How to Test if People have the Necessary Oomph
Interview with Forecast CEO & Co-Founder Dennis Kayser.
Do you ever wish AI could handle some of your company’s project coordination and free up team members to do their best work? Well, it’s 2020, and all of that is possible with Forecast. Co-founder and CEO Dennis Kayser describes Forecast as “the ultimate power-up for project teams and professional service organizations.” With the help of Forecast.app, you can automate your busy work and better manage projects, resources, and finances.
This week, Dennis spoke with scaleup ally Roland Siebelink on the Silicon Valley Momentum Podcast. They discussed the origins of Forecast and the lessons Dennis has learned along the way:
- Why Forecast focused on making the best product possible, as well as a product that is simple to use.
- How remote working during the pandemic made Forecast’s customers realize they needed this type of product.
- How Forecast listens to its customers but doesn’t take what they say literally.
- Why fitting the company culture is the top priority when hiring team members at Forecast.
- The traits young startup founders need to survive when they’re just getting started on their journey.
Roland Siebelink: Hello and welcome to the Silicon Valley Momentum Podcast. My name is Roland Siebelink and I am a scaleup ally for tech founders. And do we have a special tech founder in our studio today? With us, it’s Dennis Kayser, founder and CEO of Forecast.app. Hello, Dennis.
Dennis Kayser: Hello. How are you? Thanks for having me on.
Roland Siebelink: Absolutely. Thank you for joining the podcast today. Forecast.app, a very interesting startup coming to the surface very shortly now. So tell us, for those that haven’t heard about Forecast yet, what do you do? Who do you target? And what difference do you make for them in the world?
Dennis Kayser: Sure. Forecast, we like to describe ourselves as an AI native platform. And we believe we represent basically the most advanced technology applied to managing projects, managing resources, and managing finances. Basically, what our platform does is we try to automate busy work; surface best practices; predict outcomes for the work that’s being done; guide projects to success. And then I think probably the core thing is also empowering the team members to actually do their best work. You can say that Forecast is the ultimate power up for project teams and personal service organizations. What we try to do is we try to basically say, “Let’s have technology do what it’s doing best. And then let’s have humans do what they can do best.”
Roland Siebelink: I like that. And I think a lot of AI companies are starting to get closer and closer to that vision, understanding where both of the resources actually have their different strengths. Can you give some example of that? How did you evolve Forecast to really home in on the “what AI does best and what humans do best”-combination? Maybe you can give an example here?
Dennis Kayser: Sure. I think for a lot of people that work on any type of project, especially knowledge-based work, one common theme is that you end up with a multitude of systems. A multitude of spreadsheets of some sort. We try to automate that and remove the spreadsheet aspect of it.
We try to connect our system into whatever other systems that our customers are using. And then we have a few technologies. We have a data broker technology that enables us to transfer data between systems seamlessly without any configuration. It’s basically one-click installs. And that in itself saves a bunch of time.
The other thing we do is we apply AI machine learning to the data that comes through the engine where the AI will learn who’s good at doing what. What’s the need for different types of skills and roles in the work that’s upcoming. How do we utilize the workforce best? And how do we actually plan people’s time in the best possible way?
Maybe a concrete example, we have an AI that’s able to take an arbitrary list of tasks, and using natural language processing, now this becomes a little bit technical, analyze all that and plan out the project automatically. Basically, taking the tasks, assigning them to the right person at the right time, estimating it, costing it at the same time. We try to automate all these processes that are pretty boring typically.
Roland Siebelink: So what does your competitive landscape look like? Of course, you don’t need to mention any names. But is it very crowded or are you kind of feeling alone in this space? Are you more fighting against incumbents or other startups? What does it look like?
Dennis Kayser: Yeah, sure. I think when you say project and resource management, everyone is like, “Oh my God, that sounds like a super-crowded space.” To a degree, from an outside perspective, it can look crowded. But I think the demography that we’re targeting typically is not really well-served.
You have a lot of small tools or single-purpose tools that are targeting singular teams, maybe up to 20 or 50 people. Our focus is more about more complex delivery organizations.
