A good product will sell itself!

This what software engineers keep telling me. But from a sales and marketing point of view, I can sell products that don’t even exist. So I wanted to dive deep with Andreas Creten, CEO of Madewithlove on the typical issues you find within software product engineering in scale-ups. From hiring technical co-founders, optimizing engineering, working with external agencies to scaling your technical team.

Link mentioned in the episode: https://madewithlove.be/

Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below.

How to build the best software engineering team for growth

Michael Humblet:
Welcome to the Sales Acceleration Show. My name is Michael Humblet and I’m the founder of Chaomatic. And in the show, we will do everything to accelerate your business. And as you see, we’re in a new setup, we’re in a new studio, we’re still working on it. And talking about studio setups, product and engineering is a part we’ve never, ever discussed in this show and it’s absolutely key in order to scale your business. Typically, engineers will tell me, “Michael, a good product will sell itself.” And I’m a sales guy and I will say immediately that’s complete, utter crap. Because I can sell stuff that does not even exist. So I’ve invited one of the best product engineers in the whole of Belgium, Europe, worldwide. Andreas, tell our viewers what you do.

Andreas Creten:
So I’m Andreas Creten, the founder of Madewithlove and we are a company that helps other companies build digital products. I’ve worked many for startups and scale-ups and we do that in three different ways. Originally we were a software engineering company, so I’m a software engineer myself. And we moved a bit more into the product space because we figured that our clients were struggling a lot with converting an idea into a product. So we would have people coming in with an idea and just telling the developers like, “build this idea,” but that always fails miserably.

Andreas Creten:
So that’s why we started doing also some product work, first for free just because we felt that it was needed, and then we really made a product out of it. So we do the product management now. And then we saw also that there was a very big problem for bridging the gap between non-technical founders and the technical team. So the non-technical cofounders and a product and engineering team.

Michael Humblet:
So let’s, I’m going to stop you there. So let’s dig into that a bit. So I want to keep it very pragmatic so people can actually do something instead of keeping it, you know, high level, right. So I’m a non-technical firm, I have a company, and I’m running a bit of technical team. What’s my biggest issue? How should I overcome it? What should I do?

Andreas Creten:
Yeah. So I mean you already have a technical team that’s, you’re already-

Michael Humblet:
It’s a good start, yeah?

Andreas Creten:
In a good way, yeah. So probably the biggest issue.

Michael Humblet:
And sitting on Upwork.

Andreas Creten:
Yeah, no, that’s not a good idea. So if you already have your own team in house and you’re already way ahead of most of your co-founders, peer founders. If that’s the case, most of the time the issue will be that you’ll have some technical people that do their job but they might not be able to scale it up. So they might be normal programs that actually don’t really know how to build like big systems or don’t have experience with big systems. And that’s into something completely different-

Michael Humblet:
And they’re focused on like shorthand features and-

Andreas Creten:
Yeah, so what you would see most of the time is like people coming from agencies like advertising agencies that are hired by non-technical people because they think that they can program so they can build something. But making websites for an advertising campaign or a small application, something completely different than making a SAS application. And that’s a struggle that we see a lot.

Andreas Creten:
Like recently I was in a startup where he hired someone to be a JavaScript engineer and actually they were just someone to someone who can write email and CSS, but the founder didn’t see the difference, you know? So that’s a huge problem.

Michael Humblet:
I promised you it would be like a technical engineering show and clearly javascript, we’re getting there, but please continue. I’ll just pretend to listen.

Andreas Creten:
Yeah, that’s good. And then if you don’t have your own team, what will happen most of the time is as a founder, so let’s say you’re just two people trying to get something started and not technical, what will happen is either they will try to find a technical co-founder and then it takes them two years to find someone, and then when they bring the person on board, after three months he quits because he doesn’t really like it. Something like that. Or you start working with an external agency like Upwork, or a really local agency. But the problem with that is most of the time that those agencies, they have the business model to keep the client for as long as possible and really try to pull all the more money out of it, right? So what we do is completely different.

Andreas Creten:
So we try to stay in a company as short as possible. So we come in, we have two types of projects like the greenfield projects, as we call them, a project that there is nothing yet. We build them from the ground up. And in there what we try to do is we come in with a team that’s already rotated so we can start from day one. So we are productive from day one. So you don’t have to build your own team. Building an engineering team takes around nine months normally. So we come in, we are productive from day one. From that day one, we start building your product and alongside, we also start building your own team. So when we are done, 12 to 18 months inwards, you have your team on your side and we start decreasing the people from our side. And most of the time we also keep some, like for example, the CTO probably will be something one from our side and we keep you for a long stretch.

