Still Curious S1E9 - Bo Alroe

Bo Alroe00:00

So we knew nothing about higher education at all when we started out. All that energy to find universities and speak with them and interview with them and understand their needs and show them what we had, where we had gotten to, that was all driven by curiosity.

Danu Poyner00:21

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is Bo Alroe, an expert in sales management strategy and execution in the enterprise software industry based in Denmark. Bo is formerly a co-owner of Atira, a Danish software company most well-known for creating a system called Pure that helps universities manage their publications and information about their research.

This was a new category of system when it was created in the early 2000s.

Bo Alroe00:51

And we had no knowledge of the size of the mountain we were climbing. And at that point we were still learning and remember they were learning. It's not like they had a vision of a perfect research information management system that didn't exist at the time.

Danu Poyner01:04

I met Bo a few years ago when I was managing a project to select and implement a research information management system at an Australian university. And we selected Bo's system Pure. Bo and I have since worked together at Digital Science, a global data science company, also in the tech for research space.

In this episode, we're doing a deep dive into Bo's experience with Pure, from how it got started.

Bo Alroe01:27

Strategy was, we'll work for food, really!

Danu Poyner01:30

Through to training at global sales team.

We talk about how most people think about sales.

Bo Alroe01:35

It's a scheming, middle-aged white man in a suit. That's not tailor-made with an automated smile with the agenda to get to your money as fast as possible. Right? That's what people understand. When you say sales person,

Danu Poyner01:48

and what Bo thinks good sales is really all about

Bo Alroe01:51

it's about how you come into a room, where it comes alive is the quality of the communication.

Danu Poyner01:56

There's lots of great insights to glean here for anyone in sales it, or indeed anyone who works with clients. And I'm very grateful for Bo's generosity in sharing his hard won experience. Enjoy! It's Bo Alroe coming up after the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious podcast.

Hi Bo. Welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Bo Alroe02:41

Hi Danu .Thanks a lot. I'm very well.

Danu Poyner02:44

Lots to talk about. So I might just dive straight in.

So you describe yourself as working in sales, planning, and execution in the software and data industry, where you lead sales of advanced technological products and services to large organizations with complex business needs in specific domains. And in these roles, you develop an operationalized sales strategy and help internationalize or enter new geographies or verticals.

That's a lot going on there. What would you say is the most important thing for someone to understand that you

Bo Alroe03:17

I can hear you got that from my LinkedIn profile. I don't know what I was thinking. I don't know what I was thinking. That's a lot of words. The important thing I think if we boil it down is to listen to clients.

What people call sales, at least when we're talking enterprise systems like Pure is for example, it's about the subject matter knowledge, it's about the client needs, understand the business needs really well, and then don't think of success as getting a signature and selling something. That's not the success. That's just a step towards the success.

The success is two years later when the project is finished ,when the system is up and running, when the user acceptance is high, when the data round trips are good and solid, and when everyone is smiling and saying that works, we finally had a good IT project. That's your success that you want the first day you come into the room and that's what your mind should be about,

not the signature or your sales quota for the third quarter or whatever. If the competition is lurking outside in the parking lot, forget that and focus on the meeting and make it a good meeting. And that is also how we took a Pure, to market back when all that happened.

Danu Poyner04:27

Oh I'm definitely going to ask you about Pure and that'll be a bit of a deep dive that we do today. But before we get to that, I guess it's important to mention the subject matter that you spoke about you're especially a subject matter expert when it comes to research management systems, the universities, and Pure that you've mentioned is currently one of the market leading research management systems, but something I always like to do on the podcast is how would you explain what a research management system is to say a 10 year old?

Bo Alroe04:57

So I would describe a research information management system to a ten-year-old by saying, 'you know universities where people go to get education, they also do a lot of research and that's really important because that's how they teach to some extent, and every time they do research they also do papers, right?

Research papers. And you would think that they're really good at taking care of them, but sometimes they're not. Sometimes they struggle with that. And the research information management system is a database system to help them, a computer system to help them manage the papers, keeping track of them, making sure they have the right versions and analyzing them, knowing which authors are in which disciplines, knowing who funded them, knowing when the funding scheme has run out and, things like that.

So, it helps to take care of all the research papers.

Danu Poyner05:47

That makes sense. And clearly research management systems are very important to running a university and quite an obvious thing that you would think you would need, but that kind of system hasn't always exist. And as I understand it, the company that you co owned Atira helped to create that product category.

So I'm very interested in what kind of curiosity it takes to not just start a company, but also to create a product category like that, that hasn't existed. Maybe you could tell me about how that all got started.

Bo Alroe06:20

Sure. There was this thing called the dotcom bubble back around the year 2000 and a lot of IT companies went bankrupt and closed in that year.

And just around that, including some of the employers where we were before

We were either unemployed or had jobs that weren't that meaningful, in an attempt to. Make a living and support our families. So we all came from that and Kim and Beau and Thomas my old partners in the company had started the company about a year before before I joined and became a co-owner

and they were basically just doing maintenance of solutions, software solutions that were already in the market, but where the suppliers have gone away because of the troubles in the industry and they will maintain these. So strategy was, will work for food. Really. There was no strategy. We were, doing what we could to establish turnover and get a business going.

