Alex Bilmes [VP of Growth at Puppet] reflects on the growth that led to his first exit.

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Podcast outline

[01:09] Alex’s background

[02:42] What Alex does in his role as VP of Growth at Puppet

[03:57] Lessons Alex has learned through his former positions that have influenced what he does at Puppet today

[06:03] Focus on product market fit before instrumenting telemetry and funnels

[07:00] How to know when you’ve over indexed and need to course correct

[08:23] Time with customers is important in the early stages

[13:22] Pros and cons to being somewhere small and being somewhere larger

[16:44] Why it’s important to know what you want and why

[19:00] How Alex unwinds

Alex’s Inspirations

Dave Hesch

Yvonne Wassenaar

Connect with Alex



Elias Rubel: (01:11)
[inaudible] on the line and this is incredibly special because Alex was actually the original inspiration behind starting the best in SAS podcast. I think we were, we were having dinner together and it came up as, as an idea that he threw out there and I latched onto it. And here we are, uh, something like 50, 50 interviews later, the, the origin story himself is on the show. So Alex, welcome.

Alex Bilmes: (01:37)
Thank you. It's great to be on the show and next time you're in Los Angeles. We have to go get some sugar fish again.

Elias Rubel: (01:46)
Very good. Uh, it's like, uh, even hearing that name makes me salivate. I miss Sugarfish so much. Oh sure. Fish is also just a really good name for a restaurant. It's sugar and fish. I mean, you can't go, right? Yeah, no, they've everything about it's the, it's the warm sushi rice that does it, I think, but let's give everyone some context on your background. So you are right now, the VP of growth at puppet labs you joined, or I guess puppet is the drop, the labs you joined by way of acquisition. Your last business reflect was acquired in what year was that? It's been two years, two years in June.

Alex Bilmes: (02:31)
So yeah, right now I'm the vice president of growth. Before that reflect, just to give a little context was a data visualization as a service platform. We helped developers build analytics and reporting capabilities into their software. So as an example, someone could create a dashboard or report and have that be a feature as part of premium staffs here so that they could upsell their customers. Or somebody was building an internal application wanting to add a business intelligence capability for their team. It was a really cool, uh, API led business and it was a lot of fun. And that was, that was about three years in the making. And previously, um, before that I was the first hire at a company called Cloudability. So it was on the founding team and that was a cloud cost management company, which was also a ton of fun. And I think that's when we met, I was gotta be eight years ago or so that is, that is true in the, uh, in the Weiden and Kennedy pie incubator.

Alex Bilmes: (03:40)
Those are the times I'm curious what the VP of growth that title can mean a lot of different things. What does it mean to puppet? What does it mean to you? What are you working on these days? Yeah, VP of growth does mean a lot of things. I say that I grow things at puppet. I grow cloudy things. It's really a combination of product and marketing, particularly at puppet, but has a stronger go to market strategy component as well. Right now I'm focused on a new product that we launched. It's called relay. It's an event driven automation platform, which makes it possible for someone to connect to a number of different external dev ops tools and systems. So, as an example, if I wanted to connect to a cloud provider, I could listen to a new server coming online. Based on that event, I could then trigger a workflow that goes and does a number of different things.

Alex Bilmes: (04:43)
And so we're making it easier for dev ops engineers to automate a lot of their manual and mundane work in a really cool way, which has been a lot of fun. So let's go back to the beginning a little bit. Um, you've been part of the tolerability journey as a founding team member and they obviously went full circle and got acquired. Uh, what was it last year by Aptio and then you started reflect as CEO and grew that prior to acquisition.

Elias Rubel: (05:12)
I'm curious what lessons learnings, uh, you've taken forward from that that are informing the work that you do, or some of the initiatives you're working on at puppet today?

Alex Bilmes: (05:23)
Yeah, it's a, it's a long story. I've learned a lot of things. I learned a lot about what to do and a lot about what not to do, I guess the hardest part, which is true in any company is going from, from zero to one.