Michael Humblet:
It sounds very similar to mine. So let’s go back to the problem. So I want to do that before I met you guys, never heard of you guys, what do I do? What’s the main thing I need to fix first?

Andreas Creten:
you need to get an understanding of what needs to be built. That’s very important. And then you, of course, need to find the right people to build it. It’s possible that you’ll find an agency that can build it in a good manner, but selecting that agency is very hard. Like I recently had a client that went to I think Ukraine or something and they were very, very lucky to have found a company and actually did a very good job. I was really impressed. So, but there is a lot of people that come to us and for example, they say we’re too expensive or whatever, or we don’t have the time. They go to India, Poland, whatever. And then they have to come back after like six months. They lost a lot of money and we have to do everything over again.

Michael Humblet:
Yep. So what’s the other problem you see with if building a product? So I’m an existing company. I’ve been building a product for two, three years, I have first market attraction, I’m actually selling pretty good, I mean we both know several of these companies within our field, suddenly the machine stops.

Andreas Creten:
Yeah. So I mean sales and marketing-wise, I don’t know anything, right.

Michael Humblet:
Don’t worry. I got it covered.

Andreas Creten:
Product-wise, what you’ll see is some of the very high growths, scale-ups, what they did, in the beginning, is what we say is like building a lot of level of features, right? They have like huge feature creep and they’re just building, building, building. And they don’t realize that in the longer term they also have to maintain that stuff. So then three years in, that first feature that your built needs to have some changes, and then when you start touching the code, everything starts collapsing, right. That’s one situation, a situation in which we intervene a lot. So we then bring in some of our senior engineers, some of our product managers, to actually try to figure out how we can get out of it. So that’s something that happens a lot and that’s something that we see happening a lot.

Andreas Creten:
Also what you will see is three years in, if you have, initially have a technical cofounder, CTO, let’s say, probably they’re not the right person to grow the company from day one until 100 or 150 people. So what happens a lot is that the technical cofounder or the CTO, he starts building your team and then he doesn’t realize that he is not a good manager. So he keeps building the team and then at one point in time the team turns against him or he gets fired by the board, whatsoever. And then you have a huge issue because that person is probably one of the key persons in your organization. And if he quits or if he needs to get thrown out, then there is a huge knowledge gap.

Michael Humblet:
So what would be your advice in those situations?

Andreas Creten:
So we have a theory that there are different roles that you need in different stages of the start of a scale-up and also the CTO, we don’t think that the initial CTO, which is like kind of a hacker, building quick, quickly building, making a proof of concept, maybe the first MVP, is not the person that’s going to be your CTO or a VP of engineering when you’re like a hundred engineers on site.

Michael Humblet:
We have the same old sales and marketing

Andreas Creten:
That’s the logical thing-

Michael Humblet:
It’s very-

Andreas Creten:
But for some reason, nontechnical people think that just the best engineer is also good CTO. And that’s not-

Michael Humblet:
Peter’s Principle, you just promote and promote, and then they fall off a cliff. So what should you do then? You should keep that person and give them another role?

Andreas Creten:
Yeah, so-

Michael Humblet:
It’s stuff from a motivational-

Andreas Creten:
Yeah, I think it’s-

Michael Humblet:
Personal point of view.

Andreas Creten:
I think it’s very sad to let them just go. Ideally, they realize that they need to step aside and what we prefer in that situation is that they become a consultant to the product and engineering team. They actually are the person who had the initial idea and they know what they have built, so they need to work with all the engineering teams and the product teams to actually continue on their vision and making sure that, I mean, they know how the application is built so they need to help also the teams to figure out how to make changes to the thing.

Andreas Creten:
So ideally keep them on board, maybe then after a couple of years, they actually leave because they are bored with the position they’re in. But also I think if they are communicative for example, you can actually pull them aside to be like a developer relations person, like going into conferences that preaching for-

Michael Humblet:
Like evangelistic roles.

Andreas Creten:
Yeah, there you go. Yeah.

Michael Humblet:
What would be yours, because I get the question a lot on sales, I’m just wondering if, what would be your dream team from a pure engineering point of view? I mean, let’s say we have three phases, small, mid, and large.

Andreas Creten:
It’s very hard to just say it out of my head because we have, like a huge, really model for that. But initially, you need a couple of hackers, people that just can bring things together quickly. A good designer, a good product owner-

Michael Humblet:
Like the user interface, it needs to be attractive.