Typically, our ideal customer will have between 50 and 500 employees, some of them even more. Then it’s more of a business unit type of thing. Typically, the customers we see, they’re on a global basis. We have customers in 43 countries. They come because they’ve outgrown either some of the smaller purpose tools or because they have just realized that their spreadsheets are not really working for them and not really creating the transparency and automation that they’d like.
Especially during these times with the pandemic, this is really the time where people realize that their spreadsheets are breaking down, to be honest. And that’s kind of where we come in.
Roland Siebelink: Talking about the pandemic, has that had a major impact on Forecast, positive or negative?
Dennis Kayser: Obviously, some companies are struggling, so that’s a negative. But on the other hand, the need for something like what we provide, when everyone is all of a sudden working from home, just becomes even greater. From our perspective, it’s not been bad. We’re ramping quite aggressively. We’re getting a lot of customers. Just today, we’ve gotten four customers. From that perspective, we’re not complaining. Obviously, I prefer that we didn’t have a pandemic. I think it’s just accelerating the need for technology. And the type of technology that we provide is just a piece of that.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. Very good. It’s very focused on project delivery. So then we’re talking professional services organizations, that you mentioned. Have you identified specific verticals in that market that you focus on more than others?
Dennis Kayser: Yeah, I’ll say the blessing and the curse of what we’re building is it’s extremely horizontal. You can use this in a multitude of industries. We have customers in healthcare. Actually just closed a healthcare customer today. We have customers, in obviously, professional services, so that would be advertising agencies, consulting, firms, implementation companies.
But we also have software vendors like ourselves. We obviously use our own product to build our own product. It becomes a little bit meta. But that’s what we do. And a lot of other companies that are building software, like we are ourselves, also typically have a need to administrate lots of different people with lots of different skills across a lot of different work streams. And that’s basically what we’re building to support that process.
But we also have customers that are doing physical things. We have customers that are building staircases. We have customers that are building buildings. It’s a pretty broad spectrum of customers.
Roland Siebelink: Can you tell us a little bit more about the history? You said you knew there was a problem in this space, is that because you were working in that space? How did you come to this idea? And when did you decide to turn it into a startup?
Dennis Kayser: Yep, sure. I have a degree in computer science. By luck or chance, ended up working for a web design agency in Los Angeles. And that agency ended up turning into a software company and ended up building an open-source e-commerce platform called Magento Commerce. I was one of the first developers on the first version of that, building that. And that actually led me to, when I moved back to Europe, to get a job at good old, big blue, IBM, where I ended up leading their e-commerce initiative in the Nordics.
Actually, what happened was that we were tasked to rebuild an e-commerce system for a very large Nordic furniture retailer. You can probably guess which one it is. And they ran a giant project that was managed in a very large spreadsheet. And that’s the story for what we’re doing. Seeing a lot of delivery go wrong and a lot of delivery managed in a very poor way. And my co-founders all come from the same consulting background as well, just different firms. We basically banded up and said: “Let’s solve this and try to build something that can do this better than the pack out there.”
I think for a lot of people, the common denominator is that they don’t even consider there being a product to solve the problem because the spreadsheet is just kind of the de facto. “I don’t have anything, let me just try on a spreadsheet and I’ll build something.” It can work reasonably well until a certain point. And then you realize that your formula is not updated and you’re trying to align with a different field than you think it is. And the whole thing kind of breaks.
What we’re seeing is actually more, “Oh, that’s fantastic that someone is actually trying to support what I’m trying to build myself.” We’re not really seeing a large push on that. And I think compared to what they’re spending in time, managing and maintaining these spreadsheets, what you pay us for a license is not really, it ends up being much cheaper just paying us for the license of something that actually works than having a bunch of people maintaining a bunch of spreadsheets.
Roland Siebelink: I think you mentioned that by the time you call people and they become aware, they’re already almost jumping on it. But you also said that you have mostly an inbound model, maybe that’s changing. Can you talk us through how your go-to market has been operating? How has it evolved over the time that you’ve been in business?
