Kyle Parrish (Figma): Sales Culture Matters
Kyle Parrish: I think one of the biggest misses, especially in product- led growth companies is bringing in sales leaders that are solely hell- bent on driving towards the number and just the X's and O's part of the job, when realistically you need to take a step back, and sometimes it's taking a step back to go 10 steps forward and understanding what makes the company tick. How do we think about building and shipping product?
Blake Bartlett: Welcome back to the BUILD podcast. I'm Blake Bartlett, a partner at OpenView. The world of SaaS is always evolving, and we are here to help you adapt, compete, and win with your startup. The BUILD podcast brings you stories and insights from my conversations with the most successful people in SaaS. In today's episode, I chat with Figma's head of sales, Kyle Parrish. Kyle has built Figma's sales team from the ground up and, prior to that, he spent five years as a sales leader at Dropbox, so Kyle knows a thing or two about PLG sales. In today's conversation, we discuss sales culture, what it is, why it matters and how to build it the right way. Kyle gives us his firsthand experience from Figma, both what works and what doesn't when building a sales team inside a PLG company. All that and more on this episode of BUILD. So let's dive in with Kyle Parrish. Well, Kyle, thanks for joining us here on the BUILD podcast. It's great to have you on the show.
Kyle Parrish: Yeah, thanks for having me, Blake.
Blake Bartlett: So we're going to talk about all things sales in a PLG environment today, and I think one of the best places to start is just some of your own experience. I think, as you and I were chatting before, talking about sales culture, talking about building sales at a PLG company, there's some unique challenges. When you come in as a sales leader to PLG businesses, the party's kind of already started in a lot of ways, the revenue's there, the product's out there, there's customers, there's been a culture that's built at the company, and you're kind of coming in midstream to sort of launch something new. So what's that experience been like for you at Dropbox and at Figma now? What do you think is important to keep in mind when you're joining a company for the first time as a sales leader, especially if it's a PLG company that has some going business today?
Kyle Parrish: Yeah, it's a great question and I do like the phrase that the party's already been started. I think we'll get to this in a second, but the sales party hasn't been started, but there is a culture, there is a company, and typically I think when most founders are thinking about bringing in a sales leader or a sales team, they've got a product that's being used out in the wild. For me, my background, when I joined Dropbox, the company's on 50 employees and we were just starting to build our sales team. So I was the second, third member of the sales team and I got a firsthand experience of what that was like working at a company that had a consumer product that was attracting and retaining and growing users around the world, and then looking to launch an enterprise product, solving some of those same problems with a different angle, kind of focused on the enterprise use case and how it would actually be used within companies and what that collaboration motion looked like. And today I'm at Figma where I joined as the first person in a kind of sales capacity tasked with building out the sales org and I think both have varying differences, which maybe we'll get to later in the show, but for me, the big thing about hiring in a sales team and joining the early product- led growth environments is to first understand what's already happening. So you mentioned something's already in motion. And so I think the first part about joining as a sales leader, as a sales person, in a PLG company, is recognizing that you've got a ton of information that you can absorb, retain, that's going to allow you to build and think about what is the best sales motion for this business, for this customer, at this stage. So I think early on, it starts looking in around the use cases and how people are using the product and Dropbox is an example, it was a cloud sync and share product. And so our first iteration of a business product was single sign- on attached onto that. So now when I hear in 2021 people trying to launch businesses with their core offering with just single sign- on, or Okta, or other support, it gives me a little bit of pause because we were early on, back in 2011 at Dropbox into being this consumer kind of freemium model that also had an enterprise play, and we were able to get away with it, I think because the space was so new, and I think now today, when I joined Figma, they'd start to build an enterprise product that was under beta with a handful of customers, and we had a professional product that was being used and adopted by handfuls of users within organizations. So it was joining at the perfect time where I actually got to absorb and take in some of this feedback about people who were just using our basic product, but also how they were starting to use it in these large organizations at companies like Uber and Airbnb and Microsoft. And I think building from scratch sounds really scary and daunting, but when you're building from scratch at a PLG company, you really aren't building from scratch. There's a culture within a company and how they think about building and shipping products and serving customers. There's a culture of what we're about as a company, as a business, and early on, that's something that's more aspirational when you're a handful of people, 10, 15, 20, and then if you're lucky and you start getting product market fit and your business starts to grow, you're able to kind of pour in and double down in those values and, and seeking how that plays out internally, but also how that plays out with the customers and the teams that you work with.
