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Marie Gassée: Exploring The Role Of Growth In The World Of SaaS

As SaaS companies continue to thrive in today's digital age, they are expected to constantly innovate as technological innovations happen. This makes the role of growth in this sector extremely important. Rico Mallozzi is joined by Marie Gassée, the VP of Growth at Confluent, to explain how they approach massive changes and shifts in today's ever-evolving self-serve model. She discusses how they experiment with their processes to achieve the most practical ways and what a good SDR compensation looks like. Marie also explores the significant contribution of data science in the go-to-market and why she loves this particular field so much.

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Listen to the podcast here:

Marie Gassée: Exploring The Role Of Growth In The World Of SaaS

In this episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with Marie Gassée. Marie has specialized in building self-served online sales and PLG go-to-market motions at enterprise technology companies including Box and Confluent. In this episode, I explored with Marie the role of growth in enterprise tech companies, how a self-serve model can successfully work with other parts of the organization, what a good SDR compensation framework looks like and the role of data science on the go-to market growth. I hope you enjoyed this episode as much as I did.

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Marie, it's a pleasure to have you on the show. You have a wealth of enterprise tech experience. Can you provide the audience with a little bit of background on the tech experience you have?

I like to go way back. I'm born and raised in the Bay Area. My parents immigrated from France, so I have that connection. Early in my career, I worked at Cisco. It’s enterprise-y, entry-level marketing. I eventually found my way to Box though after going back to grad school. What was cool about my experience at Box is I’ve got to do three jobs in the first three years as part of this rotational program. I worked in finance on our IPO and I worked in sales strategy. Ultimately, my third role and what I ended up doing for the rest of my time there was creating and leading our self-serve business unit as the General Manager. I spent six years at Box and then I joined Confluent as the VP of Growth looking after a few different things but with a bit of a bias on the bottoms-up go-to-market motion.

I want to go through the progression of your enterprise technology experience. Let's start with the role of GM Head of Online Sales. What did you define as online sales? Was it anything that came inbound through the website? Would you proactively be driving customers to that? What were the metrics you were tracking?

It's a great question because it's not that straightforward to define online sales or self-serve or growth. I will touch on the cool thing about that role. We had a wonderful org structure where I’ve got to bring together a bunch of different functions like design, product, engineering, marketing, analytics, systems, all to drive self-serve revenue. Our definition of self-serve revenue evolved a little bit over the years but ultimately, we are focused on customers who transacted online. Essentially, if they weren't signing the contract when they transacted, we call that online sale or self-serve. It’s the bottoms-up go-to-market motion.

In terms of what we tracked, metrics are the name of the game in this world, so a million different things. I like to think about it maybe a little bit of a funnel view from pricing page visitors to sign-ups to onboarding rates, upgrades, retention, etc. Our North Star though was ARR, Annual Recurring Revenue. The idea is we wanted to grow the pie of annual recurring revenue that we had as part of the self-serve business. That takes into consideration retention, not just the acquisition of customers and the expansion. The other thing that we thought a lot about was how are we feeding the sales team. We also tracked what percent of new ARR that's originated in the self-serve world and that was a North Star metric for us as well.

What were some of the key levers that you were able to pull to influence all those different metrics you are tracking and also those North Star metrics?

There are so many. One of my favorite things to experiment with is the pricing page. Whether it’s a pricing page, a download page or a sign-up page, it sounds tactical. There are so much impact that we could have like redoing our pricing page. We did that at Box, which was awesome. As you get down the funnel-like onboarding, what is your user’s first-time experience in the product? How are you onboarding them? We did a bunch around upgrade flows. How are you showing your users different parts of the product that may not be available in their current plan? Maybe letting them try it and then using that as a lever to upgrade.

Retention was a huge part. Things tactically like the cancellation experience but fundamentally understanding what product improvements you want to make to keep users being a little bit stickier. We can even go back to the top of the funnel on the acquisition side. There are many levers out in the ether, SEO and web optimization being one of my favorites. That's what I love about these growth roles and the self-serve world as well.

