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Bo Alroe - sales leader and enterprise software specialist | S1E9

November 13, 2021

Bo Alroe - sales leader and enterprise software specialist | S1E9
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In this episode:  Deep dive into the journey of growing an enterprise software company from how it got started, through growth phase, internationalisation and eventual acquisition. How most people think about sales, why that’s a problem, where many salespeople go wrong and what good sales is really all about. Complex client dynamics of large software implementations. Training a global sales team. What clients can from learn from salespeople.

About the Guest:  Bo Alroe is an expert in sales management, strategy and execution in the enterprise software industry, based in Denmark. Before working as Director of Strategy at Digital Science, Bo was a co-owner of Atira, a Danish software company most well-known for creating a system called Pure that helps universities manage their publications and information about their research. [Bo's LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/boalroe/]

Recorded 30 October 2021

[Note: There is a minor issue affecting the audio quality on the guest's track which we are aware of and that regrettably could not be resolved before publication.] 

Links:

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About the Host: Danu has been thinking hard about education, technology and society for 30 years. His ambition is to start a company that offers holistic learner-first experiences that set the soul on fire. He is based in Auckland, NZ and is currently working as a consultant on research information systems, academic performance and games for education. [Danu's LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/danupoyner/]

Music: Kleptotonic Swing by Tri-Tachyon

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Website: stillcuriouspodcast.com
Twitter: @stillcuriouspod
Email: stillcuriouspodcast@gmail.com

Transcript
Bo Alroe:

So we knew nothing about higher education at all. When we started out all that energy to, to find universities and speak with them and interview with them and understand their needs and show them what we had, where we had gotten to that was all driven by curiosity.

Danu Poyner:

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is Bo Alroe, an expert in sales management strategy and execution in the enterprise software industry based in Denmark, Bo is formerly a co-owner of Atira, a Danish software company most well-known for creating a system called Pure that helps universities manage their publications and information about their research. This was a new category of system when it was created in the early 2000s.

Bo Alroe:

And we had no knowledge of the size of the mountain we were climbing. And at that point we were still learning and remember they were learning. It's not like they had a vision of a perfect research information management system that didn't exist at the time.

Danu Poyner:

I met Bo a few years ago when I was managing a project to select and implement a research information management system at an Australian university. And we selected Bo's system Pure Bo and I have since worked together at Digital Science, a global data science company, also in the tech for research space. In this episode, we're doing a deep dive into Bo's experience with Pure, from how it got started.

Bo Alroe:

Strategy was, will work for food, really

Danu Poyner:

through to training at global sales team, we talk about how most people think about

Bo Alroe:

sales. It's a scheming, middle-aged white man in a suit. That's not tailor-made with an automated smile with the agenda to get to your money as fast as possible. Right? That's what people understand. When you say sales person,

Danu Poyner:

and what Bo thinks good sales is really all about

Bo Alroe:

it's about how you come into a room where it comes alive is the quality of the communication.

Danu Poyner:

there's lots of great insights to glean here for anyone in sales it, or indeed anyone who works with clients. And I'm very grateful for Bo's generosity in sharing his hard won experience. Enjoy it's Bo Alroe coming up after the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious. hi Bo. Welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Bo Alroe:

Hi Danu thanks a lot. I'm very well.

Danu Poyner:

Lots to talk about. So I might just dive straight in. So you describe yourself as working in sales, planning, and execution in the software and data industry, where you lead sales of advanced technological products and services to large organizations with complex business needs in specific domains. And in these roles, you develop an operationalized sales strategy and help internationalize or enter new geographies or verticals. That's a lot going on there. What would you say is the most important thing for someone to understand that you

Bo Alroe:

I can hear you got that from my LinkedIn profile. I don't know what I was thinking. I don't know what I was thinking. That's a lot of words. The important thing I think if we boil it down is to listen to clients. What people call sales, at least when we're talking enterprise systems like Pure is for example, it's about the subject matter knowledge. It's about the client needs, understand the business needs really well. And then don't think of success as getting a signature and selling something. That's not a success. That's just a step towards the success. The success is two years later. The project is finished when the system is up and running. When the user acceptance is high when the data around trips are good and solid. And when everyone is smiling and saying that works, we finally had a good IT project. That's your success that you want the first day you come into the room and that's what your mind should be about. Not, not the signature or your sales quota for the third quarter or whatever the competition. If the competition is lurking outside in the parking lot, forget that and focus on the meeting and make it a good meeting. And that is also how we took a Pure, to market back, when all that happened.

Danu Poyner:

Oh I'm definitely going to ask you about Pure and that'll be a bit of a deep dive that we do today. But before we get to that, I guess it's important to mention the subject matter that you spoke about you're especially a subject matter expert when it comes to research management systems, the universities and Pure that you've mentioned is currently one of the market leading research management systems, but something I always like to do on the podcast is how would you explain what a research management system is to say a 10 year old?

Bo Alroe:

So I would describe a research information management system to a ten-year-old by saying you know, universities where people go to get education. They also do a lot of research and that's really important because that's how they teach to some extent. And every time they do research, they also do papers, right? Research papers. And you would think that they're really good at taking care of them, but sometimes they're not. Sometimes they struggled with that. And the research information management system is a database system to help them a computer system to help them manage the papers, keeping track of them, making sure they have the right versions and analyzing them, knowing which authors, which disciplines knowing who funded them knowing when the funding scheme has run out and, you know, things like that. So it helps to take care of all the research papers. Hmm. Hmm.

