Harvard Business Review

How to Keep Your Cool with a Variety of Office Interrupters

I used to work with a guy who would stick his head into my office and say, “Got a minute?” Of course, he always took a whole lot more. All kinds of interrupters can steal your focus and make a tossed salad of your thoughts, from people stopping by your desk, to your boss wanting “just one more thing,” to colleagues literally breaking into your speech and your train of thought during a meeting.
Unbelievably, most office workers are interrupted roughly every 11 minutes, according to a University of California at Irvine study, and it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from an interruption. No wonder we all feel overstressed and underwater!
Disrupt the Interruptions
There are mindfulness techniques to help you regain focus and note-taking tips to help you find where you left off before the interruption occurred, so you can get back to your work quickly and accurately. But what if you could reduce the disruptions themselves?
Instead of feeling rattled and having to expend so much time and energy on recovery, you can work on reducing the frequency and repetitiveness of interruptions by practicing some kind and reasonable accommodations. Here are three ways to approach people who interrupt you while still taking care of yourself.

Preserve your work time: In today’s open office environments, it’s easy for people to stop by to chat about a frustrating aspect of work or whatever they’ve been binge-watching on Netflix. Even if you’ve got a traditional door, some office butterflies always seem to alight there, to see what’s going on or because they need a break, even if it’s not convenient for you. To get them to move on, try a combination of time and priority management, with a smidgen of social warmth: “Oh, I’d love to hear about that. Can you tell me about it while we’re heading over to the ops meeting? I just have to knock out the end of this email.”
With my own intrusive colleague, after numerous encounters left me feeling disrupted and resentful, I finally learned to say, “Not right now, but I have a little time at 3:00.” I had to remind myself not to ask what his topic was, and to suggest, “We can go over it all later,” to stop him from “just” telling me what he wanted to discuss, because even that would take ten minutes. Sometimes I even walked him out of my office to demonstrate that I couldn’t chat right then. The combination of persistently giving him a specific meeting time and occasionally escorting him out made my point, and he got used to scheduling time to talk and also learned to announce his topic without discussing it until we actually met. I got back some control over my schedule and also reduced the negative feelings triggered by his hit-and-run approach.

Manage your priorities: If your boss dumps projects on you at the 11th hour or comes up with new priorities even though your plate is already full, be conscious not just of your initial feelings of annoyance, but also of the real time and productivity your team may lose if you have to put active work and workgroups on pause while you dive into a new, unplanned area. Discussing with your boss how to get the most from existing staff, how to stay within your resource budget, and what you see as the most productive way to get the work done may give you the standing to rearrange your boss’s expectations for immediate response in ways that serve the work. I give more techniques for coping with bosses who have “shiny object syndrome” in this Harvard Business Review piece, “What to Do If Your Boss Gets Distracted by Every New Thing.”
Hold the floor: If someone interrupts when you’re making a point in a meeting, be mindful about the difference between asking them to wait and shutting them down altogether. Acknowledge them by saying something like, “I’m just going to finish this point/topic/section of the report, and then I’m happy to respond to your questions and concerns.” When you do get to the end, welcome them back into the discussion: “Joe, what did you want to say about the such-and-such issue?”
If you expect that the subject at hand will elicit numerous comments, you may want to preface your remarks with gentle instructions: “I know some of you will want to raise counterarguments, and I want to make sure I hear them all, so I’ve specifically built in time between sections so we can get all your concerns on the table.” When you can maintain a calm and welcoming demeanor — for example, by nodding, looking directly at the interrupter, and smiling — your sense of confidence and control will usually help them stay calm too.

5 Critical Sales Questions You’re Not Asking Your Leads (But Should)

Here are five sales questions that you should start asking your leads so you can drive more sales.
A study published in the Harvard Business Review reveals that after interviewing 200 customers, researchers found that “from the customer’s point of view, the greatest need for improvement is in salespeople’s knowledge of the customer’s business and industry.” It’s not surprising that 71% of B2B customers are not engaged, according to data from Gallup.
Sales professionals can rise above the competition by asking five critical questions.
1 How Does the Decision-Making Process Work?
Selling is time-consuming. An increasingly complex buyer journey has elongated the sales cycle. Therefore, you need to know that you’re talking to someone in a position to make a decision.
Asking about the decision-making process clarifies who you should be speaking with. This question also reveals who the influencers are and how the chain of command is organized.
Understanding the circle of decision-makers is critical given that the number of people involved in a buying decision is increasing. In many cases, you will face five to seven decision makers. Each has personal leanings. Each has a unique understanding of the problem and perception of what constitutes a viable solution.
You need this list because it will take time to address each person. Every decision maker involved represents a mini sales cycle within the larger sales cycle.
This point is illustrated in Richardson’s depiction of the new buyer’s journey.