There are many dials that you can tweak. Part of the challenge is figuring out, “What are the dials that you want to tweak and you want to take maybe some bold experiments with?” Always thinking, “What's going to have the biggest impact?” It's tempting to maybe tweak a million things along the way. I like to challenge the team to think, “What are the big swings we can make that are maybe a little bit more provocative than we are comfortable with that could have a huge impact on the North Star metric?”

One of the things you resonated in that answer is we did a previous episode with the head of design for Datadog. He mentioned giving the customer as full of exposure as possible to what the product can do to help entice them for that potential upgrade. It sounds like teasing on different features that you then may be able to upsell later on is key as well. You are in a role title, the VP of Growth at Confluent. Could you give us a little bit more details on what that role entails? I would also love to get your perspective on the growth role in enterprise tech. I feel like every consumer knows growth hacking and a lot of social networks used it. What is the role of growth in enterprise technology?

I will start there. It can mean anything. You connected with and talked to VPs of Growth of a variety of tech companies to get a sense of how they structure their orgs, what metrics are most important and do some best practices sharing. The role runs the gamut. I have seen companies where growth is a customer success role or companies where growth is focused on the acquisition side. What I'm seeing a lot of is the demand gen role is being retitled as a growth role because maybe it's a little bit more of a sexy term in the industry. The point is growth can be anything.

I will share with you what I view growth as and then what my role is at Confluent. To me, a growth role is all about being super data-driven. To me, it's the intersection of quantitative and data-driven and being a go-to-market function. I know that's broad and still nebulous but those to me are the two key criteria that mean growth to me. It works well here at Confluent. I like to describe my role at Confluent twofold. I’m thinking a lot about our bottoms-up developer-led go-to-market, which certainly is much product-led and self-serve in some ways and then also a digital optimization across the board.

I’m looking after our paid acquisition team, webinars, email, nurture, etc. I’m thinking about, in all the different digital touchpoints, how do we optimize and how are we super-efficient across all those touchpoints? I have a line here that said, “An efficient go-to-market engine to drive pipeline and revenue,” but then I realized that are many jargon words in one sentence. It's certainly a fun role. I'm glad that growth is a thing now. It certainly wasn't when I started my career because it brings together what I find to be most exciting.

The second description is the one you put on the resume. Both of the companies, Box and Confluent, are successful from an enterprise sales motion and folding in a bottoms-up go-to-market motion. As every company scale, either they started bottoms-up or they started enterprise sales but eventually, they converge and they do both at some point, typically, to expand the market opportunity. What have you seen as the biggest mentality shifts that companies have to make if they have already started with an enterprise sales motion and then are going to add that bottoms-up sales approach?

For both Confluent and Box and for many of these open-source companies, there is inherent bottoms-up motion, especially these open-source type companies. The developer adoption is what has made these companies. Similar to Box, they like to think a little bit more of a pendulum that swung. Started bottoms-up like, “Try the product,” then maybe swung a little bit on the enterprise and then realize, “To feed the enterprise, we need a thoughtful self-serve business.” What I view at all the companies is it's less about creating the bottoms-up. It's more about how you are harnessing that momentum. To speak a little bit about the mindset shift that you want to see, it's like, “How do we use that momentum?” Not only to get adoption in the market and all that good stuff but also to make sure there's a pipeline, essentially, to feed the sales team.

At Box, for example, we thought a lot about, for our sales reps, how do we aggregate all the activity that was happening on Box that a company may not be aware of. Your employees are using the product. There are multiple deployments across multiple departments. Aggregating that for the sales team and then bringing that up to the enterprise motion using it as a key foothold into an account. I think about conflict, too. We are not shifting the natural dynamic at all. To me, it’s about continuing to focus on cultivating the product adoption and that becomes a foundation for a sales engagement.

Are you primarily using firmographic data to identify, whether, “This should be a full self-serve sale or this should be handed off to our high touch sales team?” How do you demarcating that as they come through the funnel?

I have thought a lot about this in all my roles. To me, it's the customer's choice and that's what we need. You don't want to force. If someone in a Fortune 500 wants to transact online, maybe there's a line of business that wants to start using a product, we cannot prevent them from doing that. That's counter to the fundamentals of these growth roles and self-serve roles. What I do like to think about a lot is potential.