Blake Bartlett: And how do you sort of tackle the cultural angle specifically? Because I know, I think this is starting to wane a little bit, but I do know that in PLG, at least historically, there was oftentimes associated with PLG was sort of a hesitancy towards sales or maybe even in some cases kind of a view of sales as being an old school thing or something that we won't do, and then one day sales is something we're going to do. And so you're kind of coming into a culture that might sort of not fully understand sales might actually have sort of an existing opinion about sales that might have negative connotations, might have positive connotations, you don't know? So how do you come in and sort of set a new tone without breaking glass?
Kyle Parrish: That's a great question, and for both the companies that I've had a long tenure at, Dropbox and Figma, they were both self- serve businesses and that was the intention early on. It's like, Hey, we are building products at scale. We are trying to find, go to market motions that can tap into that like collaboration layer, that virality layer, and sales was kind of like an afterthought. And even when I joined Figma, there was a lot of concerns. I had that experience at Dropbox. I think Dropbox really valued the sales team and the customer- facing teams, but Dropbox was very much product- led, and I think probably at some point to our detriment, we didn't take in enough feedback from the sales team on what we were going to go build and ship and then what the actual product roadmap looked like. So when I joined Figma back in 2018, we had 50 people. There was nobody in customer- facing capacity yet and I was nervous. I thought it was going to be one of those situations where it's like, oh, the suits are here. We're bringing in a sales team. You know, we got to go drive revenue. What does that mean? And I'd worked really closely with designers and product managers and engineers in my prior job. And I'm very fortunate to have that experience growing up at a company like Dropbox, where I got to see the importance of cross- functional collaboration. Early on, when you join building a flywheel to connect product feedback and insights, and how that helps influence and drive the roadmap. Because I think one of the biggest misses, especially in product- led growth companies is bringing in sales leaders that are solely hell- bent on driving towards the number and just the X's and those part of the job. When realistically you need to take a step back and sometimes it's taking a step back to go 10 steps forward in understanding what makes the company tick. How do we think about building and shipping product? And I think that the misconception that I brought in about being the suit at Figma, I didn't let carry into how I thought about building the team and how I thought about establishing the kind of microcosm of sales culture within the company culture. For me, it started with understanding the company culture and how can sales fit into that and also healthily evolve it to our future state. The second part was understanding who our customer was, who was the persona that we were serving? And so how do I go hire and build a sales team of people that I think can connect with that audience? You know, as an example, the same person that it may be really successful at selling to sales leaders or marketing leaders may not be as successful to selling to marketing designer product. And that might be a little bit of a generalization, but it's a little bit of a focus in how you approach the sale and understanding that this is not the same buyer as maybe other markets. So early on, Dylan, our CEO did a good job to create space for me and the team to get up and talk about sales and share wins and share feedback. And to my surprise, even in the early days, the request for more learning of the customer stories, what is our sales motion? What is the most challenging part of the jobs when people say no, why is that? Everyone from all roles across the company were super interested/ So I think my advice to founders and other sales leaders coming into these kind of environments are don't be your own worst enemy and think that, oh, no, the culture's going to drastically change because I'm bringing in sales. The culture's always changing, the culture's always evolving, but I think you need to understand is, how do you fit into the fabric that's already been woven in the culture today? Not, how do you create this new highway where sales and other customer- facing teams can operate? When I came into Figma, there were some parallels from Dropbox, for sure. With PLG companies, there was things that I learned and wish we would've done at Dropbox that I was able to get right at Figma. But there's also so much that is different. I mean, we're selling to design and that's kind of evolving as we continue to grow and mature, but design is so new and design leaders and teams, and it's so new to being sold to. And so there's not a lot of playbooks that you even pull from other than a few other companies that have sold to design. It's not tried and true, like selling to IT or CIOs or whatever it may be. So, for me, a lot of it was recognizing what I didn't know and what I had to learn. One of the things that I actually did early on