Few sales professionals ask this question because they fear offending the customer. They fear they may insult their contact if that person is outside the orbit of decision makers. This fear is understandable.
Therefore, the sales professional must ask the question in a respectful manner. For example, they could ask their contact “who in the company supports this solution?” Then, sales professionals can ask, “What is the next step in the decision process?” You can also ask your contact if they know how the CEO feels about the solution given that a person at that level will always have influence over the decision.
2 How Does This Compare with Other Solutions You’re Considering?
Competition is always present. Even if there is no clear competitor, there is always the status quo looming over the sale.
Uncertainty keeps the status quo firmly rooted in place. In fact, the Global Economic Policy Uncertainty Index is at its second-highest point since measurement started more than 20 years ago. Businesses are uncertain about the future economy.

Therefore, you must get a read of how the solution you’re providing stacks up against the competition, or the status quo. The solution must not only meet the customer’s needs, it must exceed the competitor’s capabilities.
This question is not an opportunity to diminish the competition. It is a way to understand where the customer is in the buying process and what kinds of solutions interest them. This information allows you to draw contrasts between your solution and the competitor’s solution in a tactful manner.
For example, you can ask how well the competitor’s solution handles an aspect of the business challenge that you know is better solved with your solution.
Consider different versions of this question, like, “How well does this address your needs?” Or you can ask, “How far are you in the buying process?” These are relationship questions that help you see where you’re positioned in the race. They reveal your strengths and weaknesses relative to others vying for the customer’s business.
3 How Does This Solution Fit into the Big Picture of the Business?
To understand the customer’s business, you need the ground-level view and the 30,000-foot view. Big-picture questions like this offer the 30,000-foot view.
The more you understand how the solution connects to the overall business, the better you will be able to position it. However, too many sales professionals avoid this question. Some feel it is too intrusive. Others believe it is a request for sensitive strategic information. In truth, the question serves the customer by ensuring that the solution is relevant.
For example, you might think that the customer needs one solution from your offering when, in fact, they need a different one. Knowing this information early is critical. Without this detail from the customer, you risk presenting the wrong solutions, which destabilizes the sale and risks your credibility in future opportunities.
Many buyers are rushed. They may answer the question in one brief sentence offering little detail. It is your job to respond to short answers with more questions. You can follow up with questions like, “What is your vision for the company?” You can ask, “How do you plan to grow the business?” The key is to understand what is driving the company.
If the customer needs a solution, it means they are interested in solving a challenge or increasing their existing capabilities. To know which is the case, you must ask about the big picture.
4 What Would Your Ideal Situation Be?
The question reveals why the customer is pursuing a solution. Understanding the customer’s ultimate goal allows you to not only position the solution in their terms, it also offers opportunities to expand the scope of business.
This “need” question brings you closer to the customer’s thinking. It puts you in their world. This closeness is important because research covering 141 companies across ten industries found that “customer intimacy becomes a more vital performance driver” as solutions become more commodified.
This question is important because customers often discuss needs in terms of solutions. They state what they want and expect. However, they don’t often articulate what precipitated these wants. By asking the customer about their ideal situation, you get a wider view of their needs.
Moreover, this question signals your focus on the long term and devotion to a relationship that is more than transactional. A long-term approach is critical to success. Consider research from McKinsey indicating that companies with a long-term focus “outperform their shorter-term peers on a range of key economic and financial metrics.”