In terms of like, “Do we want salespeople spending time with a prospect?” I like to think about, “What is the potential value of that customer?” That's where you make those investment decisions like, “Do we want to have this account owned by a strategic AE or not? Is it more of a self-serve account?” I use potential and you can measure that in several different ways based on the company as a marker for how you invest sales resources and customer success resources. In terms of where we direct customers or prospects in the funnel in any account, getting a self-serve presence, a trial or whatever product adoption organically is great. You never want to add any friction to that.

In the organizations you partner with from a growth perspective, product, customer success and even sales, what are the types of changes they may have to go through to embrace this growth channel that you develop for companies?

I have a few thoughts on that. There are probably three foundational shifts. The first one is getting everyone on board that you are leading with the product. Making it incredibly engaging and easy to get started on. In the enterprise world, that can be a little counterintuitive. If you start with this frictionless, easy-to-use, friendly interface, that can be a little bit of a shift. In both Box and Confluent, that hasn't been much of a shift because there are a lot of roots in the user so that has been nice.

The second shift is around usage, adoption, consumption, activation or whatever you want to call it. The actual usage of the product has to be a priority for both your post-sales teams but also your sales teams. One of the key mistakes you see is overselling on a contract or too many licenses and then you end up having potentially a retention issue down the line. Making sure your customers are using the product and join the product as soon as possible has many downstream impacts. That's an enormous shift.

The third key shift is for the sales team, making sure that the self-serve channel is being viewed as a source of a pipeline. The self-serve business is an efficient way of acquiring a lot of small customers and a lot of small deployments. In theory, that allows the sales team to focus on higher potential accounts, selling million-dollar deals or something like that. You don't want the two channels to be competing. I have seen that in the past for sure. Making sure that self-serve is viewed as, “We are in an efficient way getting footholds in all these different accounts.” Based on the potential of that account, run with it and hopefully, sell a giant deal. That positioning is incredibly key.

Overall, what I love about this though is if you think about these three shifts, they are so pure. All of a sudden, the incentives for the company are to truly foundationally make your customers get value out of your product. There's something pure about that that I love. It's like, “My metrics are going to look good if people want to use the product and are getting value from it and are using more of it.” That alignment of incentives is the best. That's probably one of the key reasons I love this type of function.

A growth role is all about being super data-driven. It's the intersection of quantitative, data-driven, and being a go-to-market function. Click To Tweet

Another interesting point you mentioned is that early a-ha moment because as easily as they came in the door, they can leave the product as well. Unlike the double-edged sword of having a product with growth and cloud, in general, is to become a little bit easier to move vendor-to-vendor. That wonderful experience and that immediate value are more critical than ever to build into your product. I know you have worked with SDR teams in the past. One of the things that always come up with a lot of companies that we work with and in general is the compensation framework for SDRs. Everyone wants to create sales at the other end but SDRs sometimes don't have a full influence on it. Are there any core pillars that you have seen in your work experiences that have worked well to keep in mind, whether it's keeping it simple or the things of that nature?

I have gotten to get involved in SDR compensation both at Box and Confluent. I don't know if behavioral economics is the right word but it's such a cool puzzle. Aligning incentives but not overcomplicating. I have my core tenets of SDR compensation. I will share with you what those are. My first is what SDRs are being comped on? It has to be aligned with company priorities. For example, if a company is focused on, “We need to acquire a bunch of new logos,” that should probably be one of the elements in the comp.

The second tenet is simple and it's probably the most important tenet. If folks can't understand their comp plans and it happens all the time like, “Why do we go through all this trouble to put it together?” You have two, a maximum of three drivers of the comp but ideally two. It’s like, “Fifty percent of your variable comp is on this metric and 50% is on another metric.” I have certainly seen companies have many nuances and elements. People don't know how they make money and then you lose the whole point.

The third is actionable. You have to comp your SDRs on what they can impact. A lot of times, I have seen companies comp on revenue, for example. If your deal cycles are long, the SDR probably doesn't have that much impact on revenue or when the deal closes. Making sure that an SDR can look at their comp plan and be like, “I can make an impact on these metrics.” The fourth tenet is probably maybe the least popular. Don't leave money on the table is what I call it.