Danu Poyner:

That makes sense. And clearly research management systems are very important to running a university and quite an obvious thing that you would think you would need, but that kind of system hasn't always exist. And as I understand it, the company that you co owned Atira helped to create that product category. So I'm very interested in what kind of curiosity it takes to not just start a company, but also to create a product category like that, that hasn't existed. Maybe you could tell me about how that all got started.

Bo Alroe:

Sure. There was this thing called the dotcom bubble back around the year 2000 and a lot of IT companies went bankrupt and closed in that year. And just around that, including some of the employers where we were before We were either unemployed or had jobs that weren't that meaningful, you know, in an attempt to. Make a living and support our families. So we all came from that and Kim and Beau and Thomas my old partners in the company had started the company about a year before before I joined and became a co-owner and they were basically just doing maintenance of solutions, software solutions that were already in the market, but where the suppliers have gone away because of the troubles in the industry and they will maintain these. So strategy was, will work for food. Really. There was no strategy. We were, we would doing what we could to, to you know, establish turnover and get a business going. And it started for us with the local university here in Aalborg in Denmark, requiring what they call a publication management system. And you have to remember. We all came in Atira from from general IT, nobody had worked in higher education before this project Aalborg University. So we knew nothing about higher education at all. When we started out and when I started out, I was 100% blank. I had a vague conceptual understanding of what a research publication was and that was it. The concept of a citation was something I learned from clients, for example.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah. So so I've, I've a few questions about this, the, the company that you mentioned Atira, what was your role

Bo Alroe:

It was the external communication go-to market sales talking with clients the other three were all computer scientists by education. I came from communication at Aalborg university. And therefore it was natural for me to take the client facing roles. Do sales, find new clients, tell them about Pure and what it could do and listen to their further needs and what I did for the first couple of years where we were learning so much that we learned everything from clients in those days and listening to them and understanding their needs to the full extent and generalizing software that could support those needs and that communication. I was just the one receiving information from clients. First, in most cases, like setting up workshops, interviewing just asking questions until I understood what they meant. And, and that goes to the point of view or your series here, because curiosity had everything to do with that. And we weren't aware of that at the time. I think that we will not self-aware that we were going around being curious, but that really is what happened all that energy to, to find universities and speak with them and interview them and understand their needs and show them what we had, where we had gotten to that was all driven by curiosity by us, but also by the universities, I met a lot of Goodwill and interest and curiosity from universities in the, I dunno, between 2000 and I think 2004 was the year where Pure really became a product in its own. Right.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah. So we've set the scene a bit here, you and some colleagues working for food essentially, and turning that into a, into a business and then Pure has become the signature. Product of that company. And as you mentioned you didn't know anything about the higher education space and no one had experience with that. So it would have been a very steep learning curve. Were you at all daunted by that prospect or did you just dive in?

Bo Alroe:

We weren't looking at it at the time. We have no knowledge of the size of the mountain. We were climbing as we were climbing and that made it less daunting.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah. If you'd have known at the time, you may not have done it.

Bo Alroe:

I'm not sure that anyone would take a deliberate decision, but it was a really good cycle. Right. We have. A basic system that could do basic things and it did it well. Remember my, my three partners at the time were, and they were more employees at the time, by the way, it was not just the four of us. And we were lucky to have some really good people. They were super skilled and really talented in software architecture and code writing. You know, the art of establishing a business with standard software really is at least to some extent, it's about being able to generalize, maintaining a single code base that you take out some multiple clients don't spawn, spawn out new variants of your code base. Keep keeping all on the same code base, make it work for every client. So when one client has a need that you can't satisfy, you try to figure out how to satisfy that need with features that others also can use, right? Like you have to avoid proprietary language. For example, universities will call the. Different things across different campuses. So, yeah, so that's what we were doing. And the whole cycle was just positive. We built something, we would have it, we would show it to new clients. They would comment and say, we also would need to X, Y and Z and we would build that and show it again. And also the whole product development cycle was, was really interesting. And one of my points about salespeople being subject matter experts, goes to this, that when sales teams are involved in that cycle, they become extremely knowledgeable. And an example I like is that when a client wants to know why the product doesn't have a specific feature or why the feature was built this way, then the sales person is knowledgeable and can answer because he was there. He knows why those design choices were made. But if you're alien to that, you are left with no answer to the client and you don't really fill an information need for the client in that situation? I think that's important.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah. There's a lot to unpack here, that process of taking a need that they have and the way that they express it to you. You're making it sound very simple and straightforward. When you say there's a process of standardizing a feature sets, but there's a lot going on there. And a lot of communication work, I think because the way a client expresses a need that they have is not necessarily the way everyone would express it. So you're, how are you doing that standardization? How does that work?

Bo Alroe:

The first step is to understand the need. So one of the things I have said to salespeople later, when I have been lucky to, to be challenged with educating or training salespeople is don't leave the room. If you don't know what is. Don't don't ever fall for the temptation to say, and then, and then you don't, if you don't do that without knowing what they mean, right. If you don't know what they're talking about, just keep asking and they will appreciate it and you will learn from it. And that means you're walking away with good notes. Then you can go back to your product colleagues with, and, and share and discuss. Remember this was before we had Zoom and things. So, so it would be phone calls or emails, right? So sometimes it wasn't that easy for clients to explain a need outside of the room. But when you're in a room with a whiteboard and your colleagues it's much faster. So, so the, the product cycle really depended on the salesperson, understanding what was being shared, that day and bring that back in an intact way

Danu Poyner:

I'm really interested to hear more about how that actually, what that looks like in practice. Could you, could you share any examples of that feedback loop, that product cycle?