Finally, this question helps customers overcome misperceptions of what they need. Richardson’s 2019 Selling Challenges Research Study found that “overcoming buyers’ misperceptions of what they need” was the second-biggest challenge to understanding customer needs.
Often, the customer’s idea of a solution comes before fully realizing the challenge. Asking about their ideal situation helps customers clarify their understanding of the hurdle and helps you shape their thinking.
5 May I Ask How You Arrived at That Expected Price?
You have entered negotiations once the customer asks you about pricing. Often, customers will enter this phase early and ask for pricing upfront before answering any sales questions.
You cannot successfully negotiate without first understanding the customer’s needs and demonstrating your value. Therefore, explain to the customer that you can discuss pricing as soon as you get a few more details. If the customer presses for a “ballpark” figure, remind them that to provide a number, you need a bit more information.
Once you get to specific numbers you can expect resistance. Often, customers will remark that they expect a lower figure. Rather than take a defensive position, ask them how they arrived at that number.
Questions like this help convert demands to needs. Doing so is important because demands can only be satisfied in one way, which is to give in. A need, however, can be met in several ways. By asking how the customer arrived at an expected price, you’re exploring the underlying need.
Asking the comparison question ensures that the customer is making an apples-to-apples comparison. This approach politely reasserts the value of your solution and preserves the financial scope of the sale.
Successful selling hinges on not only asking questions but asking the right questions. The time in front on the customer is short and difficult to earn. You must make the most of this time by getting to the questions that matter.
These questions are a request to peer into the customer’s business. Therefore, be sure to reciprocate by offering transparency. Share information of your own. Doing so will encourage the customer to be more forthcoming in their answers. Additionally, it will build trust.
Research published in The Open Psychology Journal showed that “information alone was found to have a significant impact on the perceptions of ability and integrity.” Put this finding to good use.
Remember, the answers to each of these five questions offer a path to closing the sale. The responses tell you what the customer needs and why they need it. With that information, you’re able to position the solution in a way that speaks to these stated needs and circumstances.
Consider these sales questions your “Big Five” in the sales cycle:

How Does the Decision-Making Process Work?
How Does This Solution Fit into the Big Picture of the Business?
What Would Your Ideal Situation Be?
How Does This Compare with Other Solutions You’re Considering?
May I Ask How You Arrived at That Expected Price?

5 Critical Steps to Knowing Your Customers

It’s a trap into which marketers of all kinds fall: assuming your customers are just like you in their preferences, desires, and buying characteristics. It can happen because we lack information to figure out what customers are really like or because our own inherent biases cause us to ignore information that would contradict our assumptions.
In a series of studies (published in the AMA Journals), Hattula, Herzog, Dahl and Reinecke found that marketers putting themselves in their “customers’ shoes” were more likely to assume their customer is just like them rather than the generally expected outcome that they would understand their customer’s needs and desires even better.
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Hattula noted, “That tendency [toward egocentrism] is so strong that we’re willing to ignore objective data when we make predictions about others.”
You Are Not Your Customers
Yes, he is saying that in our data-driven world, the more empathetic (and maybe more expert) we become, the more likely we are to just ignore the data and use our own intuition to make assumptions about our customers. If you’ve been in a marketing organization for any length of time, this should not surprise you (though it may be hard to admit).
Simply put: The more you assume your customer is just like you, the farther you get from building a relationship with and serving that customer.
In our daily lives, we develop relationships fully realizing that the people with whom we become friends or partners or any other form of relationship are not exactly like us. Success in each relationship requires that we develop an understanding of what drives the other person and how we fit into their lives—and how they fit into ours.
Consider this: You walk into a room, and a man approaches you. He tells you why he is in that room (at that event or party) and then proceeds to tell you he knows you must be there for the same reason. Maybe he harangues you to engage in ways that suit him well or to help him meet the people he wants to meet. You can tell pretty quickly this person had no interest in you or your needs.
When you make the assumption that your customer is just like you, you start off your relationship with that customer on the footing I described in the previous paragraph: you alienate your customer and make them feel like you have no real interest in meeting their needs.
This can be exacerbated by the common marketing practice of developing customer personas. Personas are just descriptions of prototypical customer types. If the egocentricity bias that Hattula describes enters your persona development process, the personas can start to look an awful lot like the people who are developing them (One way to check this is to ask someone who knows you but was not involved in the process to look at the persona and describe how much like you it is—as long as you can trust that person to give an honest answer.).
The Importance of Data
Marketing has become, for the most part, a data-driven endeavor. Marketers work hard to gather and analyze data on the actions of those who engage with the company, on how those actions lead to (or don’t lead to) sales, on the costs and ROI of specific marketing activities, on how customer usage leads to repeat sales, and on so many more things in your everyday activities. One of the things on which marketers have relied for a very long time is market research. Assuming it uses well-designed research, the data gathered can inform many marketing decisions and challenge many assumptions.
But challenging assumptions, especially within an organization, is very hard. When the data clearly contradicts any assumption we make about our customers—from buying habits to feature preferences—Hattula’s study shows we tend to just ignore the data—even when we know the best course of action is to adjust our own assumptions to match the data.
Where Does This Lead?
Hattula’s study suggests that employees who are disengaged from customers are in the best position to understand objectively what the data they receive is telling them.
My own experience says that getting a direct, personal understanding of your customer, including developing empathy (maybe by putting yourself in your customer’s proverbial shoes), gives you insights that data just can’t.
The irony is that in order to truly understand your customer well, you need to do a good job of both getting closer to them and distancing yourself from them. You need to:
Gain direct exposure, understanding and empathy with your typical customer’s needs, preferences and desires.
Ensure you are gathering good, unbiased data on customers’ needs, preferences, and desires
Pay close attention to even the smallest hint of contradiction between your empathetic understanding and what the data is telling you.
Get objective viewpoints that can tell you when your assumptions about your customers are really just a projection of your own needs, preferences, and desires.
Have the courage to challenge organizational assumptions about your customers.
Did I promise this would be easy? It’s not.
But if you want to stay close to your customers and continue to succeed in delivering what they want and need, in the way they want and need it, you will have to make sure you are meeting their needs.
Not yours.