for Dylan or CEO's request was I spent a month in the support queue. So you join as a sales leader, you're on the hook to build this side of the business and grow revenue and all that stuff. And you're just naturally like an action- oriented person, I would say. And I bet many people that watch this in similar roles would probably agree and it tested my patience and it ended up being an amazing thing. I built really, really strong relationships with our awesome support team. I got to understand intricate details of the product and also wonky user flows and upgrade flows and all these things and the experience I got in building those relationships, getting closer to the user and the customers, and understanding already some of the broken problems that nobody had time or the kind of focus on was super valuable. So once I got into my job, and once you get kind of going down that path in any job, you're never going into another function and spending four weeks of the job. So I was really glad that he suggested that. And I was one of those examples of like, Hey, I'm going to define the Figma playbook as we go, but of course I do come in with experience. I do come in with having seen some things, but I've learned so much of what we're doing and the decisions we've made on the job. And I think that's the fun part, like who wants to go and copy paste the same playbook for their entire career?
Blake Bartlett: Yeah, there's always new problems to solve, always new things to apply to a new context. And then markets are constantly evolving. Customer expectations are constantly evolving. So you have to adapt along with it. I like what you mentioned with sort of sitting in the support queue. There's no better way to get customer empathy than sitting in the support queue for any role. And there's no better way to get context of like, what is this market? How do our customers think and how do they speak and how do they feel than seeing support tickets? And so whether it's sales or other roles, I've seen that being a sort of a common starting point, like welcome to onboarding, go answer some support tickets, and it'll really get you up to speed on who we are and what are our customers all about. So I like that a lot. You've kind of alluded to a few things here, which is the other side of the coin. So we've talked a lot about if are the sales leader coming in, establishing a sales culture, kind of you're coming to a party that's already started. How do you think about that? But the other side of the coin is because there's lots of founders listening right now and they might be in that same position of bringing on sales to their PLG company for the first time and worrying, how do I pick the right leader? How do I make sure that they're going to be a cultural fit? How do I also then, once they come in, make sure that there's not organ rejection and that they do sort of get woven into to what we're up to here. You mentioned a few things that like Dylan had done at, at Figma, but any ideas, any advice for founders as to how to make that successful?
Kyle Parrish: Yeah. It's a great question. I think this is one that I end up kind of fielding often from early- stage founders who want to talk to people that have kind of had similar experience to what I've had. And the first thing I say is, I think it depends on of course where you're at in terms of the maturity of your business. And most importantly, the conviction you have for going and building a sales team. Some founders will say, I have conviction that we should have at least one salesperson because it's all founder- led sales. I'm getting taken away from other strategic decision- making around the product, how we market it, how we grow globally, whatever it may be. And so I want to bring someone who's a salesperson in who can take these calls and not take our foot off the gas. And there's other people who are like, Hey, we're inching closer to product- market fit. I feel like there's a model, there's a plan where we can go hire five, 10 sales reps in the next 12 to 18 months. And in those cases, when they have that stronger conviction, I would suggest they go and hire a sales leader that can grow and scale the team. If you're not quite there, but you still want to bring a salesperson on, you can bring a salesperson on with some experience. But I think, if you're fortunate enough to have that conviction, and get the ball far enough down the field before you make this decision around your go- to market motion and, and a sales team, and the leader, you want to bring in a leader who can take over all of that stuff. So when I came in, I'm tasked with hiring I'm enablement, I'm sales op and strategy. I'm a sales person myself. I'm figuring out the pricing plan with amazing partners on the finance and Bus- op side. But the whole point is that you want someone who can grow to a certain point and let them fail. If they fail a year and a half into the job, two years of the job, that's still not a bad thing. You can always layer them or find the longer- term solution and leader, but you want someone that can grow and scale and knows how to get you from that zero to one stage. And then as a CEO, as a co- founder, you can spend your time and development with that one person talking about strategy, talking about