Bo Alroe:

You can take a feature in Pure like managing article processing charges, for example. So when universities we'll pay a publisher to publish an article in a journal that is done against a fee called an article processing charges. Universities needed to be able to manage that they would have a budget, right? Like how much money are we going to spend on, on publishing this year and libraries, usually We're tasked with managing that budget and that meant for them to manage it, that then needed to record somewhere, how much they spend and the logical place for a lot of our clients was to record that in pure where all the other publication management took place. But imagine us, we needed to learn about that publishing cycle the fee the process to properly understand it. Right? So the conversation would be like we have to manage payments for articles. I'm characterizing a bit here, but, we would ask, what do you mean by that? What's what, what are you paying and to whom, and now you understand the cycle. Why'd you write that down and you run into this with a couple of clients, you call some of your other clients say, Hey, listen, I'm over there at this university. That's talking about asset processing charges at the library. Are you interested in that? And they will go, you know what? We actually just use a spreadsheet or or a small database or some log book. Yeah. You know what your, that would be interesting. But we would also want it to do X, Y and Z and then you start collecting requirements, or feature requests. You're listening to these user stories from your clients. And when you begin to have an overview, you can see this, a thread going through all of it. There's a red thread. That's a line You start discussing in with the product managers how this is going to go and if we can release, and then you have discussions like are we going to make it a module, or is it just going to be a feature new feature in the base module? Or how do we fund it? Because we think it's going to take 500 man hours to build or whatever. I'm just seeing that number, but, but then you start planning and, you know, Shira, I would always like to have some commitment from at least some clients so that we wouldn't build a feature and then nobody would use it. Right. It's really important for, for new features to be used. So you get some feedback and you can make a version two version three. So if you could secure that, you know, at least five or 10 universities would take it on board relatively quickly, then, then you would have a good feature ruling. And then there's this interesting shift Danu, where you go from listening to them, explain what they want to designing, your generalized. That you'll now know is flexible enough that it can cover all the different needs you heard about. And then that becomes, it's no longer reactive. You're not reacting to leads anymore. You built a feature it's right there and you're taking that to market and that's being proactive. Now you're suddenly saying to other universities, we have an article processing charges feature. Would you like to see it? This is how we do article processing charge management. And, and you show that. And again, if you, as a salesperson calling back to that whole point about salespeople needing to be domain experts, if you, as a sales person we're part of that product development cycle. And you're knowledgeable and you know what you're talking about and you make sense in front of clients and you can also handle objections real easy. You can say stuff like, well, it's the first time we hear about that. That might actually be a good idea. We just didn't hear about it before we don't have any. But this is also only version one of that feature. So how would you like to be on a call with some of the product guys, you know?

Danu Poyner:

Yeah, yeah. To be able to be in a position where you're having these fairly open-handed conversations with multiple clients about their businesses, you need to have built a fair bit of trust to get to that point. So I'm curious how that comes together. How do you build trust with clients to get to a point where you can have those conversations? Let's start there

Bo Alroe:

Even when we didn't know much and, and we would go out and on the very, very early meetings, it would be me and Thomas writer going out on meetings and we really wouldn't know much. But that doesn't harm the trust necessarily because what the clients see is a couple of people really keen to understand what is. And that in itself, in my experience creates trust. We are trying very hard to understand everything they're saying to write it down and to, to make sense of it. When that happens. the client will recognize that, Hey, they got it right. They walked away understanding what we said. And that is, that is building trust. And for us, because it goes both ways when clients are hard at work, in a room, trying to explain their business need. That is a very honest thing and a very direct thing to do. There's nothing else. There's no agenda. It's just them trying to get a solution to their problem. Something that can support them. Right. And at least on this topic of publication management in those days software just didn't exist. So it made sense for clients too, to try today, you would just expect a demo of an existing system that's already mature. but at the time I think that built trust that we were collaborating really on trying to understand the needs and build systems and responses to those needs. So that builds trust. And later on that side, when sales people are knowledgeable, like I said, that is also inspiring trust. You have people out on campus, libraries, research, office people grant support, people, compliance people research leadership, trying to improve how they run their business. And they're speaking with. Suppliers. Right. And when those suppliers are just very knowledgeable when they know what they're talking about, when they can understand proprietary language quickly, because they can translate that to something they have seen before, when they can reach back in the big box of features and pull out the right ones to demo in the situations that, okay, if that's your need, then this is how we try to address that. You want to see that's going to take five minutes, then that is trust inspiring because they know what they're talking about. And when the client says, you know, why don't you just X, Y and Z you have an informed answer. So that's actually not that trivial. This is how we came about this feature to this is the thinking behind it. And this is why we are here today. When you get knowledgeable answers like that, then then that builds trust and you have a good conversation and, also another thing that builds trust, by the way, it's not vapourware existing features. You're demoing a little pieces of your total solution as you go in the conversation. It's right there all, when you're talking about a new feature, you're being super honest and saying it doesn't exist, we would have to build it. We have done it many times, and this is our process. This is what you can expect in terms of time and price, for example. Right. I think, I think that builds trust.

Danu Poyner:

I'm hearing you say trust and honest, a lot as, as sort of key words here. And these are words that I think perhaps not everyone associates with sales as an experience, as their first go-to. Do you, do you have any comments on that?