Ethnography: The Evolution of Social Recruiting for MSP Programs

Reshaping business culture through the eye of the beholder
Ethnography, though not a common term in the staffing industry, is a pivotal and deeply observational approach to marketing in the business world. It didn’t start that way, though. Ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures. It’s designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study. From its origins in anthropology, ethnography evolved into a popular practice within the social sciences: sociology, communications, history and any field in which people study human behaviors and interactions from specific cultural perspectives.
As Julie Wittes Schlack of C Space discusses in her fascinating Harvard Business Review piece on ethnography: “When it comes to discovering unmet customer needs and innovation opportunities, there’s no substitute for in-the-moment, in-context observation for making meaning out of the complex weave of emotion and rationality that drives consumer behavior.”
With the ongoing rise of social media, wearable smart devices, and apps for recording and sharing information, MSPs have a virtually untapped goldmine of valuable workforce data they can use to improve processes, innovate new solutions, streamline staffing efforts and propel program performance to new heights.
Ethnography: a new way to humanize Big Data?
One unique aspect of ethnography is the manner of its data collection. Researchers explore cultures from the vantage point of a society’s members. Think of it in terms of contemporary journalism. Rather than receiving military communiques from the frontlines of conflicts, today’s reporters are often embedded with troops to record the unfurling details from the perspective of the soldiers themselves. In a business context, the use of ethnological methods has led to groundbreaking results.
In the 1920s, for example, 3M engineer Richard Drew pioneered the company’s flagship product by observing automobile assembly workers. At that time, dual-tone cars were all the rage. To paint them, workers struggled to shield the finished portions of the vehicles from the next coat of color by using newspapers. It was a problematic and inconsistent solution. Drew immediately identified the need for an easier, more effective process and came up with the concept for masking tape.
However, as Shlack points out, traditional ethnographers “follow subjects around or even temporarily move in with them to note the compensations, workarounds, and rituals associated with some specific product, task, or routine.” Today, that approach isn’t practical. Another issue comes from a sort of Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum: the presence of an observer can sometimes influence the observation. In other words, when a person is conscious of being watched, some level of behavioral change is likely to occur. If a researching were tailing you around, would you watch bad TV in your underwear or would you dress sharp and read a book?
“At the same time,” Schlack writes, “technologies like selfie sticks, Fitbits, and wearable video cameras are making people comfortable monitoring their own calorie consumption, sleep patterns, heart rate, friends, family, and daily experiences.” More than that, digital sharing technologies and social media offer three significant advantages: they’re just as revealing as in-person ethnographers, they’re less intrusive, and they either provide or integrate with tools for data analysis.
The virtualization of ethnography
By next year, according to studies, nearly two billion people worldwide will own a smartphone. With that naturally comes unprecedented levels of access to apps that encourage information sharing — both personal and professional. Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed a surge in social media usage. More people consume videos, post intimate details about their aspirations, review businesses and connect with others through these platforms. Beyond facilitating interactions, these media are really aggregators for ethnographic data.
Consumer insight specialists are already using these technologies to enhance their research. Social media allows them to delve into the minds of shoppers and analyze their reactions to products — what confuses consumers, pleases them, surprises them, captures their interest or turns them away.
When launching an initiative to improve its collection of Secret deodorants, as Schlack explains, Procter & Gamble created a mobile ethnography app where women could upload photos, videos and narratives that illustrated the types of scents they found most pleasing. Researchers received interesting and unexpected results: images of Play-Doh, freshly painted birdhouses and trimmed lawns. The team at Procter & Gamble incorporated this feedback into a new product line that reached the market in record time and exceeded anticipated sales forecasts.
“The stories accompanying these pictures highlighted the ways in which, over the course of an ordinary day, the women appreciated the power of scent to fleetingly elicit other times and places,” Schlack notes.
Using social media for ethnographic recruiting
