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Table of contents
Navigating a New Normal: GTM Learnings From Our Inaugural Sapphire Ascend Summit
December 7, 2023
Table of contents

Achieving growth has become significantly more difficult over the last 18 months. As a result, most SaaS GTM leaders across the B2B startup ecosystem have had to overhaul their teams and strategies to prioritize efficiency. Despite smaller teams and fewer resources, revenue, sales and marketing executives have been tasked with finding a path towards profitability. At the same time, we’re seeing compelling developments in AI that promise to fuel efficiency gains and transform GTM operations.

At Sapphire Ventures, we see this as a difficult, yet critical moment for GTM teams to reconfigure their processes, develop new strategies and set themselves up for long-term success. For nearly two decades, we’ve had the pleasure of partnering with startup founders on their GTM journeys, helping them navigate both incredible times and those less certain. One consistent learning has been the power of community, and producing curated opportunities for leaders to share and learn from like-minded peers. It’s a key reason we launched our Revenue Excellence Community over a year ago.

With this in mind, we were thrilled to host our inaugural Sapphire Ascend Summit a few weeks back. We brought together over 140 B2B CEOs, GTM leaders and investors from across the startup ecosystem for a day of compelling conversations and lessons learned at the Chase Center in San Francisco. We were fortunate to hear firsthand from thought leaders such as Sangeeta Chakraborty (Miro, CRO), Doug Merrit (Aviatrix, CEO), Bhavin Shah (Moveworks, CEO)*, Andy Byrne (Clari, CEO)*, Sudheesh Nair (Thoughtspot, CEO)*, Myles Kleeger (Braze, CCO & President)*, Adnan Chaudhry (Slack, EVP Sales) and Chris Mullin (NBA Hall of Famer) about how they’re navigating the current climate, building motivated teams and persevering amidst unusual times. Below are a few key topics discussed and lessons learned:

*Denotes Sapphire Portfolio Company

Overcoming uncertain times

The current climate continues to test leaders’ abilities to prioritize effectively while maintaining an engaged workforce. During one of our event’s most well-received sessions, Sapphire Ventures President, Partner and co-Founder Jai Das brought together a distinguished group of CEOs from companies that have navigated sustainable growth during uncertain times, including Doug Merritt of Aviatrix, Rob Bernshteyn formerly of Coupa and Sudheesh Nair of ThoughtSpot. During the session, they shared key learnings from navigating downturns and tips on how to shape teams and strategies for long-term success.

  • Be willing to evolve your GTM approach. Rob took charge at Coupa directly after the 2008 recession. Looking back on that experience, he highlighted how, “…being able to evolve your GTM strategy in the context of your climate can make all the difference between yourselves and your competition.” Rob expressed that as leaders recognize this to be a longer-term downturn, it “…is also a great opportunity to get yourself really dialed in…” and be positioned to outpace competition once there is a change in the economic climate.  
  • Invest in product-market fit and customer success. All three panelists expressed that investing in customer success and product-market fit should be the North Star for navigating these times. Sudheesh encouraged teams to be asking constantly. “Do you have a product that the market cares about? Do you understand the ideal customer profile? Can you identify those folks and do you have an easy, effective and repetitive way to go to market? ”Rob boiled it down to “…at the end of the day, if your customers aren’t measurably successful, you don’t have a business…Yes, everyone wants growth, but if you start getting real churn, you erode everything.” Doug further underscored that SaaS customer success teams must be built strategically, with “relevant skills and metrics” at their core, because without those metrics customer success teams can be hard to justify and easier to cut.
  • Stay focused amid industry recalibration. As markets recalibrate, Sudheesh persuaded leaders to zoom out and realize that this is an opportunity to get things right and build an enduring business rather than waiting for a return to past trends. Observing the macroclimate, Sudheesh explained that it can often be a distraction given how little control you have over those things. “I think for three or four years, we all lost track of the laws of physics with products and markets…but it can be a good thing when the fad goes away.”