Bo Alroe:

I have lots of comments on that. It's funny. You should ask Danu you had, did you see that movie? The. With Michael Keaton in the, in the lead role that,

Danu Poyner:

The the Ray Croc I haven't, I haven't seen it. But I've, I've seen the poster

Bo Alroe:

right in that movie Ray a run of the mill salesperson in the Midwest, in the fifties, he's driving around in a car and selling things out of the trunk of his car. Right. And that image still today is the image. People get up in front of them. When you say sales person right now, Eh, it's it's a scheming, middle-aged white man in a suit. That's not tailor-made with an automated smile with the agenda to get to your money as fast as possible. Right. That's what people understand. When you say sales person better call Saul or yeah, exactly. That's exactly where, where people go and that's okay. I get it. But that's really not who we are in the industry. We are domain experts. It's about how you come into a room. Like if you come into a room with people from a university, you know, somebody from the libraries for the research office, let's say, and they interest interested in a solution, they have heard that your system is used by another university. So they invited you to come over and give an informal presentation. If you come into that room, And your focus is that's going to be so interesting. I can't wait to hear what they want. Maybe we are lucky and our software will match their needs. Exactly. Boy, I hope there'll be a good match and you're occupied with the match but to understand the match between their business needs and your software, you need to understand that business needs first. So you don't start demoing. You start listening, right? You, you want to understand what it is they want. If that's your mindset, when you come into the room, you're going to be successful. And you're not really yeah, well, let's call it a sales person in lack of a better word, but I really think English needs a better word than sales person for whoever does this, right? Yeah. It's, it's consultative selling, right. If you come into the room with the mindset, Oh, great. This is a mid-tier British universities. Thank God of their budget. Must be at least 200 K and I really need that to close my Q3 quota. If that's your mindset, you're screwed even before you set foot in the room, because that's not what you should be focused on right you don't start asking them about what budget they have and the timeline and stuff you start with the business need. And if that's your whole take, because that's your route to success, ultimately not just for yourself, but also for the client. If that's your mindset and your route to success, that is just honest, right? And you really can't go wrong. Let's say the communication really doesn't work out that morning. And if you're 45 minutes and you have to put your pen down and look up and rub your forehead and say, listen, guys, I really don't understand what you're trying to tell me here then. That is problematic. But it's still very honest. It's towards the common goal of success. Right. I need to understand you better. And that's okay. That's still honest, but if you are, if you're on the other agenda and you're worried about your quota for Q3 you don't have a lot of time to sit around and try and understand their their agenda. You will write down that we need this and that module and you will try and get to the proposal as quick as possible. And you will be asking about their timelines. And if this really has to go through formal procurement and stuff, and that's the wrong.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah, I, I hear what you're saying. And it's an interesting term say consultative selling. I guess I'm thinking about when we first met I was responsible for managing the research systems at Bond University, and we were going through a tendering process for a publication management system and eventually selected your software. And this is much later than, than when you had started. But what I remember most about that experience having sat through many product presentations from software vendors before and since it's that your presentation was quite different to that. For the reasons that you've been saying, I think so, although, you know, you go into the. Knowing that you're being pitched to it. It still doesn't feel like a pitch and it felt like more conversation with someone who knew their stuff and could actually help and, and go into things in detail in the room. So I mean, I could say more about that, but I it's, it's that sort of an example of what you're, saying here.

Bo Alroe:

It is an example of exactly that and thanks by the way that's high praise that's what we wanted. That's who we wanted to be in the market. And, and with the whole company, and we want it to be those people that, that wanted to learn that new stuff. Right. And could help. Yeah. So I always felt it had to be a conversation and not a, not a pitch and sometimes Good universities and bless them, but they would put us on a stage and stage the whole thing as. Where it would actually be much nicer to just sit around a table and look at the, at the challenges to together

Danu Poyner:

well, that's right. I think there's a defensiveness, that's almost the default position from the client's side of, well, we're going to get sold to, so we need to guard ourselves against that, which is a shame because it can kind of shut down that conversation. Is that something that you've experienced?

Bo Alroe:

Oh yes, absolutely. Yeah. And normally you can break that you can break that barrier down. It's creating distance, right? It's creating a barrier. It puts the supplier on one side of a counter almost with a cash register. Right. And it puts the client on the other side and that barrier is just not necessary at all. Or we have the same interest and you know what both Thomas and I, we have often walked away from a potential deals saying. We think the match is bad. We, we're not sure we can really help you. And we don't want to be in a situation where you're pushing us to deliver something we don't have, and you're not really happy better than you spend your time with better suppliers than us and better for us to spend our time with better clients than you. And we wouldn't use those words. Right. But, but that's totally fair. And we have walked away from, from business like that.

Danu Poyner:

You've mentioned the importance of domain expertise, understanding the client's business needs. But you didn't have that when you were starting this as, as you've mentioned. So is the, the trust and the mindset that you go into the room enough to get that conversation going where you able to learn. I'm still very interested in just digging into that a little bit more. Cause it's, it's quite a special thing that not everyone could do. I think.

Bo Alroe:

In Atira, what we did was to in the very early days, we said, we have the early outline of a system that may someday work, that we build for Aalborg University. And we went to university of Copenhagen the business school in our hosts, the veterinary education facility in Copenhagen and Hoskins uh, university and asked, would you like to see it? And we didn't pitch it as a product as much as a, as a process really that we had with our board and we invited them in, and that's how the first four or five clients came about. And at that point we were still learning and remember they were learning. It's not like they had a vision of a perfect research information management system that didn't exist at the time. They came from various repository type systems that were good enough for their purposes, but. Couldn't solve the need for the whole university. So we learned together and later when the product was there, 10 years later, when the product was there, feature rich, mature and steady release cycles with a 50 men development team behind it, then we would still learn and listen to their needs, even if they had needs that the software could certainly do. It's important to not interrupt the story from the client. So yeah, we have that. covered move on. If you do that, then they don't feel that they have been heard and you might miss important stuff. Not these business needs are different. You know, how different universities are, they don't structure their processes the same way.

Danu Poyner:

I've done even inside the same university, they

Bo Alroe:

don't sadly, sadly, that's true. So, oh yeah. Like try, try and go on campus and get somebody to draw you an organizational chart.