And it started for us with the local university here in Aalborg in Denmark, requiring what they call a publication management system. And you have to remember. We all came in Atira from from general IT, nobody had worked in higher education before this project Aalborg University. So we knew nothing about higher education at all.

When we started out and when I started out, I was 100% blank. I had a vague conceptual understanding of what a research publication was and that was it. The concept of a citation was something I learned from clients, for example.

Danu Poyner07:58

Yeah. I've a few questions about this the company that you mentioned Atira, what was your role?

Bo Alroe08:05

It was the external communication go-to market sales talking with clients the other three were all computer scientists by education. I came from communication at Aalborg university. And therefore it was natural for me to take the client facing roles. Do sales, find new clients, tell them about Pure and what it could do and listen to their further needs

and what I did for the first couple of years where we were learning so much that we learned everything from clients in those days and listening to them and understanding their needs to the full extent and generalizing software that could support those needs and that communication. I was just the one receiving information from clients.

First, in most cases, like setting up workshops, interviewing just asking questions until I understood what they meant. And that goes to the point of view or your series here, because curiosity had everything to do with that. And we weren't aware of that at the time. I think that we will not self-aware that we were going around being curious, but that really is what happened all that energy to find universities and speak with them and interview them and understand their needs and show them what we had, where we had gotten to that was all driven by curiosity by us, but also by the universities, I met a lot of Goodwill and interest and curiosity from universities in the, I dunno, between 2000 and I think 2004 was the year where Pure really became a product in its own.

Right.

Danu Poyner09:41

Yeah. So we've set the scene a bit here, you and some colleagues working for food essentially, and turning that into a business and then Pure has become the signature. Product of that company. And as you mentioned , you didn't know anything about the higher education space and no one had experience with that.

So it would have been a very steep learning curve. Were you at all daunted by that prospect or did you just dive in?

Bo Alroe10:07

We weren't looking at it at the time. We have no knowledge of the size of the mountain. We were climbing as we were climbing and that made it less daunting.

Danu Poyner10:16

Yeah. If you'd have known at the time, you may not have done it.

Bo Alroe10:22

I'm not sure that anyone would take a deliberate decision, but it was a really good cycle. Right. We have a basic system that could do basic things and it did it well. Remember three partners at the time were, and they were more employees at the time by the way, it was not just the four of us. And we were lucky to have some really good people.

They were super skilled and really talented in software architecture and code writing. The art of establishing a business with standard software really is at least to some extent, it's about being able to generalize, maintaining a single code base that you take out some multiple clients don't spawn out new variants of your code base.

Keep keeping all on the same code base, make it work for every client. So when one client has a need that you can't satisfy, you try to figure out how to satisfy that need with features that others also can use, right? Like you have to avoid proprietary language. For example, universities will call the.

same things Different things across different campuses. So, yeah, so that's what we were doing. And the whole cycle was just positive. We would build something, we would have it, we would show it to new clients. They would comment and say, we also would need to X, Y and Z and we would build that and show it again. And And so the whole product development cycle was really interesting.

And one of my points about salespeople being subject matter experts, goes to this, that when sales teams are involved in that cycle, they become extremely knowledgeable. And an example I like is that when a client wants to know why the product doesn't have a specific feature or why the feature was built this way, then the sales person is knowledgeable and can answer because he was there.

He knows why those design choices were made. But if you're alien to that, you are left with no answer to the client and you don't really fill an information need for the client in that situation? I think that's important.

Danu Poyner12:14

Yeah. There's a lot to unpack here, that process of taking a need that they have and the way that they express it to you.

You're making it sound very simple and straightforward. When you say there's a process of standardizing a feature sets, but there's a lot going on there. And a lot of communication work, I think because the way a client expresses a need that they have is not necessarily the way everyone would express it.

So how are you doing that standardization? How does that work?

Bo Alroe12:45

The first step is to understand the need. One of the things I have said to salespeople later, when I have been lucky to be challenged with educating or training salespeople is don't leave the room. If you don't know what is.

Don't ever fall for the temptation to say, and then, and then you don't, if you don't do that without knowing what they mean, right. If you don't know what they're talking about, just keep asking and they will appreciate it and you will learn from it. And that means you're walking away with good notes.

Then you can go back to your product colleagues with and share and discuss. Remember this was before we had Zoom and things. So it would be phone calls or emails, right? So sometimes it wasn't that easy for clients to explain a need outside of the room.

But when you're in a room with a whiteboard and your colleagues it's much faster. So the, the product cycle really depended on the salesperson, understanding what was being shared, that day and bring that back in an intact way

Danu Poyner13:40

I'm really interested to hear more about how that actually, what that looks like in practice.

Could you share any examples of that feedback loop, that product cycle?

