On Dec. 1, Marcel LeBrun was a conquering hero as he took to the stage for his keynote at the Canadian Innovation Exchange in Toronto. After all, this was a room full of hungry tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors and others, and LeBrun had in March successfully sold his start-up Radian6 to cloud computing colossus Salesforce.com for US$326 million.
Now as SVP and GM for Salesforce Radian6, LeBrun offered 10 tips for aspiring start-ups, including warning against focusing on potential exits and having the courage to go after your dream clients even before your product is ready. His words hold sway, not only because of his Fredericton-based firm’s impressive price tag, but also its phenomenal triple-digit annual growth since starting in 2006 and the fact it took just $10 million in funding to achieve its success.
The day before LeBrun addressed that crowd in Toronto, Salesforce.com CEO Mark Benioff unveiled the company’s Radian6 Social Marketing Cloud at New York’s Cloudforce Winter conference, boasting it allows companies to monitor the web and “effectively join conversations” with current and potential customers directly through those same social platforms.
I spoke with LeBrun about the importance of networking events like CIX to the Canadian tech scene, how his job has changed since the acquisition and how social technology is changing how we do business.
Canadian Business: How important is it to bring together VCs, investors and entrepreneurs at events like CIX?
Marcel LeBrun: I think it’s fantastic and we need to be doing more of these things. And do them in multiple locations, because the thing that inspires companies to do it right, go for it and all that, is seeing other people doing it, making those connections and having the option of making that call to ask, “Hey what did you guys do in this situation?” It’s important to build those networks and events like this are a great way to do that, giving great exposure to young companies just starting out to VCs, angels and advisors.
CB: Who or where did you look to for advice or guidance when you were getting Radian6 started?
ML: One person who is a lifelong mentor for me is a guy named Gerry Pond. Gerry was actually the first person to invest in Radian6 and introduced me to [Radian6 CTO] Chris Newton. Gerry’s someone I’ve always admired from a leadership perspective, how to think about things, how to think differently from a values perspective and entrepreneurship. As one of our early investors he’s taken those funds and built an incubator at UNB with another individual from Boston, so he’s really trying to grow entrepreneurship. His company is a consulting firm, not a tech start-up, but he’s been a tremendous value as a role model and mentor.
CB: I was talking to someone at Shopify recently and they cited you guys as a big influence and inspiration, and said thanks to your exit that it will shine a spotlight on other Canadian start-ups, particularly not located in the largest cities.
ML: That’s what’s exciting about what we’ve done, that rather than the immediate, “No we’re not going to look at any company there,” you get, “Oh, that’s where this company Radian6 is from maybe we should check it out.” It gives other start-ups more opportunity to be heard, instead of maybe being discounted early on based on where they’re located.
CB: Now that you’re integrated within Salesforce, how are things going and how has your job changed?
ML: It’s going amazingly well. Salesforce understands how to do this. That was one of the things I saw when we were considering the deal. I talked to three former executives who had been acquired by them. One of them is now my new boss, so there are a lot of acquisitions that are now leaders within the company. We’re really still just continuing to build our plan, just as we were before. In fact we’re growing a bit faster because Salesforce wants us to optimize for growth more than profit right now.
In terms of my job, I’ve got a little bigger mandate than I did in that I’m responsible to build out the whole social marketing suite and where that’s going, which is exciting.
CB: You’ve talked about how marketing and advertising is in its biggest shift in 80 years. Where do you see social marketing going in the next few years and how is your product evolving with it?
ML: I think we’re just scratching the surface. Marketing has been flipped upside down. Employee collaboration is flipping upside down. The entire front office of business is flipping upside down. Salesforce has this vision of the social enterprise. The employees are social, the customers are social, which means products need to be social.
We recently launched this product called Toyota Friend. Mark met with the CEO of Toyota and asked, “Why isn’t my car my friend? Why doesn’t it talk to me, tell me where my dealership is and when my next appointment is?” So we built this concept where your car tells you how much battery life it has left and where it is, when it needs to be maintained. So essentially, products need to be social now. There are just so many ridiculously transformative things going on right now, it’s an amazing time.
Our vision is that every piece of business software is going to look and feel like Facebook. Your internal systems are all going to have streams, status updates and actions, that’s the new paradigm. The consumer world has shifted to it and that’s the experience that’s now natural for us. All our business software is going to feel like Facebook. A big part of that is collaboration. We’re seeing it at Salesforce with Chatter, which is basically a Facebook for enterprise. It’s incredible. It changes the concept of leadership and influence in your company. All of a sudden you can see the guy who really knows the most about a certain subject and you can identify that through his participation on the network.
CB: What efforts have impressed you or inspire you?
ML: There are a lot of tech companies doing amazing things. Look at Gatorade and its social media command station. It’s all about engagement and it drives what they do. I think there’s something like $18 billion or $19 billion spent on surveys, focus groups and things like that, and yet now you have this real-time voice of the customer. Movie studios don’t need to survey people on what they thought of the movie, they know it from the first tweet. So there are just a lot of very cool things going on around this space. There were so many things people and companies did blind before that now they can see.
For example, let’s say you’re a cable company. If you’ve seen cable company packages, they usually pick a show with which to promote a certain channel, like Game of Thrones for HBO. They spend a lot of money marketing these shows. Why that one? How do you know? But imagine you can look at all the social conversations and automatically in real-time build a social profile of all the fans around Game of Thrones, then be able to see if it’s growing, accelerating, flattening out, or is there another show taking off quickly? You can now have that direct visibility. There is so much social action data left on the web that is completely untapped. And there’s so much other data locked in the enterprise that’s untapped. You marry those two and analyze what’s happening out there, there are some huge opportunities. So I think with social analytics and business data problem solving, there are a lot of cool things that will come out of that.