“When times are tough, this is when the best companies thrive”

Benjamin Romberg

Published on October 15, 2020

Spendesk CRO Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is joining Spendesk’s executive leadership team as Chief Revenue Officer. He brings more than 25 years of experience in the software industry, across different leadership roles, industries, and countries.

For the last 10 years he has been helping startups scale their go-to-market strategy and expand the business from their home territory into multiple geographies. As luck would have it, that is exactly what Spendesk is doing at the moment – powered by new investment and strong growth despite the pandemic.

We sat down with Joseph to talk about his experience, success factors for international scale-ups, and the value of having a CRO at this moment in a young company's growth journey.

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First of all, how do you feel about moving to a new country and joining a company in these weird times?

Without a doubt, the last 8 months have been some of the most challenging times that I can remember, as we deal with the on-going impact of COVID-19 upon our society. But moving to France was actually a very simple decision. I had the good fortune to live and work here from 2002 to 2011, and it was always my intention to return. It just took a bit longer than anticipated.

I believe that this is actually the perfect time to join Spendesk, as the company has continued to demonstrate strong growth during this crisis, both in numbers of customers new employees. Indeed, Spendesk is growing faster now than before the crisis, which underlines just how critical spend management solutions are now.

When times are tough, this is when the best companies thrive.

What are the most important factors for a company to succeed? And what made you join Spendesk?

It starts with people and culture. As a software company grows quickly, being able to build a great team aligned to a strong company culture lets you overcome the many challenges you will undoubtedly encounter on the journey. This adherence to the culture means that we have a better chance of ensuring we make the right decision for our customers and colleagues when under stress.

The growth journey is tough, and teamwork is a fundamental pillar. There is a great quote from ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ by Patrick Lencioni, where he states (and I am paraphrasing) "If you could get all of your staff rowing together in the same direction, you could dominate any market." This is pretty obvious, but also tough to get right.

And finally, you need to solve a big problem with a large addressable market. If the customer pain you are solving with your technology is acute enough, then you have the opportunity to build a great software company.

I joined Spendesk because these key elements are definitely in place: the focus on people & culture, and solving for an acute business pain point.

What are the first things you’ll be focusing on at Spendesk?

Learning the business fast, so that I am in the position to be able to make informed decisions. Spending time with the Spendesk staff, understanding our business and capabilities.

Also talking to our customers and learning what we do well and where we need to improve. And supporting the team wherever I can as we grow in our core markets.

What does a CRO do, and when do you think is a good time to hire one?

The role of a CRO is ultimately about driving revenue growth, by leveraging and aligning all the revenue generating functions. Alignment across your revenue functions - Sales, Marketing and Customer Success - is essential for sustained growth.

This creates joined-up messaging and a consistent experience for prospects and customers through the buyer’s journey.

In the early stages of a startup, the leaders of these functions often report directly to the CEO. As the business scales, having a CRO solely focused on revenue can be a strong complement to the skills and experience of a more product-led CEO.

What’s the biggest value you personally bring to Spendesk?

I hope to be able to contribute in many ways at Spendesk. My experience of building revenue organisations at some outstanding SaaS businesses across EMEA and the USA is very pertinent to the journey Spendesk is on.

Each business is of course different with their own unique flavours. But there are commonalities and learnings that are applicable to growing software businesses.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned working with scale-ups in the software industry?

As I said before, it starts with people and culture. You have to get this right to make the journey sustainable. Make sure you hire people with a growth mindset, and who are resilient. Invest heavily in the enablement of your team.

And keep your customers close. Ensure that customers are getting value from your product. Have a clear understanding of, and be able to articulate, your value proposition. In other words: Why do your Customers love you? Everyone in the company needs to be able to articulate this.

While ambition is important, you also need to have a realistic view of what your organisational capabilities are. Can you really successfully scale into multiple European countries or multiple verticals at the same time? Perhaps focusing on fewer core markets initially to build a predictable revenue engine is the quickest route to revenue growth.

What differences have you seen between markets, and what’s important for a business that wants to become a market leader across Europe?

There are of course cultural differences between the various European markets, not least of all the language barriers. Depending on the technology you are selling, there may also be different regulatory requirements.

If you can internationalize through your product, then you may have the luxury of driving into multiple markets at the same time. Otherwise, you have to build your Go-To-Market capabilities often by the country market.

The key is not to try and be a leader in five markets at the same time. You need to honestly assess your priorities and capabilities to deliver as an organization.

In each market you will need collateral, case studies and customer success resources in the respective language. Your staff need to be able to communicate in the local language. The product may well need to be localized, as well as integrated with local ecosystem players.

Unless you can quickly clone your Sales and Marketing team, you are most likely better off winning a few core markets first.

What’s your strategy to cope with the constant stress in the fast-paced startup world?

Spending time with my family that currently resides in the beautiful town of Padova in Northern Italy – my wife and I are the proud parents to Leo and Mia.

I am also occasionally seen on my road bike in the Colli Euganei, as well as three putting every green on the golf course.

We also hear you’re a big rugby fan. Do you see any parallels between sports and the challenges of scaling a business?

I love rugby - it’s simply the best team sport ever invented. And I see a great deal of parallels between sports and business life. What you get out of the game is a direct result of what you put in.

You have to prepare yourself, train and practice with purpose for hours so that you can execute your skill set under pressure in the match situation.

You also have to be honest with yourself and your teammates, provide and receive very direct feedback so that you can all improve. You develop resilience - never giving up on your team mates regardless of the situation.

And of course the final and possibly most important part is the memories and the friendships that last a lifetime!

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