the next month, the next quarter, the next customer, whatever it may be. And then when you're actually going to find that person, I think it's really, really critical. Something that applies to all early stage companies is someone that gets the value of cross- functional collaboration. Ideally, they've worked in an earlier stage environment. So time and time again, people that have only worked in large, publicly- traded companies, if they try and go in that early sub five, 10 millionaire R stage, they don't get it. The systems have not been built. It's not like just gas and brakes. You're literally deciding, okay, which direction do we go? And why? And what are the most important things? Early stage building for me is all about prioritization. And for me, I was spending equal time internally with product managers, designers, engineers, understanding how we were building the product and why, and all those different aspects as I was with customers, like listening to customers, of what they wanted and what their questions were and trying to marry the two. So I think the other things that you'll look at beyond that are, if somebody does have industry experience in the market that you're going after, that's super helpful. Is this someone that you think represents your company and brand, and like really thinks about sales as a role around user experience and customer experience? At Figma, we've got such a strong community and brand that so many people have been building for a decade. And I see sales is one of the largest stewards of that brand. So when we build the sales team and we hire people to join and be a part of what we're doing, they have to understand that we're all extensions of that brand. And so we need to show up well, we need to be able to be empathetic with the customers. We need to be able to challenge customers at times, but in the lens of thinking of the holistic customer experience and being yet another extension, whether that's in person or over Zoom or over email of this brand that's been cultivated online and in person for so many years.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah and that piece that you said there about community, I think it's certainly relevant to these days because everybody's talking about community- led growth along with product- led growth. But I think both of those are so super interesting because there's an ability for a sales leader to come in and view those things as lead gen pools. It's like, great, you got a community going? Awesome, I'm going to start cold calling them. You got a free product going? Awesome, I'm going to start cold calling them. And sort of view it as something that's just an input to their process versus the way you described it as, I'm a steward of this community. I am a member of this community, this isn't sort of a honey pot for me to go and get what I need from, you know?
Kyle Parrish: Yeah. But yeah, exactly that around thinking about being stewards and understanding the value of self- serve. Most PLG companies are typically going to have a sales motion that's supported by self- serve. So we've got self- serve pro at Figma, we have a self- serve enterprise product and then sales, selling enterprise. And I think, for me, having grown up at Dropbox and seeing just the insane growth path that, that self- serve business had, I see the value as a company tries to reach its full potential in the self- serve funnel. It's great. We don't want to jump in and have sales cannibalizing that side of the business, but I also don't think that I've heard stories of, of people at other companies really feel like sales and self- service competing when that shouldn't be the key case either. I think we want to make sure that as a sales leadership team, we're staffing up our team to work with people that either are not sold or not convinced your product or are interested and potentially leaning that way, but need guidance from sales. And so you'll see that all the way down to the S and B level of companies to the largest companies in the world. And so when we see our self- serve business humming and thriving and growing, that just means more people that have awareness for Figma that we can go and eventually cross- sell and upsell future products, assuming there's the right fit. And we approach those customers with the right mentality in terms of helping them, supporting them, and guiding them on their journey with Figma. So self- serve plus sales. Those are the businesses that are generational, not where it's self- serve or sales I think they have to work in tandem.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah, definitely. It's all one continuous customer journey and it's about figuring out when is which motion appropriate on that customer journey versus one is competing against the next, that idea of sales cannibalizing self- serve, both can exist in the same environment. It's all one customer journey. I like that a lot. So for the last part of our conversation here, I want to talk about what does this look like at scale? How do you kind of scale that sales culture and what are the important things to keep in mind as the sales team gets larger, as the company gets larger, as the revenue gets bigger, as the customer base gets bigger? How have you tackled that?
