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Founder-led sales

The obstacle of sales is the way to progress – Sebastian Gabor (Digitail)

Bogdan Iordache 11 Jun 2024 | . read

Authors: Bojan Stojkovski and Bogdan Iordache

For some people, sales come naturally and effortlessly, as if it were an inherent part of their DNA. Sebastian Gabor, the co-founder and CEO of all-in-one cloud veterinary software Digitail, is one of them. 

It’s a role he enjoys and took on in each of his ventures – whether it was organizing events, developing a food delivery app, or now with Digitail

Today, more than 750 clinics that serve over a million pets worldwide use Digitail. The platform reduces the administrative burden for veterinary professionals by 40% to 60%, equivalent to around three days per month of admin at a typical vet clinic.

Before raising a Series A round last year, Sebastian initially did sales on his own. While his partners concentrated on developing the product and technology, he navigated a steep learning curve with many mistakes that eventually became valuable lessons.

Learning by Doing Lots of Mistakes

“We made all the possible mistakes. If you read all the books and all the mistakes they tell you not to make – we can win a prize for how many of them we did.”

In January 2023, the startup raised an $11M Series A led by Atomico, one of Europe’s top Series A funds. Building the platform, however, was no easy feat.  At the very beginning, they just focused on coding without talking to potential customers. As a pet owner and having seen the horrors of bureaucracy that vets had to deal with, Sebastian was convinced that he had all the answers. 

“I think that it was Steve Blank with “Get out of the building” where he said that you need to talk with clients. We did the exact opposite. In the first months, instead of going and asking clinics “What’s your problem and how can we solve all of that?”, we just said “They need the software, so let’s build software for them, and we’ll go sell it,” Sebastian says.

After having built it, they found out that it wasn’t solving the problems that clinics had. It was a lesson learned the hard way. But as he explains, this also led him to discover the best approach of how to build a product that someone wants to buy. 

“Be as empathetic as possible and try to understand what the client’s problems are: both the perceived problems and their real problems – their day-to-day struggles. Only after that and after you get some engagement or assessment on what they want to buy – then you start building it,” he explains.

Potential clients will often focus on their perceived problems without identifying the underlying issues, leading to symptomatic rather than root-cause treatment. For instance, as Sebastian recalls, some vets requested faster medical record writing – highlighting the symptom of slow documentation rather than addressing the true desire to avoid it altogether. 

“Now, with AI-based workflows, you have dictation that directly automates the entire process. And this is the difference – it’s like what Henry Ford famously said about people wanting faster horses instead of cars. So, people would ask for the things they think they need rather than what they need. It is down to you to ask the questions and understand what’s the underlying problem,” he says. 

The next problem to figure out was how to get new clients interested in the product. This happened during Digitail’s first year when Sebastian and the team were working with Romanian customers who needed to first understand the value of digitalization. 

They crafted customer discovery questions such as “How do you get your clients to come back to the hospital?” or “How do you make sure your clients have a good experience?” and asked those questions to potential clients.

Doing Sales as a Founder – Hardcore Mode

“You are working on this day and night. Most likely, you are very familiar with the problem that you’re solving. You understand the solution because you’re building it, you know the details – so why not share them?”

Sebastian thinks founders always have an incredibly unfair advantage compared to any salesperson – they can promise (almost) everything to the client. Up to a point that it doesn’t kill the business, that is.

“You don’t only sell, but you can also promise anything you want to the clients to close the deal. Salespeople can’t do that – you wouldn’t be happy if they came and said hey, our next roadmap for the next three months is now blocked because I just promised something. But you can do that,” he says. 

No one tells a story better than the actual founder. And most of the time, the first customers will fall in love with that narrative.

“Our first clients started buying because they believed in what we wanted to build, at a time when the product wasn’t there yet. It was developing fast, but it had to mature a lot more before we could sell. However, they believed the story we shared and they wanted to be part of the journey,” Sebastian adds.

Worst case scenario if a sales call or a meeting doesn’t go well? Spending 15 minutes in what might be an awkward conversation.

“Best case scenario, you’ll find new insights. You create a new long relationship that will be helpful for the way you build and the way you think about the industry. And there’s so much to learn – I stopped seeing clients as just clients, but as someone that gives you yet another information about the industry, and how it can help you build a better software solution.” Sebastian explains.

The First Leads and Sales

“I was going to my grandparents’ house and on the road I saw this clinic. I said to myself “I’m going in so whatever happens, happens. We need to do this now.”

Digitail’s first sale happened at a familiar place, Sebastian’s hometown of Jassy in Romania. On the way to his grandparents’ house, he saw an opportunity – a veterinary clinic on the side of the road.

“I stopped the car and I went in. And I was lucky enough to see a familiar face – since Jassy is quite a small city. I asked them what system they were using, they said they weren’t using any system and were actually looking for one. I was like yay – it’s the best day ever!” Sebastian recalls. 