A long game is a good game

As SaaS leaders adjust to a new normal, there has been a renewed importance placed on the ability to execute on a long-term vision versus capitalizing on opportunistic growth. Sapphire Partner Rajeev Dahm took the stage to speak with Miro’s CRO Sangeeta Chakraborty as she shared lessons from her multi-year journey in building Miro into one of the world’s premier SaaS companies.

  • Leading with customer-centricity. Regarding prioritization, Sangeeta encouraged leaders to execute through a customer lens while focusing on the long-term battle for vendor-of-choice. Sangeeta went on to share that customer centricity has been at the core of her team’s success, embedded into their product development and GTM strategies, and critical to how Miro makes decisions as a company. As customers consolidate spending, she explained how the ability to maintain trust and demonstrate ROI requires understanding the customer journey and re-confirming fit. “The [SaaS customer journey] is less of a straight line and more like a reoccurring journey that must be constantly evaluated to confirm product-market fit and provide the best customer experiences.”
  • Building a company culture of success. Throughout their discussion, Sangeeta reiterated the importance of fostering a culture that motivates teams through market cycles. She expanded on the value of encouraging experimentation and shared examples like “Friday Failures” and “no-judgment deal reviews” to drive curiosity despite failures. Underpinned by strong individual accountability, Sangeeta reiterated the benefit of leading with curiosity as a way to find unique solutions and keep teams highly engaged through testing times.

GenAI for GTM teams

While GenAI’s role and impact on GTM teams is still unfolding, many leaders now have a few quarters of experience to take stock of. If we examine the initial adoption by GTM teams, we are starting to see them drive efficiencies, optimize employee success, and innovate within their organizations through these GenAI-powered apps. Moveworks CEO Bhavin Shah sat down with a Gartner Analyst to discuss the hype, a few areas of immediate opportunity and the future implications of GenAI for GTM teams.

  • The Hype. Every day new headlines dominate the news cycle with the promise of GenAI, but also begging the question of what is real versus what is hype? Bhavin recognized that although “…this is not just another hype cycle, but a true shift in how the world is going to work,” the amount of noise around the topic can make it hard for leaders to understand where to start experimenting with GenAI within their own businesses. Although efficiency gains will come, it can take time as processes are redefined. And while AI can help eliminate noise at the individual level, measuring productivity gains across a team versus hard cost reductions is still proving difficult. Bhavin advised teams to develop specific use cases to experiment across their team. Otherwise, GenAI can continue to take up headspace but lack direction and risk wasting resources.
  • The Initial Value. Some of the most common themes and use cases being explored by GTM teams include call summarization, accelerating personalized outreach, sales and marketing content creation, and a large focus on IC efficiency. At  Moveworks, Bhavin has seen major gains in sales efficiency as AI has helped augment capacity, consolidate focus and allowed processes to be reimagined, enabling ICs to move from creators to editors resulting in a higher output and more time for creativity. 
  • The Potential. Ultimately, Bhavin expressed optimism around GenAI’s staying power, including the potential to help businesses combat inflation and improve employee productivity in the short term. As more products add GenAI-powered “co-pilots,” we can expect AI to continue unlocking insights from unstructured data, adapting messaging and value props for different personality types, industries and buyers. He shared that differentiation within these apps will lie in their ability to provide unique/relevant industry/team-specific insights, while seamlessly embedding this information into existing workflows and systems. Even with all the fanfare, if we examine the secular trends that brought us here, it’s clear that GenAI is here to stay and will fundamentally change the way teams and ICs operate. As Bhavin stated, “While ChatGPT made it tangible to interact with AI, we now see real attention from the C-suite and are excited to see industry evolution.”