Dennis Kayser: Sure. We’re a bunch of computer scientists, so we just started with, I’d say, the traditional fallacy that we’ll build a great product and then people will just ring our door and come buy it.
Roland Siebelink: The better mouse trap, right?
Dennis Kayser: Yeah. You know what I mean? That’s the classical approach. I think from a computer scientist, you, to some degree, often underestimate the complexity and skill needed to do marketing and sales and commercial things. We basically just put the product out there and then I think we were lucky or adamant enough that we ended up getting some customers that liked the product and then started referring people to us.
I think that’s maybe been luck. But we’ve also always been very product focused. Really thinking about building the best product possible. And then the theory was if we build the best product possible, then it should also be easier to sell at some point. What we’ve been doing over the last, actually not too long, is actually building out more of commercial capabilities in the team. Hiring a bunch of extremely talented people that have done SaaS enterprise sales before. They’re doing a fantastic job already at basically getting our name out there. I think that’s the main barrier for us now is that not enough people know about us.
I think that’s obviously something we’re working on. And that’s something that’s coming with time. But luckily we have a lot of very happy customers around the world and often they will refer us because they really enjoy both the service we provide, we try to really have excellent customer service. And at the same time, have the best product on the market. That’s the things that we try to do.
Roland Siebelink: Okay, very good. And you also mentioned “eating your own dog food”, using your own software to build your own products. I was thinking there’s an analogy there: many of your clients are also software companies that realize they need to provide some professional services on top of just the software. A little bit the same journey that you were going through, right?
Can you, for the listeners of this podcast, many of which will be in software businesses, can you share some thoughts about that? How important is it to just get the product right and then just expect people to be able to deal with it by themselves, versus how much of the value are you actually providing and helping people implement it, teaching the methodology, may be being onsite for a while. How do you think about that?
Dennis Kayser: I think, in general, that very much depends on what you’re trying to build. I think, for us, we have purposely tried because everyone else in this space is doing the opposite. We basically try to build a self-serve model from the get-go and really think about how do we make it so simple and so easy? It’s an abstract problem, so it’s never going to be simple. But try to really simplify and abstract difficult things away from users just to make sure that adoption is easy.
I think from a product perspective you can always… you know, no one has ever complained about a product that was too easy to use. But people have complained about products that are too complicated to use. That’s the philosophy we have. And we try to do that and continuously try to refine the product in making things simpler and easier and more automated everyday.
I think an important thing is to, no matter what you’re doing, get your product out as fast as possible. I think a lot of people, everyone will say this, but it’s harder to do than it seems. Just get it out there, even though you feel it’s ugly. I think that’s super important. And that’s helped us a lot. We have an extremely close interaction with a lot of our customers. And we really listen to what they want. And then we try to, instead of just trying to build what they say, we try to decipher that and say, “All right, what do they actually mean when they say this?” Instead of blindly building features, we’re trying to really figure out, “Okay, not how are other people solving this, but how would we solve this to do the use case?”
A lot of customers will have seen similar things and they’ll be like, “Oh, I saw this great feature in product X. Can you just copy that and implement it?” Which we could, but I think that’s not really solving the problem. I’d rather think about it. How do we then take what that solution is and try to listen to what is the customer actually trying to do? And then it might be that we end up with somewhat of a similar feature. But it also might end up being a completely different feature. As long as it solves the use case.
I think we try really to have a really solid approach and our product and engineering team does a fantastic job at that. Really intensely talking to customers on a daily basis. Getting feedback, both all the way from wireframing to building the first prototypes, then putting them to the customers, and then iterating on the prototypes as we go along before we release it to the general public customer base.
Roland Siebelink: I wanted to go back a little bit to the buildup of your go-to market team. I think you mentioned that, initially, it was more of a better-mouse-trap philosophy, and now you’re bringing in the experience, right? So what a lot of founders ask me is where should they target that experience? Is it better to find a younger person who’s hungry to do the job? Or is it better to just go for very senior to bring in a lot of experience right away? What’s been your experience with navigating that question?