I do care a lot about it because it's important in a growing business. You often have tension between sales and SDRs around the quality of the opportunities that you were passing, for example, or the meetings that you were setting up and that's a healthy tension. At a high-growth company, I would rather have SDR teams pass more volume so we are not leaving any stones unturned. That's a little bit of a bias I have. Finally, the fifth one is objective. The measurement has to be straightforward. That's something that can't be gamed. It’s easier said than done but certainly worth calling out.

SDRs in sales executives and individuals, in general, can get sometimes quite creative on how to get there. They are mission-driven. Another area within growth that I know you have overseen, whether it's at your current role or prior roles, is an activity you call customer lifecycle activities. How do you break that down into first, principles? What departments within the organization does that work most closely with?

Lifecycle growth could be a million different things. I have seen it be top of funnel or full funnel. I will use the product-led journey because that one is the most applicable across companies in terms of how you think about lifecycle. I will share the different phases of the lifecycle in a product-led journey. The levers and the teams that are involved shift as you move along in that journey. That's why the cross-functional piece is important with product-led. Your website and paid media team are a key part. Your customer success team might be important.

There are many teams that are going to touch these customers throughout their lifecycle and making sure that everyone was pointed in the right direction and fully aligned that’s key. It's not sexy to talk about that. Everyone needs to work together, be collaborative and be cross-functional. I can't emphasize more how important it is in this particular example. The way I view the product-led journey is there are pre-sign-up so that could be a lot of what happens on the digital media side, paid media side and on your website. Anything to get people to your website and hopefully, signing up for your product.

The second phase I have used is sign-up to onboarding. You can call that first-time user experience or onboarding. This is someone who signed up for your product. How are they like getting up to speed on how to use the product and the value they are going to get from it? There's onboarding the activation. Someone understanding the product and understanding what the areas that they are going to use are one thing but are they using it regularly? That's probably the most important phase in terms of long-term value with a customer. Getting them to use the product regularly and that activation is important. That's how you get sticky. If someone ends up using product day-to-day, it's embedded in critical use cases in their company, then you might not have a retention issue ever because the product becomes core.

Expansion is great. If you have a highly active account, then expansion isn't too complicated. What are the additional features that they might need or additional use cases within the account? Retention, once you have folks using it, how do you get them in retaining the product? The full view, the full journey and having the incentives be on that full journey are key. Having one team focus on generating a bunch of sign-ups and that team being disconnected from the team that's thinking about, “We want people to stay in the product,” is not going to work. That whole view is what is ideally how you set the teams up.

What's the key output for that team? Is it webinars on new features? What are the key activities?

For which team?

For the post-acquisition digital engagement lifecycle.

Tons of stuff. It depends also on how you define the acquisition. If an acquisition is a sign-up, then so much of what's going to happen is going to be onboarding, in the product, via email and maybe with a light handhold from a human or an SDR, for example. If you define an activated account as acquisition, then it's on delivering more use cases, working on product features, showing other product features and be teasing them out and getting folks to maybe upgrade plan.

It depends but to me, the key functions that are focused across the board on the journey are the acquisition side like the website, the ads, for example, that you might be running to generate momentum towards the website. In product, another hot function, product growth, what are the things you are doing in your signup flow, onboarding flow, maybe activation checklist, your upgrade flows? You have often a digital CS team so sometimes that involves people interacting directly but sometimes it's automated ways to identify an account that's at risk. Are there office hours that you can bring in an account to help them be more successful within your product or are there are email marketing programs that you can do to continue reminding people of the great use cases they can get with your product? There are so many dials to move. That's what makes it fun.

I'm assuming that the digital CS team runs parallel to the conventional CS team who was more of a high-touch customer success team.

In the ideal world, it's a layered approach. Ideally, you have this strong digital, somewhat automated layer of customer success that probably all customers get. As the accounts get bigger and maybe more high potential, more strategic, then you layer on some of that higher touch. To me, you have these layers that you are thoughtful and not overbearing but that you pile on to each other and that work cohesively.

It's critical that the transitions to each one of those wires are smooth, not cumbersome and they are clean. One of the other years, you are focused on as a professional demand generation if anything has happened in 2020, it has changed how enterprise technology companies have approached demand generation. What have you seen work or not work in any potential long-term changes around demand generation generally for enterprise technology companies?