Alex Bilmes: (05:37)
Um, and that's because you've got two moving targets, you've got a product and you've got a market and you're trying to build out the MVP and you're trying to figure out who the right customers are. And there's a lot of, a lot of iteration, a lot of wandering in the desert, a lot of experimentation. And that process is really, really difficult, but also really valuable and incredibly fun. If you can find those areas of leverage, just to give a little color on relay and how we approach that. We, uh, sorry, reflect before for relay. They both start with an RA. Um, we, we started with a developer led product, which means we were building something and our goal was to make it really easy for people to use. People were signing up on the website. They experimented with the product, they built some charts, they built some graphs.

Alex Bilmes: (06:36)
We really focused on building bottom up adoption, um, focused on product led growth, spend a lot of time, instrumenting, a pretty sophisticated funnel, building a lot of data infrastructure, collecting a number of different things in terms of inputs into our model pretty early on in the process. Um, I like to say that I built the most beautiful funnel that didn't really work very well. And one of the key learnings I would say is really starting pretty small with a set of well articulated assumptions that you're validating before you get too far on what the business model looks like at scale. On the other side, one of the things I like to say is if you trust your gut, you're either lucky or you're wrong, meaning data's really important, but if you, um, if you over-index on that early on, it can be really problematic. And so back of napkin, math was really, really good and helpful for us early on.

Elias Rubel: (07:42)
Um, so I guess, you know, kind of learning number one was, you know, focused on product market fit before you focus on instrumenting, uh, telemetry and funnels. And that's a pretty tactical observation, but I find that the tactical observations can be super valuable for founders starting out earlier. How did that become a lesson? Like you said, you're wandering through the desert and you're trying things and you happen to over-index, as you said, on the telemetry side of things, at what point did it click and you self-assessed and realized, well, we've, over-index on one side and we need to course correct. What was that moment? The amount of time that went into data analysis at an early stage was far more significant than the amount of time that we spent with customers. And that was a pretty clarifying realization. And so a lot of non go to market focus, founders, particularly ones from product engineering design background.

Alex Bilmes: (08:39)
I was a designer by background. Uh, you try to solve everything through engineering or through code code, doesn't solve all problems. And so you revert to this place of comfort. I think it's a psychological piece where if you're looking at data and you're instrumenting things, you feel emotionally like you're contributing to the success of the business. In reality at that early stage, the only thing that's really important is number of hours spent with customers. And so what we ended up doing is shifting our go to market from being incredibly inbound, no customer touch to a much more engaged sales led process, where I, at that point in time just got on a plane and started flying out and seeing every customer, uh, which was a ton of fun and totally new for me. And one of the things that we ended up realizing in the process was our champion within a company, wasn't a developer, they were an influencer and they were part of the process, but the product manager was our actual buyer.

Alex Bilmes: (09:47)
And that was because they wanted to get a product out to market more quickly and reflect, enabled them to get to production in a very short amount of time. There were a lot of customization features and a lot of capabilities. And the unique insight that we were able to glean from those customer conversations was if we built a prototype and we gave it to the product manager or the head of product or whoever we were talking to, and then they pass this really beautiful visual dashboard prototype over to the head of sales and the head of sales started putting the prototype in front of customers. The customers then would want the feature, which meant that we were able to inject ourselves into the roadmap based on customer demand, which is not something that you really figure out on your own. It's one of those things where you have to go out and you have to see what people do.

Alex Bilmes: (10:49)
And it was, it was a fascinating experience. We would get calls from prospects saying, Hey, we sold the prototype that you gave us as an example. And now we need to get this into production as quickly as possible, which was really what you want to hear. And so it was a, it was, it was one of those things that, again, you, you don't answer quantitatively or you just have to talk to people and you get these really unique insights just from spending time in the market. And so I think that's a long winded way of saying actual time with customers and getting those hamster wheels spinning underneath the beautiful funnel is really what it takes in those early stages. So, you know, you're talking about a buyer committee and I think a lot of earlier teams before sales and marketing begins working for them in a repeatable way, they, they, they tend to think of having one buyer persona and they don't think about the rest, the buying committee that's influential both positively and negatively.