Winning Qualities in GTM Leaders and Teams

Great leadership is hard to come by and difficult to build. It’s even more challenging during uncertain times. Nearly every Sapphire Ascend Summit speaker pointed out the importance of people and culture, and shared examples of valuable qualities in teams and leaders. We held a dedicated panel discussion on the topic featuring Chris Klayko (SVP, Databricks), Stacey Epstein (Former CMO, Freshworks), Matt Heinz (Former CRO, Amplitude) and Elizabeth Patterson (Talent Partner, Sapphire Ventures). To close out our Summit, we also heard relevant anecdotes from our fireside chat with NBA legend Chris Mullin and Sapphire Ventures Partner and Head of Portfolio Growth Rami Branitzky on aspects of leadership, teamwork and success in basketball and how they can be applied in business. Below are some of the tips we gathered on building winning teams and fostering a winning culture that powers enduring success:

Build a Winning Team

  • Define the right “product-market fit” for your own teams. Chris Klayko shared the importance of finding the right profiles at different stages, and being honest with candidates about the challenges. His advice? Screen for authentic alignment to avoid issues down the line. For companies at the start of team building, “…you need the creative type while you’re still figuring it out, and then you need the operational rigor and highly polished professional later on.”  
  • Involve senior leaders early in the recruiting process. This will set expectations for skills and values early on when building the right teams. Taking time to understand goals beyond work allows you to hire more accurately and build like-minded cultures. For example, Matt shared that he was involved in every interview process for the first 300 people in their go-to-market organization. “I wanted people to understand the bar that I had for those individuals that we brought into the business…that they represented the values of the organization, and that they would represent what great looks like.”
  • Lead with empathy. Leaders have to understand what their team needs to be successful, not just what you want to tell them. Attract and retain talent by leading with empathy to set your people up for success. Stacey shared her philosophy on orchestrating her team’s skills and needs so that the people doing the work are thriving and are successful. She noted, “I am there for them, not the other way around.”

Fostering a Winning Culture

  • Winning and losing as a unit. Successful teams, whether in basketball or business, have a strong sense of togetherness and a positive culture. This sense of unity, chemistry and trust among team members is vital to be able to overcome challenges and achieve goals collectively. 
  • Roles and accountability. Defining, accepting and excelling in one’s role is essential for team success. Each individual’s daily habits, preparation and accountability contribute to the team’s trust and success.
  • Setting goals and daily execution. Setting long-term goals is important, but breaking those goals down into daily actions is equally critical. Chris shared a personal story of his ambition to make the Olympics basketball team in college, and how he created a set of daily goals and activities to reach it.
  • Celebrating as a team. This brings together unified goals and outcomes across different teams to celebrate an inclusive sense of belonging. Celebrating as a team also recognizes team members who are not often directly leading the deal.

Steadying the ship. Leader visibility is crucial during adverse times. Their consistency, commitment and ability to maintain the team’s energy and focus are essential for getting through difficult periods.

Finding equilibrium on the way to GTM growth

It’s clear that priorities and expectations across the B2B SaaS startup industry have drastically shifted alongside the macro climate. GTM leaders are being tasked to do more with less while having to grapple with the emergence of GenAI and keeping a workforce that has never experienced a major economic downturn in their careers. It’s a complex environment and one we are committed to helping the B2B SaaS startup community navigate.

Adjusting strategies, keeping employees energized and executing effectively can be difficult in this environment. But as Sudheesh Nair said on stage, some of the “new norms” should not be so shocking – CFOs need clearly defined ROI, business cases required for internal buy-in, etc. So rather than waiting for the return of past trends, teams have the opportunity to make the decisions now that will set their businesses on a sustainable path to growth. As brought up during the opening keynote, the Rule of 40, efficiency and retention remain hallmarks of health–now more than ever.  

Thanks again to our speakers, sponsors and guests for making our first-ever Ascend Summit a success! We look forward to doing it again in 2024.

The learnings are far from over

The Sapphire Ascend Summit may be over, but the discussions don’t stop there!

But wait, there’s more:

  • Our Sapphire Ventures RevEx Hub, powered by our friends at Winning by Design, is now live! To gain access to GTM industry benchmarks, frameworks and executive training, be sure to check out the portal here.
  • Keep an eye out for our upcoming private company SaaS survey in partnership with Keybanc’s Capital Markets.
  • Finally, if you’re a GTM leader looking to join our community, please email us at: [email protected]
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