Kyle Parrish: Yeah, it's a great question. And a very timely one as, as we're going through this journey at Figma, I joined in July of 2018 and there was zero salespeople at the company. I think now we're almost to 85 or 90 salespeople globally. And so it's been rocket ship fast, which is a ton of fun, but the evolution is just as fast as well. And so I think some of the challenges that you face when you start to get to that level of scale is on the product side, the same things that we were doing in terms of shipping and building a product that was disrupting the design market, we need to continue doing, but we also need to add this, add on this new part of our business, which is building for scale, building for companies that have 10, 000 plus users on the platform, helping understand these new personas, which could be central IT, which could be admins and many admins in most cases, which could be other parties and user types that just didn't exist when you start in your kind of growing your initial business. So I think one thing that we have to do in terms of customer feedback, understanding and building the right user facing technical teams, is making sure that we understand those challenges. We are routing around an internal culture to quite frankly, go and build some of the less sexy things. You know, it's not the latest product launch that's going to support publishing your design system. It's not our new white boarding tool. It's building admin functionality, it's building encryption key management. It's allowing your largest customers to manage guests that are not on their domain easier. And, and so that kind of stuff, it's not what early, I think product teams gravitates towards solving those problems. But once you've gotten to a certain point, you're lucky to then go solve these problems. And we're lucky to do it with amazing customers who we consider as design partners to do that. So that's like one side of the product is it's not just building for your core area of expertise and what you're disrupting, but also just building to support companies that have grown so large in such a short amount of time on the platform. I think the second, both internally and externally, is just how you're perceived. And so I always feel like I have to tell so many people the kind of customers that Figma supports and we are very much an enterprise business, but I think part of that transformation has to happen internally as well. It's hiring enterprise sales people, it's building a sales engineering function. It's starting to do the things around like ROI case studies and, and all that stuff that we just didn't need to win a year ago, two years ago, that as we enter this tech laggard sector where maybe these people aren't the early adopters, maybe they're in super stringent verticals. The crux of it all is that we can't do what we did last year or the year before, or even six months ago to continue winning. We have to up level our game. We have to tell a new narrative and we have to do the things that maybe again, aren't unique to Figma, but are tried and true and winning and driving adoption in the enterprise space. So I think we're still thinking through first principles, but those are things that are just completely new motions for the company. And we've gotten to this platform where we've got this amazing opportunity and we're right on the doorstep, but if we don't go do these things to understand our customers that are this large and that maybe are this antiquated in a lot of their philosophy on technology and the Cloud, and collaboration, we're going to hamper our potential growth. So that's something that we're working on here internally and I think that's what a lot of companies face is adding on this new supporting motion once you get to a certain point in your trajectory, assuming most of the companies in the PLG space also want to go win very large enterprise around the globe.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah. That idea of telling a new narrative is incredibly important. As you reach each new sort of stage of the company and you start serving larger customers and the sort of surface area of what your product is and what your customer base looks like continues to increase, you need to sort of have the story match that externally, right? And the narrative is important and the story is important. Both the overall messaging, the company messaging to the market, the product marketing to the market, but also the sales story that you tell and, and sort of how you're perceived, but it's also equally as important to do that internally, the internal storytelling, so that the company culture, back to what we were talking about before is evolving along with the company evolving. We're not thinking internally the way that we did when we were a young company, we're thinking about ourselves as now a company that does serve enterprise, we still have our roots, but we also are a new company. And so that's still storytelling internally and externally so that everybody's on the same page is incredibly important. I guess last thing here. So all this talk about sales culture, both in the early days, as well as, as it scales, why does this ultimately matter? Why is this so important to a company? Besides having a good company culture where everybody feels appreciated and sort of like their contributions are recognized, why does this matter to the business?
