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Despite a glaringly obvious collaboration problem that existed on engineering teams, CoLab struggled to find initial customers. Co-founders Adam Keating and Jeremy Andrews saw these problems firsthand as the two worked for various companies from small medtech startups to giants like Tesla, yet the duo could barely get a handful of beta customers in the beginning.
Four years later, CoLab has secured multiple enterprise clients and revenue is rapidly increasing. Speaking with SAAS NORTH, Adam shared how he and Jeremy navigated sales in the early days, the stumbles they made, and how taking inspiration from DocuSign helped the company finally hit their sales groove.
A glaring problem from Boston to Silicon Valley
Both Adam and Jeremy are from St. John’s, Newfoundland and met while studying engineering at Memorial University of Newfoundland. The two even lived together while working for different companies - Adam working remotely at a medtech startup HQ’ed in Boston and Jeremy working at Tesla in Silicon Valley. Conversations inevitably gravitated to work and the frustration both were feeling.
“It felt like tooling for mechanical engineers was 10-20 years behind what our friends who worked in software engineering were using,” said Adam. “All of our collaboration was manual or we had to use homegrown solutions. We were sending feedback via email using 2D slide decks.”
As they spoke to more engineers it was clear that the problem was pervasive.
This “sheer frustration” from collaboration challenges, as Adam calls it, led the duo to think up a solution: a collaboration platform built explicitly for engineering teams. The two were so sure they could address the problem that they turned down prestigious Silicon Valley tech jobs to start CoLab.
Running the traditional enterprise SaaS sales playbook
Armed with a beta solution and a clear target customer, Adam followed the traditional enterprise playbook of relationship building and top-down sales. While they got some traction, it was clear that the traditional playbook was not going to scale. He spent a lot of time trying to connect with senior leaders who could champion organization-wide adoption of CoLab, but was met with skepticism.
“The enterprise market was extremely skeptical,” said Adam. “They aren’t typically first-movers for new technology. They have lots of risks, security, and processes involved in making a change.”
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Looking back, Adam realized it was due to two critical errors:
1. Trying to force speed: The CoLab team needed to sign deals as quickly as possible to survive as a young startup. Enterprise-wide deals, on the other hand, can easily take over a year. Adam said this alone should have been a signal that “the top-down process wouldn’t have worked anyway.”
2. Jumping into demos too early: The original sales process for CoLab was that Adam would jump into a demo the moment anyone showed interest in the solution. This, Adam later realized, made sales even harder for them because they didn’t take the time to deeply understand the enterprise’s unique challenges. Without that understanding, demos were generic and unhelpful.
A DocuSign for your thoughts
A bit dejected but not ready to give up, Adam and Jeremy took stock of what they really needed: quick sales at the enterprise level. Their failed experiments with the traditional SaaS sales playbook suggested big, organization-wide deals were off the table. But the company would not survive on small deals alone, so there had to be significant expansion opportunities.
That’s when Adam took inspiration from an unlikely source: DocuSign.
“Even if you don’t have a DocuSign account, you know how to use it when you get a DocuSign email sent to you,” said Adam. “We want to do the same thing so any engineering team can click a link, see a model immediately, and collaborate in CoLab.”
Initially taking inspiration from a user experience perspective, Adam soon realized the DocuSign approach could help them with sales as well. It wasn’t just that DocuSign was easy to use; DocuSign’s shareability made it inherently viral within a company, which helped big enterprises become familiar with the technology quickly.
This insight led to a complete overhaul of CoLab’s sales strategy. Instead of top-down sales, Adam targeted Engineering Managers or engineering division leaders within large enterprises. Instead of organization-wide deals, Adam focused on selling to teams within a division. From a user perspective, CoLab continued taking inspiration from DocuSign so that an engineer could get a quick win using their software the first time they opened a 3D model, left a comment or piece of feedback, or shared the model with a third party like an agency partner.
When CoLab began running this playbook, things started to click.
Engineering managers knew the problem better than senior leadership, so the team could focus on deeply understanding prospects. From there, a smaller starter deal size made it a much easier “yes” from customers, so sales cycles began to shorten. And, much to Adam’s happiness, their bet on a DocuSign-like UI has helped them land and expand in three different vectors: within project teams, within other teams throughout the company, and with third-party partners such as agencies or freelancers working on a project.
Building a sales machine
The more CoLab grows, the more Adam said he wants to double down on the land-and-expand playbook. He said it might look like CoLab isn’t closing massive enterprise deals up front, but deals close more rapidly and the average deal expands by more than 200% within a year due to the product’s inherent shareability. Further, a strengthened focus on relationship building throughout the whole sales process means whenever another leader hears about CoLab from an engineer sharing a document, a sales rep is ready to help that leader get accounts for their team.