Andreas Creten:
There you go. Then when you start scaling up, you need to still have those hackers for the speed, but you need to have also what we call like developers, which are more like people that execute, right? To actually maintain the thing. And then when you grow even bigger, you also need some software engineers that actually can build the core systems, like the frameworks and everything in your, so you have like three levels of people. The hackers for the speed, the developers for the stability, and the software engineers actually for making the infrastructure side of it.

Michael Humblet:
And that’s how you scale it up. You start adding and depending on where you are-

Andreas Creten:
And you need to have a mix of those. If you have too many software engineers you’re going to overcomplicate things. If you have too many hackers, you’re going to end up with a very hacker system, of course. If you have too many developers, then you’re going to have a status quo. So that’s where you, that’s why you have a good mix of the three types of engineers.

Michael Humblet:
Is there a difference between SAS companies and other software companies? I’m curious because I mean I have a lot of SAS salespeople in this show actually, but I assumed, I feel there is a difference there.

Andreas Creten:
I’ve always been in SAS as well, so for me, it’s very hard to say. But I do think there is a difference, especially in how we, because with SAS you can actually deploy every day. We can put new things online every day. We can iterate very fast. If you’re building a software product that needs to be installed on the computer, there is a completely different product life cycle. And that’s something that I have no experience with, for example, but I imagine that that is a completely different way of working.

Michael Humblet:
One of the things that I see a lot is when I enter, and we just look at sales, I look at the product and typically what they do is they startup, they have this monolithic block of code and then they try to sell it and I said, “you need to slice and dice. You need to have features because I need a reason to upsell and ask for more money.” So I’ll start looking at, not at the code, but at the features, just list me all the features, because they always will tell me, “Michael, I can’t cut any pieces.” I said, “yes you can.” So and then I start slicing and dicing it so I can actually say, and I’m just saying something, five euro a month, and then ten euro, and 15, even if the 15 doesn’t even exist, the corporate ones, let’s build it. But that’s a very sales and marketing approach to life.

Andreas Creten:
Yeah, it’s a good approach. But if you-

Michael Humblet:
I do it like this, eh? Mm.

Andreas Creten:
Yeah, if you don’t have that from day one, if the engineers don’t know that that’s the strategy from day one and they didn’t envision that it would be the strategy one day, probably they will not be able to quickly build up tiers of, pricing tiers, right. So it’s going to require some hassle probably to build that into all the parts of the codebase. So that’s probably why it’s not always very easily done. We have a technique that we use, which we call feature flagging, where we actually, every functionality is [encapsed 00:11:55] in a small box and we can put that box on and off. Also for release purposes. So we can say like for this box we’ve deployed this version to 50% of users and the other version to 50% and we can do like AB testing and stuff like that. Or just to do like rollouts.

Andreas Creten:
So we can, you can use the same technique actually for the pricing. Because we already have those like triggers in there. We can actually easily put them on and off. But that’s a technique that is, in Belgium, I mean I also have a company in San Francisco, it’s logical to work like that, but in Belgium, something that a lot of companies don’t know about. We’re trying to educate about that, it’s hard. And also because people don’t think they have the time to actually think about doing those kinds of things and do them properly. But if you do that properly, you’ll save time in the longer run.

Michael Humblet:
What’s the thing that would frustrate you the most when you get to the company and they think, “there we go again. Haven’t they watched a movie on YouTube?”

Andreas Creten:
Yeah. What do we see a lot is, we work a lot for investors, right? So investors come to us and they have a portfolio company that they are struggles or they ask us to do an audit and then afterward they ask us to intervene as well. And most of the time the founders, they think there was a problem with the engineering department, that they’re not executing correctly or just lazy people. And that’s absolutely not the case and that’s really, that’s how they are also most of the time perceived by the rest of the organization. Like coming in at 11:00 in the morning and then these other people leave at 6:00, but the engineers are still there at 11:00 in the evening and they don’t see that, right. Or they need to wake up at night and do things because things are crashing and stuff like that. So they don’t, most of the time they don’t see what they’re actually doing.

Andreas Creten:
And it’s also not very tangible because they don’t know what they’re doing. And so what you would see is that the founders, they often think it’s an engineering or product problem. Most of the time it’s a culture or strategy issue. So we have really worked in, and we’re still working in companies where after a year, as a year in the project that we’re doing, the strategy from the management is still not clear. What do they want to do with that product? What’s the vision for the product? They’re thinking about sales and marketing and have all of that under control, but if you ask them like, “what are you going to do in three years?” they are probably gonna have no clue. And that terrifies me sometimes. We work with them to actually get there

Michael Humblet:
a roadmap and the vision and the-

Andreas Creten:
Yes. Exactly. Yeah. It doesn’t need to be very precise, but you should have an idea, right?