Elias Rubel: (11:58)
And it sounds like those learnings for you came once you got on a plane and started meeting with people, how, how many meetings do you think it took before you had a real sense for what that committee looked like and who cared about what I've got a maybe somewhat contradictory perspective on user versus buyer personas or buying committees. And that it really, really depends on your go to market motion. As an example, if you're focused on product led growth, it's actually incredibly helpful to completely ignore the buyer persona. And that's what a lot of companies that are able to sell directly into developers are end users of whatever type or really good at is that crazy focus on the user. Now that's, I think the shift that we ended up going through is understanding that we weren't selling to a developer and we were actually selling to someone who wasn't the end user.

Alex Bilmes: (12:58)
And so I think it's important to just separate those, those out now, to answer your question. I don't know exactly how many meetings, I guess, but I would say maybe 50 a hundred. It was, it was a large number of meetings in that process. We did build a pipeline and a funnel. It just looked really different than what we expected it to. We ended up dropping a lot of the trial interactions on the floor and not optimize as much for activation in the product as early on. And we found that activation as an example, just looking different. It was really a quick prototype that we built that took us about two hours, but once somebody saw their website or their application or their brands and our product in one, that's really what activation was. And so we then optimized the product to get people to that place without needing as much energy from us doing the work. But it really did take that going out to figure out what activation your attention really meant, and then moving backward into the product versus pushing from code outward.

Alex Bilmes: (14:15)
So now let's move forward to puppet and you just pushed this new product relay out into the world. What, what is the biggest challenge for you today that you haven't faced that you didn't solve for, or even have in front of you when you were working on Slack?

Alex Bilmes: (14:34)
Let me, let me start with some of the, the incredible opportunities. And then I'll about the changes of not, I'm not running your own startup. The really fascinating thing that I came into is I I'm a data driven person. I'm a designer, but I maybe obsessed a little bit too much over ones and zeros. And the, the amount of data that you are able to collect as a company that's been in business for 10 plus years is pretty incredible. You're able to look at years of sales data, what the size of the deals look like, what the shape of the deals look like, how long they took to close win-loss, you get to model things and predict things that have some degree of accuracy. And the planning process is much easier. There is a lot less existential dread. You've also got the credibility of a big brand and product has been in market for quite some time.

Alex Bilmes: (15:37)
And it's easier in a lot of ways. And on the people's side, you get to work with people who are hyper specialized. They're really, really good at what they do. So as someone who had to figure out what sales was and what customer success was and what marketing was there, there was at one point I was Googling, what is sales and what is, what is field sales? What is an SDR and things like that. And so you're sort of learning a lot in an earlier stage, but at a later stage, you get to work with people who have really fantastic, great experiences in their particular craft. And they're really, really good at what they do. So that's what I would say. The positive side is I think the, the counter part to that is you have to adjust to scale for me personally, who's someone who is used to having a lot of control over how all the pieces come together.

Alex Bilmes: (16:33)
You have to take a step back. Dependencies are a lot more complicated. You have not just functions like marketing and sales and customer success and product. You've got sales enablement and learning management and product marketing. And there's quite a bit of overlap between the various sub functions and navigating. That gets tougher. I think the big observation and learning for me is you have to go slow to go fast. And it's like the butterfly effect, like the flap of a wing has so many downstream implications. And so being able to understand the organism and how it works, I think is incredibly valuable and it takes some time. And so I don't know if that answers your question directly, but there's, there's a number of things that are very different and there are definitively pros and cons to being somewhere small and being somewhere larger.

Elias Rubel: (17:29)
So, one thing I know about you having, having been a friend for a long time is you're really, really talented at questioning things pretty much constantly like strategy, assumptions, funnel metrics. And so I'm curious how you coach, I know you mentor other companies, how do you coach other companies, whether its executives or founders to adopt that same mentality and process of questioning things in the name of improving them?