After starting with the outbound leads, the team started developing their inbound strategy.

“Afterward, Ruxandra (Digitail’s other co-founder, Ruxandra Pui) created profiles on Capterra and all the review websites, and we started getting online inbound leads. The second client was actually from Australia – a small mobile vet,” he says. 

The first year ended with Digitail securing a partnership with a Romanian distribution company that was providing them with warm local leads. They made contact with the distributor through their imminent network, or as Sebastian calls it, “through a friend of a friend of a friend who was working there”. 

Without a lead qualification system in place, they engaged any veterinarian interested in improving his practice management, as the company was still working to define its ideal client profile and lacked extensive information in the early stages.

“It is a lot easier when you can call someone and say “Hey, I have your number, I got it from the company and they said you might be interested”. That’s quite a neat and easy conversation,” Sebastian recalls, adding that, however, there were also the “scary calls” that needed to be dealt with. 

“The very first few calls every day – they’re the scary ones. One hack that I’ve learned is that you always need to do the first calls with something that’s easier or you get energy from. Call an existing client or call someone that you’re close to. Get the energy from these calls and then start doing the really cold ones,” he says.

Expanding Outside of Romania

“We were looking for a salesperson who could pass more likely as a local and would know how to have the conversations. We ended up hiring someone, they came in, took a lot of risks, and started making lots of calls.”

After setting up sales locally in Romania, the team focused on selling on the international market. They first explored several markets, before doubling down to the US and a handful of others.

Initially, outbound sales efforts were challenging due to language barriers and time zone differences, making it difficult to connect with potential clients. 

“We were not really able to do those international sales on our own. We did try, but passing those gatekeepers with a Romanian accent and in a crazy time zone didn’t work. Then, we adapted the sales pitch to feel as much as possible US-centric. So, we ended up hiring someone who was also hoping to have a leadership position in the future, when the company would take off,” Sebastian recalls.

The first sales hire did not work out, but on the second try they got the right person for the sales job. In turn, this helped them set the stage for what followed next. 

“We were really, really lucky that the next salesperson we got was, and still is, super amazing. Dawn came in, she knew the industry, sold in the past in the same industry, worked in practice and she could speak the language of the clients,” Sebastian says. 

It was like a match made in heaven, he recalls. 

“Slowly she took over the leads. Initially, we were doing them together and then I let her drive the entire sales process. And it was Dawn who shaped the setting and she remains the person that gives salespeople the industry knowledge for how to speak in certain situations,” Sebastian says.

Not All Customers Are Equal

“You have customers that care about what you’re building, they are like a part of the mission and feel like an extension of your team. And you have customers that are just consuming and you spend hours and hours on your support chat trying to figure them out.”

Sebastian and his team quickly learned that high quality clients often have a clear vision of the specific pain points the product should solve.

“You definitely want to talk with more of those. I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea how to run a practice. But I’m lucky that I met and talked with so many different people in the space that just wanted someone to come and say “I want to build the best solution for you”. So, just try to find those clients.” Sebastian shares.

Apart from the good, there are also the not so good clients. 

“We also had clients for whom we were doing everything to make sure they were having a good experience, but every time, it simply wasn’t good enough,” he says.

There was a particular case that also taught them about the risks that these types of clients bring.

“One of our customers was always unhappy with the product. We got to a point where he wasn’t so discouraging and we thought that the relationship was good. But when it came to referring us to another client, he blocked the deal. So it wasn’t just that he was sucking all the energy and time from us and dictating our roadmap, but it was also that he was affecting us negatively,” Sebastian recalls. 

Focusing on a Specific Market Segment

“If we talk about the North American market, what we’ve learned there is that at the beginning, our ideal customers were mobile vets. Then, we grew into brick-and-mortar vet clinics.”

After their $2.5M seed round co-led by byFounders and Google’s AI fund Gradient Ventures in March 2021, Digital focused its sales efforts more in the US. While initially selling to mobile vets, they decided to go through the “painful” transition of selling upmarket to bigger customers. 

“We were the kids that wanted the big ice cream. But our hands were a bit too small and we could only fit the small ice cream in our hands. That was us in the US trying to sell to clinics. Our product was only at the stage where we could sell it to mobile vets.” Sebastian recalls.

As time passed, the company started to engage with brick-and-mortar vet clinics.

“We started learning more, seeing what works and what doesn’t work. We continued to build, getting early adopters who were willing to work with us based on the product we had developed. Thus, we got it to a place where it’s market-ready or product/market fit for that segment,” he explains.“Now our ICP is the brick and mortar vet clinics. We have our first US clients that are multi-location enterprise GPs, really large enterprises. So we’re growing into that, with the main focus being brick-and-mortar, animal hospitals.” Sebastian explains.