Michael Humblet:
And actually purely sales marketing, I think it’s a very good idea to tell that story of where you’re going to be in three years because it’s preframing pricing for me.

Andreas Creten:
A lot of people are afraid of that. So I’m a very, very big fan of doing that. So I’m not a fan of big bang releases, for example. I’m also not a fan of the secrecy, like what Apple is doing. I mean, for Apple it makes sense, right? But for a SAS company, you want to show people where you’re heading to, right? So I really like having these kinds of blog posts that share like the vision where we will be in like two, three years, and you can say like.

Michael Humblet:
You don’t worry about secrecy because that’s one of the typical ones. “Michael, we can’t talk about it. But then our competition …” I’m saying, “yeah, but you have to move fast.” I mean, it forces you to move fast-

Andreas Creten:
Yeah, you have to move fast if your competition does the same. Yeah. I mean probably they are already thinking about the same thing so you need to have to do it anyway. Like for example, AI is very big now, if we talk about CRM systems, everyone’s going to have an AI to predict like how successful the deal will be. That’s coming to all CRM systems. It’s not, that’s no secret. And so people are instead of like, I mean, and every CRM system is already working on that. So instead of like telling the world, we are working on that, you can expect this in, you don’t have to set dates. You can say, “we are expecting this to be ready in like two years. We’ll have the first version by then.” But people are very selective about it and it’s very sad because probably some of us will think like, “why don’t they have that yet?” And then they’ll go away and then maybe six months later in they’ll have that.

Michael Humblet:
One, I like the first-mover advantage, and two, it’s not because you say something it’s easy to build. Some of them I’m telling “guys, it’s not because you say it that they can build it.”

Andreas Creten:
What I really like to do is tease people with functionality that is not built yet.

Michael Humblet:
To see …

Andreas Creten:
To see how what attraction would be for the functionality. So what, how I would like to work a lot is work with the designers on the product team to actually make functionality. Sometimes it’s even clickable interface and writes a blog post about that.

Michael Humblet:
Check the appetite for …

Andreas Creten:
Yeah. Check what people like about it, maybe already do some user testing with it, and only when it’s validated to bring it to the engineering team to actually build it. That’s also a big mistake that a lot of people make is like, you have like a founder going to do sales every day, right. And they offer, they have sales that come into the office and they have talked with like five customers on that day and they’ll go to the engineering team, ” we have to build this, this and this by tomorrow!” And then they start building it.

Michael Humblet:
So let me ask you a question because I have this discussion from time to time. Typically I have like two profiles of CEOs. One says, “you know, our customers do not know what they want.” It’s the, I call it a Model T, or a Model A from Ford. “You can pick anything as long as it’s black.” And then the other one is “no, we need to listen to our customers.” So what’s your opinion?

Andreas Creten:
It depends on the business, right? It really depends on what the business you’re in. So if you look at Basecamp, for example, I don’t know if you know Basecamp product management system, they say “our customers don’t know what they want.” And they are right. Because Basecamp is good because of its simplicity, right? So if you’re building a product that needs to be simple, don’t listen to your customers because then …

Michael Humblet:
You’ll over

Andreas Creten:
They will want to do crazy things. And what we say is, “instead of doing the crazy things, find a workflow that works for the customer and start educating about workflow.” Another way around, if you’re a very specialized product, then definitely you need to, you need to actually follow the whole structure of the-

Michael Humblet:
Isn’t also typically the bigger you go, the bigger companies try to sell to like big corporations, they will have their own flow and whatever you say, they’ll say, “yeah, all nice. But I want you to add duh duh duh because this is the way how we work.”

Andreas Creten:
That’s why this why you need to be very clear on what your segment is going to be. Are you for SMBs? Are you for mid-enterprise? Are you for large organizations? And it’s impossible, trust me, it’s impossible to build a product that works for everyone.

Michael Humblet:
I wanted to ask, can you combine?

Andreas Creten:
No. No.

Michael Humblet:
So you have to have-

Andreas Creten:
What you can do is you can make different interfaces for the same products, right, that are working on different tiers. So you can say we have like one CRM system but we’re building a very simple interface for freelancers, another for SMB, and another for the enterprise.

Michael Humblet:
But with essentially the same features almost.

Andreas Creten:
Yeah. Maybe there are some more features or more permission schemes and stuff down in the more advanced version. But it’s impossible to have the same interface, that’s for sure.

Michael Humblet:
Very good. In the end, I always ask my guest some questions. So I have the big, black bible of tough questions. The first one is because I hear you have multiple companies, you are going from left to right. How do you focus? How do you bring focus to whatever you’re doing?