None of my opinions on demand gen are popular.

We like controversial unpopular opinions.

I don't think I'm a traditional marketer, I don't even identify as a marketer, which might sound crazy because I am in a marketing org. To me, it's all about investment in tracking measurement and testing. What are the foundations you need to put in place so that you know exactly what's working, what's not and that you can test a bunch of stuff? To me, it's we can no longer be in a world where you were launching a campaign and saying, “We don't know what the impact is, but we think it's resonating.” To me, that is no longer acceptable.

I love that now we have the tools and the infrastructure to have that accountability. For me, what works in the demand areas. I love SEO, I mentioned that. It's a little bit of a black box but it's so powerful. ROI-based paid acquisition so being maniacal about being able to understand that we deployed these dollars that led into these inquiries or these form fills. What is the downstream impact? What is the ROI? Spending dollars without understanding what the impact is dangerous and that's when you get bloated budgets.

I love website testing and AV testing. Anything you can do testing your new pricing page testing a new homepage, new CTAs feels tactical but it's impactful. Thoughtful email nurtures are something that again, maybe not as glamorous as some folks might think but a good email marketing program that's thoughtful about the database not being too many touchpoints is awesome. What doesn't work if I might, there are a few things that I haven't found to be that productive. Content syndication is a little bit of a thing of the past. List buys people probably won't want to fight me on that. Third-party prospecting agencies, I'm not a big fan of that. That stuff definitely can work for the record but you can use those calories in those dollars in a much more impactful way.

Two questions, on the paid acquisition front, have you seen those dynamics changing? Am I going to start seeing enterprise technology ads on TikTok?

Yes, you are. Not that I'm not in that game yet and trust me I'm uncomfortable with it, too, if I sense your discomfort. I see such great success. LinkedIn is obvious as a professional. I haven't launched Instagram in my roles but I get targeted on Instagram now for SaaS and I don't mind it. There are certainly privacy implications, don't get me wrong but such great intel on, “Here's a certain persona on Twitter or Facebook,” and being able to target them where they spend their time. TikTok here we come.

Data analysts have an incredible amount of power. Investing in that function can reap pretty incredible rewards. Click To Tweet

I can't wait to see the creative TikTok advertisements.

I'm scared, honestly.

I do like the billboards on 101.

I do, too. We had a long-standing billboard. The day that we finally convinced our CEO to let it go and not renew was bittersweet because it was a meaningful part of the company.

It's a rite of passage. Portfolio companies had a funny one segment on the 101. It said, “Welcome to LA.” This is what bad data causes.

That was a great billboard. Segment customer here. I’m still a big fan.

I don't know if, in any of your roles you have had this but the role of analyst relations into enterprise tech may not have an opinion on it.

Unfortunately, I have opinions on many things, I know little about it. I haven't had analyst relations under my purview, I will say, as someone again, who can be opinionated, sometimes critical, it does seem incredibly powerful. We had an amazing analyst relations person at Box. We have an amazing analyst relations program here at Confluent and I don't fully understand it but I do see that analysts have an incredible amount of power. Being thoughtful of investing in that function seems to reap some incredible rewards. That’s one where I don't totally understand it but I respect it.

Things like G2 which positioned themselves as a next-gen Gartner, is that owned by your team, the digital acquisition team or is that owned by another team?

That was owned by our comms team who has analyst relations, public relations.

One of the things that VP of Growth and it came out in this conversation we had that it is data-driven. Can you talk about the role of data science? Do you have those people on your team? Are you working with data science teams that are maybe sitting somewhere else in the organization and how are you using them to help improve your processes and go-to-market strategy?

I cannot emphasize enough the partnership with whether you call it analytics or data science for these growth roles for product lead growth, etc. It's incredible. Here at Confluent, they do not sit in my team, though, having talked to a bunch of VPs of Growth, there are folks out there who make that a requirement in their role and it makes sense. Partnership with a data science team is a game-changer. Much of what allows us to know what we are doing or not is tracking the measurement, the ROI and all that infrastructure is generally built by the data science counterparts. I will share a few examples of how we partner with data science. One project we did is understanding the dollar value of a sign-up. Knowing that allows us to be thoughtful about how we optimize our paid acquisition efforts to be ROI positive. That was a cool project that we partnered with them on.