This type of virtualized ethnography isn’t just reserved for retailers and product manufacturers. Hootsuite’s #FollowTheSun campaign capitalizes on social media to augment hiring efforts. A few months ago, the social networking company decided to use a video sharing service called Periscope to showcase its employment culture to prospective talent around the globe. Workers of all levels across the enterprise used streaming video to highlight the business culture, environment and colleagues.
“Sites like Facebook, Instagram, Vine and Snapchat currently share billions of active users,” Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes wrote when describing the inception of #FollowTheSun. “More importantly, those users have grown used to broadcasting details of their lives. Sharing intimate, personal moments through photos and videos has become an accepted form of mass communication. In other words, the culture of social sharing has matured to the point that something like Periscope is viable.”
Beyond promoting Hootsuite to potential talent through a slick campaign driven by employees-as-brand-ambassadors, the company also culled vital ethnographic data about its audience. These sharing apps can map onto existing social graphs, link to networks like Twitter, immediately tap into existing audiences instead of building them from scratch, and collect data that can be analyzed. Twitter, Facebook, Periscope and others include enough information to measure likes, shares, impressions, profile visits, followers and more. They also allow administrators to delve into the characteristics of engaged followers — genders, age brackets, educational levels, regions, interests, career goals and so forth. This information proves essential when marketing positions to ideal candidates and for tracking diversity efforts.
Transforming workforce data into ethnographic data
To remain competitive in today’s evolving labor market, forward-thinking staffing companies have already invested in social media to recruit millennial workers. Each day, sourcers and recruiters enter a digital space in which passive and active job seekers have already shared or collected massive amounts of information on a daily basis. They’re also relying more on video-based interviewing and communications. As ERE noted: “Video, combined with the Internet, is a game-changer for recruiting. Used together they create a better candidate experience and raise the likelihood of a better hire. They also enrich recruiters by giving them a much deeper perspective on a candidate, in less time, than has ever been possible.”
MSPs are constantly gathering metrics and worker data to enhance their programs. Yet they and their staffing partners could find a wealth of new ethnographic information by focusing on the details found in the social media they’re using for recruitment efforts. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, Instagram, Snapchat and the latest breed of Tinder-esque recruiting apps are more than just momentary tools for socializing and connecting with talent — they’re untrodden frontiers of rich ethnographic staffing data. Now, combine that with the rise of wearable smart accessories.
According to new research published in the report “The Human Cloud At Work (HCAW) A Study Into The Impact Of Wearable Technologies In The Workplace,” employees with wearable devices increased their productivity by 8.5 percent and their job satisfaction by 3.5 percent.
• Social media become virtual suggestion boxes that help MSPs and hiring managers identify issues, potential innovations, productivity increases, pain points and areas that are thriving.• Social tools enhance visibility into the current employment culture, empowering MSPs and hiring managers to refine and reshape processes to bolster engagement, morale and adoption.• Social media and smart devices show where talent are spending the most time at work, the tasks they are performing well, the managers and colleagues they’re interacting, and their performance peaks and valleys.• They can be used to measure time and attendance.• They can be used to improve communication.• They help ensure safety and health. About 90 percent of companies offer wellness programs, some of which encourage use of devices such as Fitbit. With workplace stress a leading cause of health problems, these tools serve as proactive means for eliminating risks before they arise, saving companies money in related care costs and maintaining the wellbeing of talent.• They provide motivational tools to track progress and help sustain worker engagement.• Ethnographic data enable MSPs and their staffing partners to identify the four essential talent types that drive business success, as defined by best-selling author and staffing expert Lou Adler: thinkers, builders, improvers and producers.
MSPs and their staffing partners can use ethnographic techniques to humanize data, optimize employment brands, boost performance and satisfaction, refine recruiting strategies, strengthen retention and productivity, increase diversity utilization or identify challenges, and build more targeted talent pools. In the second part of this series, we’ll look at some of the wider benefits ethnography brings to staffing.