Alex Bilmes: (18:01)
That's a really good question for me is a combination of gut instinct, meaning something doesn't feel right. And it's the exact opposite of the, uh, of the quiet, the quantitative side. And if you're really able to look at someone, understand what's keeping them up at night or what's giving them a cost. I think that a founder's perspective and a unique insight is so incredibly valuable. And a lot of times the real conversations come from being able to look behind the, the slide deck or the numbers as an example. So I think that's, uh, that's one and the other is really around storytelling. And I think that many, many founders, many executives want to do the thing that is most valuable and they skip past the, the vision. They skip past the direction and they focus on really moving the incremental and tactical things where we're like, I got to get the next customer.

Alex Bilmes: (19:14)
I've got to get the next deal. And one of the things I like to say is, if you don't know what Harbor you're sailing for, no window will get you there. It's really important to set a vision. And it's really important to pay that vision down. And when I work with founders early on, I think a lot of that is really around helping them craft what it is that they're really trying to do. If you go deep, deep down and you ruthlessly prioritize, what's the one thing in the world that you really want to accomplish. And the rest becomes a lot easier after that. I like that.

Elias Rubel: (19:51)
So now I want to ask you a question related to, I know you're very business minded, focused career focused. You have this intense career that only continues to get better and build what a, what do you like to do to unwind kind of relaxes your brain?

Alex Bilmes: (20:09)
Um, I'm struggling with that a little bit. I just picked up a boxing. I used to box earlier on and it was a lot of fun. And then I took a long break and now I go boxing two, three times a week, which was really great. Uh, and you know, getting your ration out, uh, on, on a bag, I think has been like healthy for me. I go biking, um, go running, do physical things. When I can probably drink a little bit more wine than, than I should on some days I travel, but right now it's pretty difficult. So I think coping is like the, where I spend most of my time, uh, after work. And I also work way more than I should, uh, which isn't, which is not also, you know, the most productive thing. And at a certain point, your brain just stops working.

Alex Bilmes: (20:58)
And as I get older, I'm starting to feel a little bit more, but, um, it's a constant process for me, I guess. I'd say if you have any ideas, I'm all yours. Oh man. The mountains, whenever I can get into the mountains, that's, that's my move. I think you're close. You're close enough to Joshua tree or like, I don't know. There's, there's some good stuff around you. Yeah. A friend of mine just, um, just got a little vacation spot down there, actually some planning I'm going to visit this, uh, this coming weekend. She'll be fine.

Elias Rubel: (21:33)
So last question, as we wind this down, who are some of the folks who've been influential in your career thus far? So many, so many, there are two that immediately jumped to mind and one of them is Dave Hirsch. I think, you know, Oh yeah. He was on my board at reflect was incredibly influential on me as a young CEO. He comes from a management consulting background and it was a very sales driven leader and was incredibly helpful to me in helping formulate my view on, on leadership, particularly when it came to sales and marketing early on it reflect and was just an incredible human that I respect in many ways. The second is, uh, Yvonne Weisner. Who's the current puppet CEO. And one of the reasons I'm very excited about working at poppin is because I get to work with her and it's a ton of fun.

Alex Bilmes: (22:35)
She brings a different aspect in terms of leadership that has been incredibly valuable for me in that she leads through understanding of people. And I tend to be a little bit, uh, aggressive when it comes to getting to outcomes and sometimes forget that people are really the most important part. And she's been incredibly helpful in helping shape my leadership style and, um, helping me understand scale and how a larger organization works. And it's been, it's been a great experience. So those two come top of mind. There are, there are many more though. Amazing Alex. Thank you for coming on the show. This was, this was really fun and hysterical for me. It's come full circle. So thanks again. Yeah, I'm glad you're doing it. And thanks. Thanks for having me. This has been fun.