Dennis Kayser: I think it’s going to be a mix because if you just hire a fat cat, to pronounce it like that, and expect them to do a lot of stuff, that’s probably not happening. But at the same time, you also can’t hire a person that’s too junior. I think it’s a difficult trade-off trying to find that person that has enough experience, but has to have the hunger to win and the desire to win.
I think that’s what I look for in the people we hire, especially on the leadership and the exec team, is people that have that hunger, more than anything. Because if you’re not of the mindset that you want to win, then you don’t belong on my team. You need to be able to win because we are playing a global… it’s a global war against everyone else, and we want to win it. We have to find people that are willing to go into battle. We try to really have a good culture. It’s not like it’s a fierce culture. It’s more about the attitude toward the problem and the way you attack things, I’d say. If that makes sense? It can sound a little bit aggressive, right?
Roland Siebelink: No. That’s okay. I understand that it doesn’t have to be interpreted as aggressive. But I do believe that having a winning mindset is important if you want to impact the world that much. How do you test for it in interviews, referrals? The way you get in touch with potential new employees and executives?
Dennis Kayser: Not been in this game super long, but I’ve still interviewed quite a lot of people by now. We’re about 60 people in total across two offices. Adding about somewhere between five and 10 people a month at the moment. We’re quite aggressively scaling.
I’ve been to my fair share of interviews by now. It’s actually not going to be a great answer because I think for a lot of the senior hires I’ve done, it’s very much something you just have like a gut feel for when you talk to them. You’re like, “Okay, I can feel that this person wants it.” This person can do it. That’s a thing.
One thing we’re doing, which we are trying to, I’ll say, more now we’ve matured is really implement in the process the culture fit piece in the interviews. So we’re sure we hire people that are gonna be a good fit on the team. That’s super important. I’d say that’s probably more important than anything. You could have the best developer or the best salesperson in the world, but if they’re not a good fit with the team, whatever culture you have, whether it’s winning at all costs or it’s like a more of a “let’s get together and solve problems together,” whatever kind of culture you’re building, you need to make sure that the person can buy into that culture. And I think that’s really important.
Roland Siebelink: How would you describe the culture of Forecast other than this winning mentality that you already mentioned? Are there other specific aspects that you look for that you find crucial in being able to deal with people on your team?
Dennis Kayser: Sure. So our values is people should be passionate about the problem. Not necessarily about project management, but passionate about solving problems for our customers. They should be proud about building really good products and sell the products because we are a product company. That’s what we do.
At the same time, we also have a culture of being very direct and honest with people. I’m not a big fan of politics and things like that. I think we get better collaboration with being direct. Some cultures are not like that and some cultures feel again, that’s maybe a little bit aggressive. I don’t think that’s aggressive. I’d rather have people be honest with me than anything else. And then the last thing we’re doing is testing people for - this is going to sound weird - we’re testing people for oomph. Do you have something that’s really hard to describe but you have something that makes you stand out as a character? Are you a really driven, ambitious person that wants to get there and wants to get into the weeds and want to win?
Roland Siebelink: Testing people for oomph, I love it. That’s a great quote. About the 60 people that you have currently. What many founders asked me, “When I start targeting that kind of hiring, how do I divide that up between, let’s say, the product side of the business, developers and product people, designers versus more the go-to-market side.” How have you tried to strike that balance with your co-founders?
Dennis Kayser: We have initially been very, very engineering-heavy because we wanted to build the best product. And now, as we’re scaling, getting into more, we need to hire more commercial people. I think you’ll always have an imbalance. And you need to work on those imbalances at all times. When something works perfectly, you realize the next thing that doesn’t work. And then you have to go to that and see if you can fix that.
We’ve come from a very engineering-heavy team to now a more balanced team going into, I’ll say throughout next year, at least, into a more commercially-heavy team. And once it gets to there, I will probably go back to engineering and add more engineering talent. We try to continue to hire across the board. But obviously, we have to focus, during the life of the company, on different types of people and how many we need of each type of person.