Kyle Parrish: Yeah, it's a good point. I think part of it is at some point, you're going to reach that inflection where even if you are one of the strongest product- led growth companies out there, where as you reach that next stage, you're going to get to a point where you're going to rely more and more on a sales team to help drive that further adoption and drive that further growth. And so I think it's less about sales feeling valued and sales, having a seat at the table, but the whole company supports that transformation of, today it's heavily inbound, super bottoms up, a lot of really engaged users to, hey, there may be handful of users, there may be no users, but we need to keep our growth rates up. We need to go and capture the market. We've got product market fit. We've got some of the best customers around the world. And so now it's just going, pushing the front lines and grabbing market share and continuing to grow at this pace that we're on. And I think once you realize that it goes back to what you just said, the narrative of the company internally and the culture has evolved, and it can still hold onto those roots. But when that becomes the case, you have a lot more people. I mean, there's the supporting cast we have at Figma. And I think in any healthy sales org is so strong. And it ranges from sales ops and strategy to our legal partners, to designer advocates who are kind of unique to Figma and to everyone across the board, our support team, marketing, engineering product, like everyone when, when we win a customer in sales, everybody wins, we have grown a pretty healthy customer base at Figma and we're just getting started. But the people that were super engaged and saw the value and wanted to be sold to, but were open to it. We've converted those people for the most part at this point. And so now moving forward and over the next couple years of this journey, we are going out and we're selling in competitive markets and we are going to need the company rallying around the wins, the losses, and the challenges. Because I think even though you will always be a product- led growth company, there's such a massive opportunity in terms of enterprise in front of us, that I think that new DNA call it sales, call it customer- facing, call it enterprise will carry a stronger weight within the company.
Blake Bartlett: And so you get to a point where, at scale, sales problems become company problems.
Kyle Parrish: Yes(affirmative).
Blake Bartlett: And so we're all in this together and we need to be sort of on the same page and it's no longer like we're the sales folks that are kind of dialing for dollars over on the top floor. You know, it's very different and sales problems are company problems. And I think that's incredibly, incredibly important.
Kyle Parrish: Yeah. Yeah. That's, that's exactly it. You have to staff up a team globally to do that as well. And we have a sales team in London who's been over there for a year now, and we're starting to see the fruits of that labor in a very serious way. It's amazing. It's fun to be a part of a company that starts for us in San Francisco in this little small office and the next thing you know, you've got colleagues who work locally in these offices, in these cultures, and the stories you hear from their trials and tribulations on the sales team are vastly different. And it's kind of fun to, to share those insights around the company as well. Just understanding what it takes to win a regional market as well beyond just the segment and size of a company.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah, well, in closing, Kyle, sounds like sales culture is important, but it's also very difficult and it can be something that just unlocks the next stage of your company. So thanks a ton for joining us here on the BUILD podcast and sharing your wisdom with us.
Kyle Parrish: Yeah. Thank you for having me, Blake. This is a lot of fun and I appreciate all the time.
Blake Bartlett: Thanks for listening to this episode of BUILD. If you like what you've heard, leave us a review on Apple podcasts and subscribe to stay up to date with all the new episodes. Want more insights from OpenView? Follow me, Blake Bartlett, on LinkedIn for daily PLG content and head to our website to sign up for our weekly newsletter.
[2:21] Kyle shares what he considers important to keep in mind when joining a company for the first time as a sales leader.
[5:51] How do you tackle the cultural angle specifically in regards to sales?
[13:02] Kyle extends his advice for founders on how to bring on sales to their PLG company for the first time successfully.
[17:55] Kyle talks about being stewards and understanding the value of self-serve.
[19:38] How does Kyle scale the sales culture, and what are the important things to keep in mind as the sales team gets larger, as the company gets larger, as the revenue gets bigger, as the customer base gets bigger?
[24:42] Why is it so important to address sales culture in the early days as well as while the company scales?
Mentioned in this episode:
Featuring Kyle Parrish, Head of Sales at Figma.
Follow Blake Bartlett on Linkedin.
Podcast produced by OpenView.
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