Premium Integrations as a Differentiator

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As part of Fusebit's journey towards helping SaaS companies build powerful custom integrations, we caught up with Scott Willeke, Director of Product at Smartsheet, to learn from an industry leader about his company's approach to this space. Scott was the force behind Smartsheet's Connectors product line of premium-priced integrations for Jira and Salesforce, which drove >$1M in ARR in their first year on the market, and >$2M in the second year.

What does Smartsheet do?

At the highest level, Smartsheet is a cloud-based platform that allows organizations of all sizes to plan, capture, manage, automate, and report on work across the business, empowering you to move faster, drive innovation, and achieve more.

Our core capability enables teams to edit and easily share work in grid, card, Gantt, or calendar views. Capture data with forms, automate workflows and repetitive tasks, and roll up work into shared dashboards and reports.

The capabilities align your people with your technology so your entire business can move faster, drive innovation, and achieve more.

What purpose do integrations serve in your product?

Our Connectors and Integrations enable teams to work seamlessly across their critical business platforms and apps, with real-time synchronization and visibility. All stakeholders view the most up-to-date information across systems — without switching between apps. Connectors are a premium capability available for additional fees to customers with Business and Enterprise plans.

What is the business value of integrations in your platform?

Last year, the typical information worker had 13 apps that they use on a regular basis. For any product to think that they are going to be the only app that an information worker uses is unrealistic. We know our customers have to work with those apps and are not in Smartsheet 100% of the time, so we add value for them by making sure that it is as seamless as possible to do so. That could mean surfacing notifications in their preferred app when something's going on in Smartsheet that they care about, or pushing work they have to manage from another application into Smartsheet.

What we have to recognize is that apps have become very deep and specialized (and that's a good thing), and it’s really important for us to leverage that specialization to help customers manage their work in Smartsheet.

One example that is top of mind is our integration with Microsoft Teams. Smartsheet serves many enterprise customers, who have a variety of different teams: typical information workers who sit in an office, as well as front-line workers. Many of these customers use Microsoft Teams to communicate with the rest of the people that they work with. Imagine a property management scenario where an employee discovers a safety issue on site and uses a Smartsheet form, directly inside of Teams, to report it and coordinate with others. When the issue is fixed, he can receive a notification flowing from Smartsheet right inside Teams. Smartsheet provides tracking and executive visibility of this whole process through dashboards and reports. Similar scenarios are used heavily used by customers today, and the integration with Teams has been very well-received.

What is your approach to implementing integrations?

We have an API that allows you to do everything: provisioning users; creating sheets, reports, and dashboards; and even populating those sheets or reading data from them. We end up with a lot of customers using the API to synchronize data with Smartsheet.

For common tools such as Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics CRM, we have dedicated Smartsheet Integrations that are part of the product.

We end up standing up whole teams around those integrations, making sure they are highly available and they scale with often dramatic or spiky usage. That's what we do and we do it well, but it's a difficult job, that's why customers want us to provide that service. A lot of those types of integrations end up being a huge investment, and pretty complicated.

Managing all those “-ilities”, while shaping data between two different systems in a performant way, is hard work.

How do you manage unique customer requirements in your integrations?

The integrations we end up productizing have to work for a large variety of customers, so they cover mostly common functionality.

However, almost every organization I talk to says “we do things kind of weird”. Salesforce is a great example of that: any business that has a sizable sales force ends up customizing their implementation.

Customers don't use Salesforce as-is; they add custom fields and custom objects that are tuned to be optimal for their business, so you end up with these really custom workstreams and processes. When it comes to integrating that with Smartsheet, customers work with our Consulting teams.

Our Consulting teams are very good at what they do, and they build custom integrations every day. That doesn’t mean it comes without challenges: customers frequently expect the same level of availability and scalability from these purpose-built custom integrations that they expect from the product itself.

That’s tough… no company can justify putting a team behind an integration that's built for a single customer at a price that a customer would find realistic.

That becomes a big challenge, a reluctant partnership with the customer. We bring a lot of the systems and business process expertise, but the ongoing maintenance becomes something that the customer either has to pay for, or they end up having to support it on their end. That includes making sure the integration stays up and running as scale it as their usage changes, as their Salesforce configuration changes, or their processes change. They have to make a choice, either they're going to maintain this, or they're going to work with consultants and professional services outside of their company to do that.

How do you negotiate ongoing maintenance of custom integrations?

The Smartsheet Professional Services team is not a product team, and they build hundreds of integrations in a year, so it ends up being quite expensive for them to maintain custom integrations. It’s just not feasible for a lot of customers to pay a SaaS company to operate and service a specialized product only for them. Most customers end up taking ownership of the integration at some point, and there usually is a support contract in place, with some thoughtful rules around it or a fixed bank of hours. At the enterprise level, a lot of customers have teams that can operate custom integrations, but if they're operating that, it's one less thing they can do.

This leads to a big challenge: we want the customer to have a good experience, and if something goes wrong, we want to be accountable and support them through that, but at the same time we can't take full responsibility for a solution that's custom-built for them.

It's a challenge on the customer's part and it's a challenge on our part… one that we don’t have a great solution for.

Historically, was there any breakthrough improvement in your integration story that had the most impact?

A big transformative moment for us was when we transitioned away from our early thinking around integrations as free tools for marketing and awareness. When we started investing in our Connector platform, we went super deep into a few apps that we saw a lot of value in for our customers. It was something that we thought was so valuable that we would partner with customers and make it a premium-priced feature, which offered dramatically more value than our integrations in the past. It ended up being something that was deeply integrated in our product, and we were able to put more effort into it on all sides, and form a whole business motion around it. Professional Services and Customer Support teams had special trainings around it, we launched to the customer with Professional Services right out of the gate, to make sure they got the integration set up in an optimal way. It was pretty transformative for us to take a step back and say, let's not think about this as something that's rooted in marketing, but instead rooted in a deep value proposition to our customers. It was a big bet and a hard decision for us to make at the time, but it has worked out really well for us and for a lot of customers. We’ve certainly doubled down on the whole platform a few times now.

What challenges remain in your integration story today? How do you see the role of integrations evolve going forward given the SaaS ecosystem trends?

Something that I think a lot about is how do we enable customers to be successful on their own with integrations. We're ending up with more technically-savvy customers, who are willing and able to do a lot more on their own, and we must enable and empower them to do that. It can be tricky, because we want them to be successful, and they can have a bad experience if they do something the wrong way, without the knowledge and expertise that we have.

Figuring out a way to enable customers and partners to integrate with Smartsheet in a more self-service way, while also making them successful, is something that I think about a fair bit, and so should the whole industry. Customers are more savvy, they want to do more on their own, but it's still pretty hard to do that in a way that's enterprise-quality.

You don't want to deal with the proverbial computer under Bob's desk that the whole business depends on, nobody wants that, and we don't want that either.

Any words of wisdom for a SaaS vendor implementing their integration story today?

I would just say, don't spray and pray. Be strategic, don't be tactical about it. For any SaaS vendor, especially ones in earlier stages, the opportunity cost of doing things is so high that you must be very thoughtful in making sure that integrations you are investing in are strategic for your business and your customers. They should really be something with unique value added; don't just look at the popular apps out there to check a box. That's not the right way to think about it, you definitely need to be a lot more strategic about the choices you're making.


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