Top 5 Benefits of Growing a SaaS Startup Outside of Silicon Valley

I’ve spent the last 13 months as Marketing Director for a SaaS company, Ambition, that is based in Chattanooga. Over the last year, I’ve experienced firsthand the benefits – and detriments – that come with growing a SaaS startup not just outside of Silicon Valley, but a major metropolitan area. The purpose of this story is to help you better understand what those benefits and challenges will be, and how to use the former to your advantage while mitigating the latter.
Want to grow a SaaS startup beyond the Valley? Here are 5 reasons you should – and also several warnings of what you’ll be up against.

Pictured: Ambition Founders, Brian, Travis, Jared, & Wes (from left)
Some quick background specs on Ambition. Our four co-founders spun Ambition out of two previously failed startups in February 2013. After launching with a team of 6 engineers, plus one graphic designer, they slowly, steadily began building an enterprise software that could best be described as “Fantasy Football for Sales,” at its initial stages.
Ambition was accepted into the W14 Y Combinator batch and graduated in March 2014 near the top of our class. Against the strong urging of numerous investors and SV bigwigs around that time, our cofounders opted to keep the company here, rather than move it to the Valley.
It’s (mostly) worked out. As of June 2015, Ambition is gaining traction as a sales productivity and analytics tool used by the likes of Dropbox and Berkshire Hathaway-company Clayton Homes, the latter company becoming the subject of an effusive Harvard Business Review article about Ambition. We’ve scaled our team to 18 members, including 6 engineers, 2 data scientists (one a Harvard Ph.D in Atomic Physics with stints at MIT and NASA), and committed Marketing, Sales and Customer Success teams.
In the process, we’ve faced the ups and downs that come with being a SaaS startup outside of Silicon Valley. First, let’s go over the top 5 benefits.
Top 5 Benefits of Growing a SaaS Startup Beyond Silicon Valley
In no particular order, here are the 5 most pivotal benefits we’ve enjoyed as a SaaS startup based in Chattanooga.
1) Low burn rate.
Here in Chattanooga, we operate at roughly one-fifth the cost it would take to run Ambition in San Francisco and the surrounding area.

Pictured: Death, a non-optimal result.
That tweetstorm Marc Andreessen went on awhile back about how high burn rates are going to spell the deaths of numerous high-profile SaaS startups in the near future? Not applicable to Ambition. Granted, this benefit isn’t so much about operating outside of Silicon Valley as it is operating in an inexpensive metropolitan area.
Launching a SaaS startup based in Manhattan? Good luck. Launching one based in Pittsburgh, Raleigh-Durham, or Detroit? You’re in much better shape.
2) Minimal employee turnover.
Our total employee turnover — including terminations and employees who’ve left for other companies — is 3. That’s over a total of 27 months.
Pictured: Pray it’s no one from the UX team.
When you’re growing a SaaS startup, the ability to create office continuity and attract and retain top talent is a huge blessing. It’s much easier to source great candidates in Silicon Valley, to be sure, but it’s also much easier to lose them or go broke trying to keep them at your company.
Of the 3 employees we’ve lost, 2 were let go and 1 left for a Cofounder/C-Level gig at a new startup. After 27 months, our employee loss ratio of less than 5 percent. Meanwhile, we still have all of our core engineers, which has been a big reason we’ve been able to build an industry-leading product in such quick fashion.
3) Only gig in town.
Growing a SaaS startup outside the valley – especially if you’re in a smaller market – has the major additional benefit of being the only gig in town.
How’s that a benefit? The War for Talent is less World War II, and more Gulf War I. Two examples we’ve experienced firsthand at Ambition.
Exhibit A. Our top Data Scientist, Rob deCarvalho, is a Harvard Ph.D in Atomic Physics with backgrounds at NASA and MIT. As goes without saying, Rob is an incredibly valued member of our team and huge asset to any SaaS organization. And he reached out to us. The reason? His wife wanted to move back to Chattanooga – and after doing some research, Rob informed us that we were the only company he wanted to join. Our co-founders couldn’t offer him quickly enough.
Exhibit B. Our Director of Customer Success, Caleb Williford, is a veteran of two Silicon Valley SaaS companies, Salesforce and IntelliTrans, who also came to us because he wanted to return to East Tennessee, and saw Ambition is the top gig in town.
4) No hype/distractions.
Living in a quiet, small town like Chattanooga naturally improves employee focus.
While there are plenty of fun things to do in Chattanooga – hiking, nightlife, etc. — and a growing, tight-knit startup community, this is about as far from the Las Vegases, Miamis and yes, Silicon Valleys from the world as you can get.