One of the lessons learned in the process was the classic one of “if we are catering to everyone, we are not catering to anyone”. Defining their ideal customer profile helped.

“When we put the ICP in writing, it felt like magic happened because everyone in the team started rallying behind that,” Sebastian recalls.

“I’ve seen a lot of great startups that focus early on: when you go to their website they ask you to pick your profile from a list of customer profiles. If you pick the wrong one, they say sorry, “We’re not able to sell to you now because we don’t have this”. Or even with countries, when you’re in different countries they will say “Sorry, we can’t sell to you because we can’t guarantee the experience”. And that type of mindset is a winning mindset in the long run,” he explains.

What Sebastian also learned is that when it comes to competitors, industries are a lot more complex.

“Industries are intricate, with different competitors for each segment. In our case, we have distinct competitors for independent clinics and enterprise groups. Despite general competitors outlined in slides, it’s crucial to recognize the market’s complexity, understanding the size and growth of each segment individually,” he says.

Building the Sales Team

“Unless you hire someone who is an amazing salesperson and loves what they do, you won’t have the right person for the job.”

Currently, Digitail’s sales team is made up of three people, Sebastian included. Getting the right sales team in place though, didn’t go without hiccups. A particular mistake saw them bringing experienced sales professionals on board too early.

“Last year we went through an unsuccessful experiment of hiring a sales leader and two other people – we were six at the biggest peak. Unfortunately, we got the stage wrong for that, as the hires were too experienced for that stage that we are at,” he says.

What does “too experienced for the stage” mean? According to Sebastian, hiring senior sales leaders focused on management, not on selling, is not the way to go. 

“You’re hiring a manager that needs a team under them to do something – and the team that you’re going to get is a team that’s going to be trained by a rusty salesperson. You need to hire someone that loves selling, has the energy, and can grow into leadership,” Sebastian emphasizes.

Apart from finding someone who matches the company’s current stage, it’s pivotal to find someone who understands what they are selling and who they are selling it to. 

“This person came with a lot of preconceptions from their industry. And the mistake here is that you have people coming with their playbook and not caring that you’re selling a different product to different people. There was zero curiosity in understanding how vets are, what vets like, how vets like to buy, et cetera,” he recalls.

To help sales hires through the initial ramp-up period, Sebastian decided to reduce the annual quota for the first year. This helps align incentives and motivates them to start selling right away.

“Salespeople typically expect a draw, meaning they receive compensation without meeting quotas during their initial learning period. However, one trick here is to reduce the annual quota by the equivalent of the draw period. For instance, if the usual quota is $1m, reducing it to $750k for the first year ensures salespeople are motivated to start selling immediately and have a quota to meet from the outset,” Sebastian explains.

Scaling the Sales Machine

“While crafting outbound sales scripts, we discovered that incorporating certain key questions significantly increases the likelihood of initiating meaningful conversations.”

The company has developed playbooks that sales representatives go through and learn how to handle objections, or different types of scenarios when dealing with inbound sales. 

“We are with them from the moment they start interacting with us – first by going to the website, to the moment they book a demo, and up until the moment they sign. It is important to help them decide on choosing between us and our competitors,” he explains.

The company has also been developing scripts for each add-on, feature, or key differentiator, aiming to familiarize its salespeople with effective pitches. However, the key objective is to establish relationships and build trust with veterinarians and help them make good decisions. 

They also develop content on key topics relevant for their vets, that they share in multiple communities.  

“Whenever you do content, if you’ve invested time in building an actual good piece, let someone else post it, with you as the author. That’s going to attract their reach and audience, and at the same time you will also get to keep good content for your blog,” he points out. 

Nowadays, around 95% of Digitail’s leads are inbound, marking a transition away from cold calling. Despite the shift, the company continues to engage in outbound efforts, primarily through conferences and social media, where conversion rates are significantly higher. 

These two activities – maintaining a social media presence and attending professional conferences – also play a crucial role in building relationships, enhancing brand visibility, and making connections within the veterinary community.

“We actively monitor various veterinary groups for conversations about our practice management system or any relevant topics. If a thread emerges, whether initiated by us or others, we make sure that we are present and ready to engage in those conversations, along with participating in additional relevant threads,” Sebastian adds.

The Impact of Founder-Led Sales 

From the early days to securing Series A funding and beyond, Sebastian and his team have been building Digitail’s sales strategy. However, the journey hasn’t always been smooth, with its fair share of challenges and successes.

As a founder though, being deeply involved in sales allowed Sebastian to gain firsthand insights into customer preferences and the pain points of the business. Learning from mistakes, they refined sales tactics and prioritized effective strategies as the company continued to grow.

Along the way, Digital secured funding, identified ideal clients, and established a robust sales system – all of this playing a crucial role in positioning the company as a leader in the veterinary software industry.