Andreas Creten:
It’s a very good question.

Michael Humblet:
Not.

Andreas Creten:
I try to execute very quickly on the decisions I make. I think that’s one of the things that I like to do. But I’m a very chaotic person overall. I have good people around me that help me doing the right things, but yeah, how do I focus? When I really need to focus like writing stuff and things, I have an application called Brain.fm, I don’t know if you ever heard about it. It’s like use brain waves to like put yourself in like a focus mode. That’s something that I would use. But yeah, the focus for me is something very difficult.

Michael Humblet:
It’s an issue. In the same context, how do you say no, as when people come to you with a lot of ideas, a lot of projects? How do you cut the crap or-

Andreas Creten:
That’s actually very easy for us because we know what we want to work on. One of the parameters we have said is that we only want to work on products that are the core product that the company is selling. So we’re not going to work on a new utility of another company. So we really want to work on the core product. That’s one thing. But second, we only want to work for a product that we would love ourselves. So we really want to put the energy in a product because we like the product. And if we don’t have that, that feeling with the product then we’re not going to do it.

Michael Humblet:
Okay.

Andreas Creten:
And it’s the same with any kind of project. Of course, we get a lot of question, I say a lot of yes, that’s not our problem, I’m a very energetic person, I have a presentation squeezing 36 hours in one day. So I mean I manage to get all that stuff done and sometimes, of course, you need to cancel things, but for now, it works pretty well.

Michael Humblet:
So where do you get your inspiration? What inspires you? Books? Movies.

Andreas Creten:
So I always say I have no culture so I don’t watch movies. I only watch documentaries. But first of all books, earlier it was like Twitter and a lot of blogs and reading all that stuff, but actually, kind of faded away. I read books now. Or I try to read books, I have an application called Blinkist. I don’t know if you know what that is.

Michael Humblet:
Yep, yep.

Andreas Creten:
It’s like book summaries. So I read them first or listen first on Blinkist, and then if I like it, I’ll buy the book. And then also my team. So, my team, we have a bunch of 23 people that every day they share, our company, one of our values is “sharing is caring.” And we really live that. So our people share information every day with us. It’s about management, it’s about leadership, it’s about engineering, it’s about the product. And so we get a huge in-stream of information every day. It’s really incredible and it really helps me to stay on top of things.

Michael Humblet:
Okay, that’s a cool idea. Nobody actually told me that one yet. And what’s your biggest mistake you’ve made up til now, that you should never, ever do again?

Andreas Creten:
That’s a good question. I think it’s very tough for me. One of the things I did is, and it’s actually not a mistake, people might perceive it as a mistake, but I went, in 2014, I left Madewithlove behind. I went to work in San Francisco for a startup there to go found a startup there. And so we, I left a team behind, I think we were 15 back then. And with my co-founder as well, [Yanos 00:21:48], who was leading the company back then. And so I left them behind and actually after a year in, I came back and it was, people thought it was a mistake, like why are we coming back? But the thing is that leaving the team behind for a year showed me that they can live without me micromanaging them every day. That’s one thing. But also it really showed that we as a team are a very strong group of people and they don’t always need me. And that really it was a learning opportunity for everyone in the company.

Michael Humblet:
I think, for scale, the biggest one, the biggest mistakes you can do is thinking that I need to micromanage everything.

Andreas Creten:
But I mean, until you step out, that’s the only moment that you realize.

Michael Humblet:
Yeah. So as the last question, where can we learn more about you or your company?

Andreas Creten:
Definitely on our website. We have a new website new this year. we’re running all sorts of-

Michael Humblet:
And the website is?

Andreas Creten:
Madetolove.be. Yeah. You can follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Michael Humblet:
We’ll put it all in the description.

Andreas Creten:
Sure. Yeah.

Michael Humblet:
Okay. Thanks for joining this show.

Andreas Creten:
You’re welcome.

Michael Humblet:
If you like what you’ve seen, give it a thumbs up and subscribe for a lot more shows coming, especially when we’ve built a completely new studio. I’m sure we’re going to let you know, hope to see soon. Catch you later.

Andreas Creten:
Bye.

2019-09-24T10:49:17+02:00June 21st, 2019|

About the Author:

Michael Humblet is obsessed with designing, building and scaling sales engines and founder of Chaomatic, focused on unlocking & maximizing revenue growth trusted by over +207 companies. He is a seasoned sales strategist who served in different Sales Leadership functions. Michael Humblet is the host of The Sales Acceleration Show, the sales and marketing focused Q&A show on how to accelerate your business.
THE PODCAST