#HowIBuy, Quin Hoxie, CTO, Swiftype
Out of every chat that I have with sales leaders on their challenges in selling, selling to CTOs is often one of the most perplexing. CTOs like Quin Hoxie at SwiftType don’t buy like other execs.
I had a chance to chat with Quin lately for Nudge.ai’s #HowIBuy series, and the combination of his CTO mindset, along with the speed/risk profile of being an early stage, high growth business led to some interesting dynamics in how he thinks about evaluation, timing, risk, and buying.
I hope you enjoy Quin’s perspectives in reading as much as I did in interviewing.
First, let’s set some context on SwiftType. Tell us a bit about the company – what do you provide to the market and what stage are you at in terms of growth?
Swiftype provides a couple of search-based products: Enterprise Search and Site Search. Enterprise Search allows a company to connect all of their various tools — think Slack, Dropbox, Salesforce, GMail — and then make them searchable in a unified interface. Site Search is a way to add customer-facing search to websites. We are a 40 person startup in San Francisco with a mix of engineering, support, sales, and marketing.
And as for yourself, Quin, what is your role and what kind of things do you spend money on throughout a year?
I’m the CTO and one of the founders of the company. I primarily spend money on products and services for engineering, but as a small company, I also end up being involved in the vetting or approval processes for a large variety of other purchases across teams.
Let’s start into your buying process. How do you find out about what’s “out there” and discover the latest solutions that might make your world better?
I used to read a lot of commentary from the startup community (places like Hacker News and founder groups) which tends to revolve around new products either from a pitching or consuming standpoint. These days, I don’t keep up as much directly, so I rely on the team here to surface things that may be interesting.
This actually works really well for me, as it is effectively a whole group of people whom I trust discussing new products related to our business. If someone here is lobbying for us to try or buy a piece of software, it means they’ve already done some research and see real value.
What role do you play in the decision process? What role do your front-line leaders play?
In years past, I did a lot of the purchasing start to finish. Everything from identifying the need, finding options, vetting them, negotiating, and ultimately paying. Today, I rely heavily on the team to take us through most of that process. They identify needs, find options (usually from their networks), and work through the vetting process. Being curious (and skeptical), I usually like to be clued in to the evaluation so that I can understand the approach while it is happening, rather than retrospectively when we’re trying to make the purchase.
When an idea seems interesting, how do you prioritize what initiatives are “now” vs. what are “later”?
To me, a problem is either big enough to solve or it is not, so I don’t like to push things off based on many factors. The one thing that will cause me to bucket something as “later” is the cost of implementation in time and internal resources. Since we are a small company, opportunity cost is always on my mind.
The prospect of needing a product today but it taking months to set up is often too hard for me to digest. This may seem shortsighted, and I’m sure we’ve made some investments later than we should have on my watch, but I think we have a clever group here and can usually find a simpler, quicker solution.
As you go into an evaluation, what types of evaluation approaches do you actually leverage in your process?
I’m a big fan of getting my hands dirty actually using a product, usually in the context of a free trial. I’m also not against a paid trial in most cases. I tend to be a skeptical person, and while there is a lot of amazing software out there, I’ve also found that many products over-promise. You’ll never find that out with a demo or a video. For me, the two ways to discover if a product actually delivers is to try it yourself (with as near to a production use-case as you can) or to ask someone you trust who has used it.
What is different about buying today than buying a decade ago?
I’d say the biggest difference is that it has become easier to evaluate products, often without ever talking to a salesperson. I think this makes sense, because the “adopters” of software inside of companies are not always the same as the buyers any more, and that is a powerful vector if you can get the product into their hands to try.
If you decide you need a solution from a particular category today, you can likely start trials and actually use all of the competing products in the space immediately. This is a great trend for consumers and something that definitely didn’t exist looking back.
Where do salespeople play a role in your overall buying process? What is the most valuable thing a salesperson can do in selling to you?
For most purchases, I interact with a salesperson as late in the game as they will allow. This means that by the time I’m engaging with them, I have a pretty good idea of what needs to happen for the process to be successful. From my standpoint, this is a good setup on both ends as we can cut through much of the boilerplate they may have in their usual process.
Where I see a salesperson adding the most value is basically augmenting my evaluation — I’ll usually do everything I can on my own and then go to them with very pointed needs or questions to fill in the gaps. I’m happiest when they are succinct and direct.
What is the biggest mis-match between what you need and how salespeople try to sell to you?
I see a lot of process for the sake of process when I talk to salespeople. As mentioned, I usually jump to the end of their script by doing a lot of my own research and evaluation. I don’t try to hide this — I’m very up front about where I am in the process and what I need from them to help move it forward. Still, I often find myself being offered demos or marketing collateral in response to these conversations.
How do you leverage your network in understanding the landscape or individual vendor offerings?
There have been times, especially in the early days of Swiftype, where we needed to look at services in an area where I had little to no expertise. Looking to a network of other founders for advice was critical for these decisions.
A good example for us would be selecting a CRM. I remember surveying options and thinking that some of the newer offerings looked polished and lightweight, which appealed to me because I was still learning about how our sales team would operate. We got numerous recommendations to “just use Salesforce” and eventually did. It was the correct choice and one of those situations where I didn’t have the right information myself to make the call but people I trusted did.
Thanks for some great insights into your buying process Quin!