Danu Poyner:

It's like one of those big, big rollout, the five things.

Bo Alroe:

Yeah. And and Fran try and find an it system that will have a consistent organizational structure with with hierarchical relationships that, that you can use to feed a research information management system. It's funny. Yeah. So, so they don't know either. So it's still about learning that the client need you still have to, you know, how in sales trainings, somebody will always tell you that you have to listen more than you talk, and that's true, but it's so true. It's so critically important to listen to that. I don't think just saying it that does it justice, you have to start by interviewing the saying, okay, here we are. Why are we here? What do you want to happen? What are your problems? What are you interested in? What would be great? What are you trying to solve? And then you have to help them a little bit late in with Pure, where we knew, we were quite by Elsevier, in 2012, I left Elsevier in the spring of 2016 to take a year off. And at that point in time, around 2016, we were experienced, right. We had, I don't know, a hundred clients or something running Pure live on campuses around the world. In many countries So we were experienced at that, at that point in time. And, and still in that situation, it's important to listen and let the client finish and then, like I said, you have to help them. So if let's say it was a library alone that would be interested in the system from a library point of view, it's a good idea to ask them, Hey, what about the research office? And they would look at you and say, yeah, what about the research office? Yeah. Why, why, why are they not here today? You know, you should invite them because they certainly a stakeholder to a research information management system. And you would talk about that. And you will say, what about the compliance people or what about grants, support team? And what about the office for early career research or support? What about the IP people? Because they all stakeholders to the research information management system. And if the client is not aware of. Just speak with them about that. And then do you want to involve them? And sometimes they don't and sometimes they do, and sometimes it's not necessary, but share your experience right. And try and design a good project from get-go that's, that's my advice

Danu Poyner:

it's such an important point. I think, I think one thing, probably people who don't work in universities may not know about university is just how siloed the different areas are. And I dunno if you find this, all of these different business units within the university, sometimes they don't know what each other do or how the whole thing fits together. And I guess as an, as an external person, you can kind of end up introducing them to each other. Sometimes people who haven't met inside the same institution who work on similar things, is that, is that something that's happened?

Bo Alroe:

That has it happened? It has happened in, in many countries. And I don't know why that was, but it's definitely something we saw several times. Yeah, like why do you think that is? Do you have a suggestion?

Danu Poyner:

Oh, I don't know if I have a suggestion. It's just a, an observation. Everyone kind of looking at the problem in front of them. When I studied policy, we learned that the way that you understand the problem is the way that you frame the solution. So the people in the research office are framing what research is and the problem of it in a very particular way. That makes sense to the research office. Whereas that's a completely different understanding of what research is and what the problem is when you're in the library say so it's interesting to you that sometimes they can't talk to each other because they're just speaking different languages and starting from different positions, but then other times they work really well together. And having been on both sides of that relationship, a number of times, it's just endlessly fascinating to me. It is,

Bo Alroe:

It really is. And I think you have a good point. The perception of what research is, is different in research office, in the library in the compliance teams and so on. Absolutely.

Danu Poyner:

And the academics, not that anyone would ask them.

Bo Alroe:

Now that's another thing. Good point. If you were to ask me what what is important for success with the implementation of a research information management system at a universities user acceptance and user uptake. Some universities, not many clear minority would not have researchers input anything into Pure. They would have a small team at the library for example, and do all that. So you would. Go to the library, give them your paper and they would record it and maintain it in Pure. You can do that in my opinion is not a good idea, but I have seen it work. So I don't know, I guess it can work, but what almost everyone else does is to have academics input directly into Pure across campus. Right? So they become users of the system. That's the intention of the system. That's how it's supposed to work. That's how it's built. And that's what, again, a reflection of the market. That's what most universities wanted. And when you depend on that 2000 academics across campus, recording their outputs from notes and work papers to publish version of an article when you want that to happen, it becomes super important that they like doing it and find it purposeful and meaningful. Taking that into account, that whole component of user training and user education to be successful with the uptake and the acceptance, you need to involve academic representatives early in the project. If you don't do that, then you'll struggle with acceptance in the end.

Danu Poyner:

You say those things with a great deal of confidence and experience that that you've built up. And I'm interested how you balance that with the listening point you made before, if listening is so important, how do you know when you're ready to go from listening to leading the conversation? How does that dynamic work?

Bo Alroe:

If you come into that room, that imagined scenario of a university inviting you over to have an early talk. And if you have most of the stakeholders there, that's fine. You have a meeting, you start by spending the first hour, listening to them. Where are you? What do you want to solve? Where does it hurt? Why this project now you have known about these things for a couple of years. Why, why this year? And you listen to that. It's because national assessment reporting back to funders internal showcasing outreach to the private sector you listen to whatever, eh, you know we've in the U S the state wants to build a portal to showcase all publicly funded research. Whatever is driving. You start by listening. And of course immediately in your brain, you understand if, if, if Pure can do that or not, do we have tools for this or your system if you're selling something else? But you don't start talking about that. You still want to hear the story to the end. You want to take some notes. You want to hear the key people are, you want that? And you know, so you can pick that conversation up in time and then you can start by saying, okay, everything I haven't heard now is, is something we have heard before. And, and later when I show the system, you will, you will see that. But I, I noticed in your story that you're not talking about X, Y, and Z how do you see that? Is that relevant? Is that something we should put on the table now? Would you be open to including that in your project? Or would you rather just focus on, on what's driving right now? And then now you're beginning to understand the outline or the contour of the project that might. And what could be included. And once you have that, you can, and our agreement, that's almost like a negotiation and agreement with the group in the room that this is what we're talking about today. And this is, we're not talking about this and that, although we could, then you know what you need to demo. If they want to see this system,