Roland Siebelink: A lot of the listeners will hear today’s podcast will be earlier in their own startup journeys or maybe just thinking about it. Looking back on your experience with a Forecast and this whole startup life, what are some of the things that you would convey to people who are earlier in that stage or maybe you would convey to yourself a few years ago? What would you wish to have known before you started or that you would have known earlier?
Dennis Kayser: I think there’s a million things I would wish. But I think one thing that’s struck me, and I really like Jason Lemkin of SAAStr, so he might be familiar to a lot of listeners. He has a few good things that I really like and I think you have to have gone through it to value them. I think one of them is you have to give yourself 24 months to make it work. You can’t quit before you’ve tried for two years to make things work. I think that’s super important. Having that kind of tenacity to keep going, even though it feels brutal at some times.
And the second thing is if you have 10 customers who are not your family or friends, you have to keep going no matter what. I think that’s also a great quote because that is true. I think if you keep going, if you have that, you have something that can work, and you just need to find more of those people and figure out how do you do that at a rapid enough pace and how you keep iterating on whatever you’re doing to make sure that you can grab more of that. Those are the two things I always think about when thinking about what we’ve done. And I think what we’ve done is had that grit and tenacity to keep going. I think that’s important.
Roland Siebelink: And what about the way you’ve developed as a leader in guiding all these 60 people in your company? Any learning that you want to convey there as a CEO of this already sizable startup, I would say.
Dennis Kayser: Not all people can take directness equally well. Make sure you find people that are good culture fits. And if you’re a direct person like I am, that’s important too, to make sure to clarify and set expectations for people that you are that type of person. Because otherwise you will offend someone, especially when you have many cultures. I think we have people from 18 countries probably. A pretty diverse team. And actually means that some people will take one thing that’s said in a completely different way from another person. Really making sure that you think about those things.
From our perspective, or from my perspective, it’s been very important that we build a diverse team from the start because we’re building a product for the globe. We’re not building a product for the Nordics or Europe. We’re building a product for customers across the globe.
Roland Siebelink: Well, I’m sure that some of the listeners hearing this podcast would be very interested in exploring joining Forecast. What kind of positions are you typically looking to hire in the next couple of months? Maybe in the next year? And what are the kind of people that would be a perfect fit?
Dennis Kayser: Sure. Obviously, people that fit the values. But second of all, we’re hiring pretty broadly across the board. I think we have 15 open positions right now on the website: Forecast.app. Jobs.Forecast.App if you want to be real quick. That’s both commercial people, so accounting, BDAs, also marketing people. We’re looking for CS people. We’re looking for engineers and data scientists. Basically, pretty broad, I’d say. We’re trying to fill up a lot of empty positions that we have across the board. I think the challenge at our stage and our pace is that it’s hard to find the amount of people we need actually right now.
Roland Siebelink: And so your offices, one is in London. Is the other one in Copenhagen? Okay. Very good.
Dennis Kayser: The third one is upcoming in the US.
Roland Siebelink: Oh, excellent. Okay. Do you already have a location in the US?
Dennis Kayser: New York City.
Roland Siebelink: New York City. Excellent. Very good. Well, it’s the time to move into New York city at this stage, right?
Dennis Kayser: I’m hoping that realty is getting a dip so we can come off a little bit cheaper.
Roland Siebelink: I think you got the timing perfectly right. Absolutely. Just bring a few masks, I would say. All right. good. Thank you once again for joining this podcast. This was an amazing interview. Thank you, Dennis. Kayser of Forecast. Any closing thoughts that you’d want to convey before we close?
Dennis Kayser: Obviously, encouraging people to go check out our product: Forecast.app. Come check out our jobs if you’re interested in that. And then keep an eye out for some of the cool stuff we’re doing.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. And be direct and you’ll be a perfect fit, it sounds like with Forecast.app. Thank you very much, Dennis, once again, for joining and thank you everyone for listening. And we’ll hear you back next week.
Dennis Kayser: Thanks, Roland.
Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.