Pictured: How your employees will look after an all-night trip to the club and/or Hack-a-Thon.
It’s a hype-free zone, which means fewer egos, fewer distractions, and the absence of the “We’ve made it” sensibility that afflicts many employees in the Valley. The biggest thing afflicting Ambition employees is a propensity to work around the clock, to the point where we have begun strictly enforcing an annual time-off policy.
5) Chip on the shoulder.
Dovetailing off the last point, Ambition employees work extra hard and push ourselves to go the extra mile because of our location. Because we’re not in Silicon Valley, we feel like we have to fight for every ounce of industry and public respect we can get. There’s a deeply-rooted need to prove ourselves that drives our whole team.
And 4 Challenges of Growing a SaaS Startup Beyond Silicon Valley
Growing a SaaS startup outside of Silicon Valley hasn’t been all rainbows and sunshine. I’d counterbalance the above benefits with the following challenges that our team has faced.
1) Geography-based VC skepticism.
Not as big of an issue if you hail from Boston, New York, L.A., Atlanta, Seattle, Salt Lake City, or some other startup hub, but definitely something to expect if you’re headquartered in a non-traditional startup city.
2) Significantly fewer networking opportunities
As our CEO has noted, the great thing about Silicon Valley – and the reason every SaaS founder should attempt to spend some time there – is the incredible opportunities for networking. Whether its sourcing new talent, meeting a pivotal new VC, or talking with an industry expert who can give you the next big idea for your product, coffee meetings in Silicon Valley are always ripe with potential.
This is a value-add unique to Silicon Valley — as much talent as there is in New York, LA, etc., no city has the condensed ecosystem of talented and connected players in the SaaS landscape.
3) Customer scarcity
This is an underrated benefit of growing a SaaS company in Silicon Valley. SaaS companies tend to be early adopters of up-and-coming SaaS startups, with VC’s and industry connections sourcing new prospects and facilitating face-to-face meetings with decision makers.
Here in Chattanooga, the lack of viable customers in immediate area makes selling more difficult. We often have to close deals without the benefit of a face-to-face meeting with a prospect and closing a major new client face-to-face typically requires a plane ticket or daytrip to nearby metropolitan areas Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta and Birmingham.
4) Prospect skepticism
How innovative can a tech company based out of Chattanooga be? I haven’t been asked this question directly, but I’ve heard it in the voice at the other end of the line on many prospect conversations we’ve had.
Many of our prospects couldn’t even point out Chattanooga on a map – which is why their eyes always bug out when we tell them we have an ex-Google CTO, a Harvard physicist in charge of our data science, and a published endorsement from the Harvard Business Review verifying Ambition’s effectiveness.
No one in Silicon Valley has that problem. The smaller the city you’re headquartered in, however, the more you’ll have to account for it in your sales and marketing efforts.
Achieving Success Beyond Silicon Valley
All that, and I’ve just scratched the surface of this topic. If you want an authoritative text on the subject, I highly recommend Mike Belsito’s Startup Seed Funding for the Rest of Us.
Achieving a SaaS startup success outside of Silicon Valley is a difficult task – it’s also far from impossible. Just look at major success stories such as HubSpot (Boston), SalesLoft/Mailchimp (Atlanta), Cirrus Insight (Maryville, TN/Los Angeles), and Domo (Utah’s Silicon Slopes).
Above all, don’t let Silicon Valley intimidate you. Ambition’s cofounders highly recommend that every SaaS founder makes it a priority to experience Silicon Valley, especially if you can do so via an accelerator. Having that experience will de-mythologize the startup world for you, introduce you to powerful investors and new connections, and leave you with new insights that can help scale your SaaS company successfully — regardless of location.
Image Credit: Flickr/Bryce Edwards