Danu Poyner:

it's almost like you're the listening is helping you build up a repertoire of, of stories and, and needs and things that you can then turn into advice. Yes. Is that, is that fair,

Bo Alroe:

Spot on if you don't listen, you don't know what to show, so that's why I don't like, sometimes you'll come into a room and people would say, right, what do you have to show us today? And that's a bad starting point because you might be demoing things that are completely irrelevant and superfluous, or even. Their understanding of the project. They also, you need to have the other conversation first in, in my opinion. And I would myself and with my team later always try to precondition the meetings so that we have kind of an agreement. What are we going to do in this meeting? We are going to spend the first hour talking. We want to stand where you're coming from and what you're up to. And once we have a good understanding of that, and we can move to other things, we can talk design the project timeline as the project budget of the project. And we can certainly demo some features that could support the projects. And people will usually agree to that kind of makes sense, and it wasn't a hard sell or anything, but then we would have an agreement upfront. The meeting would be preconditioned. We would know what, what we wanted to do, and we would just start, start the process from there and then you can be derailed I make it sound easy, but, but if the client insists that it's just a library direction, you and it's just for 30 minutes, good luck making that whole process happen by right. You can't do it. So these, that discussion upfront is important as well. I have a story if you want to hear it from Austria. Sure. So we were invited by university of Vienna to give a presentation. And I was speaking with this super professional and very clever guy and that, that arranged at all. And and I said at one point, listen, it's important. We have all the stakeholders there. So, so set up the meeting, not just with your team, but with, and I told him some of the stakeholders that relevant. Right. And he said, sure, sure. And when I came to the meeting and by the way, that university is super impressive, One of the most impressive campuses from the Kaiser times. And there's a, I don't know, no 30 meter, tall Kaiser statue at the end where he's holding out his arms almost in a, in a Jesus like pose embracing his, his population and it's all marble and of pillars itself. Very, very impressive. Yeah. So I have, I have my mobile out and I'm looking for the room number I'm finding for the meeting. Right. And I find the room and I opened the door and inside is an auditorium and there's 200 people not saying anything. They're all looking at me when I come into the room. And, I realized I must have the wrong room because somebody was having a seminar there. Right. So I go out again and I'm trying to call him. And he comes out of that room to say, why are you leaving? And I said, but that's like 200 people a year. Yeah, of course. You told me to get all the stakeholders.

Danu Poyner:

So how did that go?

Bo Alroe:

That was different. It's not easy to have a conversation with 200 people. So that's an example of what I just said. You can easily be derailed, no matter how much you try to precondition your meeting.

Danu Poyner:

Part of the creation of the category of system then is about bringing needs and people together in one kind of holistic way, rather than solving 20 problems in 20 different ways. You're kind of doing it with one system. Is that right?

Bo Alroe:

Yes. And that was a problem. We often have that because at universities and I guess in, in all large organizations, IT products can go wrong, horribly wrong, and

Danu Poyner:

that never happens. Does it?

Bo Alroe:

They can go horribly wrong Danu believe me here. And, and the whatever team is already there on campus planning a project. know that, and the last thing they want is that kind of unsuccess happening on their watch. Right? So they're very aware of, of possible threats to a project. So when we come into the room and we start talking about inviting more stakeholders to the party, if that's what we're doing, then they would usually say, no. We don't want the added risk and you need to talk about project risk. When setting up projects, it's totally there and it's a legitimate. And getting people on board with the idea that, Hey, listen, we're building a system here that can do more than what you just anticipated. And if you let it do that, if you embrace that idea, just to some extent, at least call the research office, right. You could say to the library or something, if you embrace that your product actually becomes stronger, much more viable. Yes, it does introduce more project risk in the next 18 months. That is true. We have however ideas how to manage that risk and mitigate it. But if you invite them in, it'll become much stronger and it it'll stay on campus much longer.

Danu Poyner:

Hmm. Interesting, interesting. I have, I have a bunch more questions about this, but I want to zoom out for a moment and just ask you, how did you get into this line of work was getting into business software, sales management, always plan A for you. I mean, I know the.com bust wasn't, but, but before that w what was plan a,

Bo Alroe:

I have, I have two daughters, right? 17 and 23. One who is strategizing her life entirely and one who is certainly not, and that's my youngest. And, and she must, haven't gotten that from me there was no Plan A on those strategies. I went to university because that seemed like a good idea. I picked communications because I could get in basically. And it sounded interesting. Hmm. When you read Steve jobs memoirs about how he fell in love with calligraphy and fonts and how that impacted his later product thinking, I totally resonate with that. Every time I read it I picked communications because it just sounded fun how to communicate. That's great. So I grabbed that and then I had a job at university looking after what they call them. It laboratory. It was old fashioned standalone computers, but they needed maintenance and I had a a pal who is now a professor at at Copenhagen business school, by the way. And, and an author, a successful author. He just published on blockchains. Anyway, we were in, we were studying together and, and he wanted my job. He was envious. I had that job with the it lab and he had a job with a tiny software firm out in town that I was actually envious of. I wanted that job. So we switched jobs. We both quit the same day and we recommended that the guys we left hire the other guy, right. So we just switched jobs and that's how I got into software. Wow. So not a lot of

Danu Poyner:

what made you, want to have his job?