Lead scoring can be a game-changer. Lead scoring is often a controversial topic but having a good partnership with data science makes it incredibly powerful. I will say I have a plug for a partnership with a data scientist. Working in partnership, in other companies, I seem to be a little bit of, “Can you pull this data, do this analysis and come back to me?” That's a gross underuse of the talent on those teams. They are not here to pull last month’s web traffic numbers or pipeline numbers. In the business, certainly on my team, we have to be able to pull those numbers ourselves. That's part of our jobs but then in terms of data infrastructure, it’s deep analyses to understand what strategic decisions to make or how you want to measure your impact. Experiment design is one thing that we often talk about. That's where your data scientists can shine. I'm a fangirl of that team.

It’s having some element of self-sufficiency, so you are not over-taxing that group. You mentioned experimentation design. What is that?

That is essentially when we want to do any testing. We want to launch an experiment, maybe it's one web page versus another that we are AB testing or maybe we want to test a different follow-up experience. There are so many nuances to how you structure, measure and get to a point that you can say, “This was better than this.” It's way more complex than at first glance so we are partnering closely with the team to understand what are the populations we are sampling? What is the success metric? How much time do we need to go by to be statistically significant? If it's going to take six months, we don't have time for that. Maybe it's because I'm a nerd but getting into those details and working with that team to understand that we can't set up an experiment the way that we wanted to because we won't get the answer. It's a cool puzzle to solve.

What do you think is a healthy number of experiments for a growth company should run? Is it one a month or multiple?

It’s way more. There are many different properties you can experiment with on a certain webpage, end-product, your follow-up experience in the subject line of your email nurture. It’s a lot. I would like to say that we are running ten plus at once would be great. On some of our teams, we have numbers of experiments per quarter that we want them to run but there are many different things to experiment with. Ideally, there is a ton happening.

That's interesting that you use that as a core KPI. It incentivizes that continuous evolution. This has been a fabulous conversation on all things growth in general as a role and it's becoming paramount in every company because if you don't have product-led growth motion now, you are most likely going to have one in the future. I like to end these conversations with something that has nothing to do with the conversation we had, although this is somewhat tangential. To provide the audience with a little bit of outside knowledge of you, I will give you an option. What is your favorite consumer or enterprise tech solution device, if you had to pick one?

I feel so basic saying this, but Slack. At least from a work perspective, it's completely changed how I work. It's wild. I don't check email often anymore, which isn't a good thing.

That was the goal with Slack.

People are still sending me emails. I probably should check them. I do most of my work in Slack all day. It’s a love-hate because it drives me crazy. Coming back from a meeting and having 150 Slack notifications or whatever. The other thing I will say, if I may separate from the productivity tools I use, but in terms of as a professional and what I like to use to interact with our prospects, I’m a big fan of WebChat but there are a few like Drift, Intercom or Qualified. I find it to be such a better way to interact with prospects and a modern way to do so. People don't want to talk on the phone anymore. A live chat is a great alternative so I'm a big fan of that as well.

Is that all human behind it or is there some elements of AI?

I can tell you the way we do it. We don't do fake humans. Some companies do so we have some automation, where it's some kind of intro questions from the bot to understand what you are interested in but certainly, a lot of folks have fake humans where it's a bot masquerading as a human until they get maybe enough intent to warrant it being routed to a person. I'm not quite sold on that yet but I certainly like the idea of asking a couple of questions upfront to get people in the right place.

Lead scoring is often a controversial topic, but having a good partnership with data science makes it incredibly powerful. Click To Tweet

It's solution-specific, too. I purchased my renter's insurance by communicating with a bot on Lemonade but it was simple enough. I didn't mind it being a bot. I somewhat appreciated that it was quick and easy.

Maybe I have become anti-social. If I don't have to interact with folks and my own purchase decisions, I'm usually happy.

This was a great conversation. I appreciate you taking the time. If people want to connect with you. Where's the best place LinkedIn or Twitter?

It’s LinkedIn. I don't have much of a presence on Twitter, but shoot me a note on LinkedIn. I’m always happy to share ideas and best practices.

Thank you for your time, Marie.

It’s my pleasure.

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