Bo Alroe13:50

You can take a feature in Pure like managing article processing charges, for example. So when universities we'll pay a publisher to publish an article in a journal that is done against a fee called an article processing charges.

Universities needed to be able to manage that they would have a budget, right? Like how much money are we going to spend on publishing this year and libraries, usually . We're tasked with managing that budget and that meant for them to manage it, that then needed to record somewhere, how much they spend and the logical place for a lot of our clients was to record that in pure where all the other publication management took place.

But imagine us, we needed to learn about that publishing cycle the fee the process to properly understand it. So the conversation would be like we have to manage payments for articles. I'm characterizing a bit here, but, we would ask, what do you mean by that?

What's what are you paying and to whom, and now you understand the cycle. Why'd you write that down and you run into this with a couple of clients, you call some of your other clients say, Hey, listen, I'm over there at this university. That's talking about asset processing charges at the library.

Are you interested in that? And they will go, you know what? We actually just use a spreadsheet or or a small database or some log book. Yeah. You know what your, that would be interesting. But we would also want it to do X, Y and Z and then you start collecting requirements, or feature requests.

You're listening to these user stories from your clients. And when you begin to have an overview, you can see this, a thread going through all of it. There's a red thread. That's a line You start discussing in with the product managers how this is going to go and if we can release, and then you have discussions like are we going to make it a module, or is it just going to be a feature new feature in the base module?

Or how do we fund it? Because we think it's going to take 500 man hours to build or whatever. I'm just seeing that number but then you start planning and, you know, Shira, I would always like to have some commitment from at least some clients so that we wouldn't build a feature and then nobody would use it.

Right. It's really important for new features to be used. So you get some feedback and you can make a version two version three. So if you could secure that, you know, at least five or 10 universities would take it on board relatively quickly then you would have a good feature ruling. And then there's this interesting shift Danu, where you go from listening to them, explain what they want to designing, your generalized.

That you'll now know is flexible enough that it can cover all the different needs you heard about. And then that becomes, it's no longer reactive. You're not reacting to leads anymore. You built a feature it's right there and you're taking that to market and that's being proactive. Now you're suddenly saying to other universities, we have an article processing charges feature.

Would you like to see it? This is how we do article processing charge management. And you show that. And again, if you, as a salesperson calling back to that whole point about salespeople needing to be domain experts, if you, as a sales person we're part of that product development cycle. And you're knowledgeable and you know what you're talking about and you make sense in front of clients and you can also handle objections real easy.

You can say stuff like, well, it's the first time we hear about that. That might actually be a good idea. We just didn't hear about it before we don't have any. But this is also only version one of that feature. So how would you like to be on a call with some of the product guys,

Danu Poyner17:32

yeah, yeah.

To be able to be in a position where you're having these fairly open-handed conversations with multiple clients about their businesses, you need to have built a fair bit of trust to get to that point. So I'm curious how that comes together. How do you build trust with clients to get to a point where you can have those conversations?

Let's start there

Bo Alroe17:54

Even when we didn't know much and we would go out and on the very, very early meetings, it would be me and Thomas, right, going out on meetings, and we really wouldn't know much. But that doesn't harm the trust necessarily because what the clients see is a couple of people really keen to understand what they're saying.

And that in itself, in my experience, creates trust. We are trying very hard to understand everything they're saying to write it down and to make sense of it. When that happens. the client will recognize that: 'Hey, they got it, right. They walked away understanding what we said'.

And that is building trust. And for us, because it goes both ways when clients are hard at work in a room trying to explain their business need, that is a very honest thing and a very direct thing to do. There's nothing else. There's no agenda. It's just them trying to get a solution to their problem.

Something that can support them. Right. And at least on this topic of publication management in those days software just didn't exist. So it made sense for clients too, to try today, you would just expect a demo of an existing system that's already mature, but at the time I think that built trust that we were collaborating really on trying to understand the needs and build systems and responses to those needs.

So that builds trust. And later on that side, when sales people are knowledgeable, like I said, that is also inspiring trust. You have people out on campus, libraries, research, office people grant support, people, compliance people research leadership, trying to improve how they run their business.

And they're speaking with. potential Suppliers. And when those suppliers are just very knowledgeable when they know what they're talking about, when they can understand proprietary language quickly, because they can translate that to something they have seen before, when they can reach back in the big box of features and pull out the right ones to demo in the situation say okay, if that's your need, then this is how we try to address that.

You want to see it that's going to take five minutes, then that is trust inspiring because they know what they're talking about. And when the client says, why don't you just X, Y and Z you have an informed answer. So that's actually not that trivial. This is how we came about this feature to this is the thinking behind it.

And this is why we are here today. When you get knowledgeable answers like that, then then that builds trust and you have a good conversation and, also another thing that builds trust, by the way, it's not vapourware existing features. You're demoing a little pieces of your total solution as you go in the conversation.

It's right there all, when you're talking about a new feature, you're being super honest and saying it doesn't exist, we would have to build it. We have done it many times, and this is our process. This is what you can expect in terms of time