Bo Alroe:

I think he was making more money and he wanted to, he wanted to work on campus because that was much more convenient. He was biking back and forth. But I was on the bus, so I didn't mind. So I think that was just the, not a lot of strategy. And that was old fashioned hardcore selling, which will burn you out very quickly. One of the things I learned there was what not to do. I was later lucky to work with some really, really good people from IBM and Microsoft, where I learned a bunch of things. The Danish Microsoft organization at this point in history was really, really good and had some super talented people where I learned a lot about partner organizations. What later became Microsoft. ERP solution today was originally a Dane software that they acquired. And I worked there and then the guy that built their partner channel I was working with him and was able to pick up a lot of good stuff.

Danu Poyner:

Did you have a formal learning experience in sales,

Bo Alroe:

sales training? Was it sales education? Yeah, that was a lot of sales training courses. Some of them were good and you could learn some, learn a bunch of things and some of them were terrible and you would learn not, you learn what not to do and then what wouldn't work. So your, your dislike of formal education that I know. I have that cheeky. I have that with sales training. I'm a little skeptical coming into any sales training, and I'm curious to hear what, what people have to teach but some of them are good. It's just, some of them are not,

Danu Poyner:

You studied communication is if that's something you consciously bring into your practice that, that connection, if you've got, as you seem to be suggesting salespeople who are, you know, honest interested and domain experts then the other part of it is, is really kind of sales as communication is what I'm, what I'm hearing.

Bo Alroe:

I don't know how conscious that was every year in the past, but yes it is I do bring that in you have your whole sales management and execution framework. You have your set up your CRM, your. Go to market plan, your budgets you know how you break that down, you know what you want to achieve month by month. But that's all mechanical. That's just being a good administrator. There's no quality component that the students do. You gotta do it, right. You gotta be on top of it, that talent, if you will, or the, the, where it becomes, where it comes alive is the quality of the communication. That's, there's so much gain out of all the sales teams I have seen operate in my career. I would say that the biggest gains would never be in the mechanical side it wouldn't be, can we improve our CRM operations? Can we have better one-way data when the year begins? Can we increase the bonuses? Can we, up the targets with 25% and, and, and gain from that. Probably you can improve all those things and get some gain, but it's nothing compared to the gain you get. If you improve your sales quality how you speak with clients once you in the meeting, once you, once you're in the room, once you're in the meeting, that's what should be on your mind. Nothing else. Right. And like I explained earlier, my take definitely always is to have a high quality meeting that is well-prepared where you talk about the right things in the right order. And you start moving your whole process to get a good project. You start moving that ahead and, and success is not getting the signature and beating the competitors. Success really is when the system is there and it's working and they're. I remember an email from a couple of British universities after the 2014 ref submission, the ref, the British research assessment exercise at national level. They wrote us. We just wanted to thank you. We don't know how you made it work that easy and that seamless, but we are very grateful. It really is successful. Thank you so much. That was more or less what, it's, what it said in the email. Right? And that's the success you're chasing when you come into the room, you know, when you come into the room the first time and you say hello to everyone, the first time you'll know that two years from now, that's how we're going to measure the success of this meeting. That is what you're working for. And if if you just keep focusing on that, not the signature, that's just one step of the way. And so as the price, by the way Thomas was a great business manager our old CEO in in Atira Because he didn't worry too much about 50 K more or less that was all fine. As long as we build some successes. Right. And, and that's, that's exactly the attitude you should have. So get all the mechanical stuff working would be my advice. Get that into order and run a tight ship, but then focus on the quality in the communication. And when you meet the people, that's where the real gain is. We had you know, we had a closing rate of 79% at the end of the year where we were acquired by Elsevier and that is just very high for the industry. And if you asked me why, I think it's two things to think is the quality of the software. We had problems with our software, with delivering like all software companies have, but they were fewer than normal. We had really, really good software people and architects on the job there for all those years. And I think the fact that the CEO was a computer scientist himself helped that. And then we had really, really good communication with the market and that was me and my team. And I think those two things in tandem made the 79% happen.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah. Wow. So coming back to your experience learning communications at the university you kind of compared it to the, the Steve jobs story about learning. Calligraphy and how, he was really obsessed with the serifs and fonts, and then that made its way into some of his work later. What were some of the really standout things from that learning experience for you about communication? Is there something in particular that, that stands out?

Bo Alroe:

No,

Danu Poyner:

it's all operating on a, on a kind of unconscious level.

Bo Alroe:

I think I'm what I really got from university and from formal education. So I know this resonates with you. What I got from formal communication was a really basic unsophisticated, but solid understanding of what communication is. How is that something you can study scientifically and write papers and books on that I got from university. So that allowed me to continue my own studies. And there were other things, interpersonal communication. What happens in a room was taught to us or attempted taught to us. mass communication looking at what Facebook has become to some extent, Twitter, I guess, and seeing how misinformation thrive in society how you can get a so-called newsfeed that just confirms your beliefs, what ever they are. I think of mass communication theory back then books that were written before the internet existed. And it's so interesting too, to think of that and then comparing to today

Danu Poyner:

So I want to talk a little bit about the process of going from this small team that you've got and you've kind of figured out the business needs and you've got successful with the software to then scaling that and, and taking it internationally training and, you know, a team presumably of people who they go out and have these conversations what's involved in teaching other people how to understand what you had spent so long painstakingly learning

