coaches

3

what do your work hours look like in a typical day?

Answer
@maccaw Founder/CEO, Clearbit
 

I wake up at 8am, get in the office by 9am. Then I work till 5pm, go to Barrys, and then head back to the office. Some nights I work till midnight, others I have dinners (which are typically work dinners). Make no mistake, building a startup is very hard and requires a lot of time; don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise. It's important to take exercise during the week and unwind (or party!) on the weekend.