Chris Degnan (Snowflake): VP Sales vs Founder/CEO Relationship
Blake Bartlett: Chris Degnan is the CRO of Snowflake today, but he originally joined the company nine years ago. Back then, there certainly weren't any customers. Heck, there wasn't even a commercial product or a pricing plan when he joined Snowflake. But clearly, he's been massively successful at every stage of the sales journey, and now Snowflake is well over a$1 billion of ARR. He tells us what he's learned about working with founders as a sales leader across all stages of a company's development.
Chris Degnan: When I started at Snowflake, there was not really a CEO, and there was three founders, so I effectively worked for three founders. And what you'll find about me, there's still an internal joke that all the PhDs that were at Snowflake, because there's a lot of them, would say is I got a C- and C ++ in college. We're a database, you write SQL in it. They tried to get me to write SQL and I certainly tried and couldn't. And they thought it was easy enough of a database that even a salesperson could use it and I proved them wrong. But I think the ironic part of that is a lot of those early engineers would refer to me in the earliest days of being the shadow CTO. So, Snowflake, we didn't really pay our reps on commission for two and a half years when I first started, it was really around bonuses and it was what's right for the company of getting customer feedback. So our original venture capitalist was our acting CEO for our first year. All he cared about was getting customer feedback and having the founders interact with the customers so they could actually make adjustments to the product to have a generally available product. So, for me, the way that I worked with them is to this day, there's not a technical decision I've made on the product thankfully. But the way that I've made or got things done was those founders, they're like the most humble humans ever. They never wanted to be the CEO of the company, they just wanted to solve customer problems. So that was their approach. So all I would do is I would go in and set up meetings, get us to a point where the customer was interested and the customer would say, well, you need these basic things. And it could be, I can still remember, there're things like we were a database. We didn't support updates. So, a customer's like, well, geez, you have to support updates or you have to have windowing functions. I never made the decision to have windowing functions. Terry or one of our founders came to me to a customer and that night the guy's like, I need windowing functions. And sure enough, Terry goes out and designs the first concept of windowing functions. So that's the way that I think the partnership has always been is I state my problems around why I can't get business. I bring them to the water, so to say, in that I'm not going to force them to drink it. They're going to sit there and say, well, this water looks good. Well, in the customer environment they'll make decisions on pivoting the company based on their gut. I trust them implicitly. I'm not that person to make those huge pivots as a company. There were days that I wanted to go sell Snowflake on- premise and they were like, no chance, that's never happening. So I had to pivot my thought process on how I was going to do things. And there was a customer in our early days that it was probably the most expensive database migration ever, where we migrated a 500 terabyte vertica environment over to Snowflake over a seven month period, and we signed up for a whole bunch of feature sets that the engineering team was really dedicated to this customer on building this product for them. Turns out that was a founder's decision, that was the right decision technically for the company because they knew that they needed to do all these things. But again, my job is to get the money to make sure the customer paid us. But it's their job to make sure the product works. And that's the best relationship that I can say that I still have with our founders. And that's how I suggest everyone operate. Early days, it's who cares about the revenue? It's all about getting customer feedback and then as you scale, it's continuing to listen to those customers so you keep them as customers and you delight them and make them happy. That's what I'd say.
Chris was Snowflake’s first sales hire, and he built the commercial business from $0 to $1B+ ARR. What is the optimal relationship between a VP Sales and the Founder/CEO during this journey?
Many sales leaders solely focus on hitting their number. That’s certainly important, but sales also plays a pivotal role in product strategy by acting as the voice of the customer. The goal is to achieve a collaborative push-pull relationship with founders and sales leaders that drives more customer value.