Bo Alroe:

with the, with the software. So first of all, going from proprietary single client solution to a standard software was a big step and Thomas and, and everyone in product handled that beautifully. And I was able to contribute with the communication around it. And then going from a system that's sold to multiple universities in Denmark to a system that is sold internationally, what was an equally big step, if not big, big. In terms of software development, but again, the team handled it really well. And then teaching all of that stuff to other people I can only talk about teaching it to salespeople if that's all right. Yeah, of course. So that happened. I had my own few people and we were good at what we were doing. We all have the same knowledge, same level when we came into but then they had a massive. Plus 600 sales people in there in entire global organization. And some of them had to learn and many of them had to learn a little bit about Pure and some of them, if you had to learn a lot about Pure and that was difficult for them. And for us, we didn't understand corporate. That was our first experience, right? So you come from an organization where you just walk over to the other guy and talk with him if you need. And that's not how things work in a, in a large global corporation. And they have people, everyone has different priorities, different objectives, different everything, and that's all good and well. But coming into that was a little challenging. And but it, but it worked out teaching was super difficult because we made the mistake of thinking, okay, if we want the. New sales colleagues to go out and talk about Pure. We better train them on Pure. So we went into a lot of product training and that didn't really move things much. And then we came to the realization that this is the wrong way. We need to educate them actually on the business need. And that helped. And it, it goes back to what I said about coming into the room. If you come into the room and you start talking about you start showing everything, somebody just taught you about a product that's the completely wrong take. Right. And you can't be successful like that. We needed to get salespeople to understand why universities would need a research information management system, like Pure. What is the business need that it addresses and that started making them successful?

Danu Poyner:

So the domain expertise that you need is not the product so much. It's the, the problem that the organization is trying to solve. What's interesting about that. I guess to me, what, where I'm going with this is you would think that the clients would know their needs better than anyone else. But at the same time you end up having, if you're in your position, you end up having these conversation with lots and lots of different clients and you kind of get a different view of what those needs are. Like, if I'm doing the systems project, I'm doing it for the first time. And I only know what I know. I don't have the benefit of knowing what everyone else has gone through. I guess the question in this is if there's something that clients could learn from salespeople that would help them,

Bo Alroe:

Yeah, I would say be aware that you are the authority on your own business needs. Nobody knows them better. And for you to be successful with your potential project, you have to make the suppliers understand those business needs in detail. So focus on that, help your supplier understand your needs in great detail. Don't assume that they know anything. They probably don't. So, so be detailed and thorough and take time and explain and outline the business needs. Point out the problems quite carefully. The other piece of advice is you're the expert on. Your own business needs, but they, the supplier, they are the expert on software development. So don't try and tell them what the system must do, especially not in a tender. I'm sorry, but I have to go on a rant about tenders because they're so disruptive. This is sensitive communication. It's hard enough to make it work, but then when you go into a tender, the communication is so restricted. Like how does it make sense to a client, to limit the number of words a supplier can use to explain the problem, or to explain a solution? Tell us how you're going to meet our, let's say article processing, charge need just to stay with that. But limited to a hundred words that really makes you angry. You're sitting there it's Saturday and you putting together this whole huge tender reply. Right. And it's hard enough and you're on a deadline. And now you need to figure out how to explain something complex in a hundred words, because the procurement department decided that that was a good limit in this case. Not knowing anything about anything at all, that is hard to swallow sometimes. So, but, but that's not the worst. The worst is when attended requirements that would mandate that the software do something specific. And that was a must have the software must have a dropdown where the researcher can X Y Z now, what if we already knew the problem really well? And what if we had developed not just a dropdown, but a whole feature set that could support that need really, really well in a smart way, saving the use of the resource a lot of time, but not by using a dropdown. Then we have a problem because now in the tender where everything is recorded and everything counts, everything you're caught on everything. Right? We, now we have to say, no, we don't have that. So now we are scored lower, but we actually have a really powerful feature set that solves the whole problem. And you want to explain that, but you can't because you're limited to a hundred words. So that's that's, if we do that in our

Danu Poyner:

attendance

Bo Alroe:

record, remember this is rare.

Danu Poyner:

We probably wouldn't be talking. No, no.

Bo Alroe:

And I said, I used the nasty word when I talked about the people in the, in the in the procurement team. And I, I, I want to take that back procurement. People are of course doing the best they can, knowing what they know. And of course they can't tailor an acquisition process that meets individual needs. We get that, and luckily this was from here. But you asked, what advice would I give to clients help your supplier understand your needs? And don't go into software design, UI design. It's not for you. Just stay on the need Ask the supplier to explain in full in the tender response, how that need is supported and then read all those responses from your different potential suppliers and select the one that has the best solution to the need. Okay. I

Danu Poyner:

quite glad you went on your rant because, because I mean, something came out of that for me, as I was listening to you. And it's, you know, when you go into these kinds of projects, very much a risk is on your mind and minimizing risk is kind of the order of the day. And I imagine that's very much what is happening in the procurement office. Procedural fairness and minimizing risks. But kind of everything you're saying about the quality of the conversations and the communication and the trust, it's

Bo Alroe:

all, if you start

Danu Poyner:

with a closed kind of risk-based mindset, you're not going to get to the good stuff. And so there's a kind of curiosity that, that it sounds like you need to have as both sides of that conversation too, to actually get to a good place.

Bo Alroe:

I think we covered that in the beginning of this recording session about the curiosity it's, it has to be there on both sides. We were definitely driven by curiosity one of these universities out and how do they do their business? What are the processes? Why don't they have these needs. But the university also in a lot of the really good we had, we had a number of really, really good seasons and good projects. And many of them that was driven by client curiosity. How did you get this feature? How, how can you have that already? How were, how were you inspired for this? They had a lot of curiosity, things like that. And that made the product great what we established was a cycle of curiosity, really, to go back to the theme of your whole podcast series they were curious how this could be solved and if software could help them. And to which extent, and we were curious about their needs. So then we could do that. That really, really was good cycle.

Danu Poyner:

There you go. Is there something that you're working on at the moment that you'd like to give a plug for and how can people get in touch?

Bo Alroe:

Well, people can just get in touch with we on my, my email that's b.alroe@alroe.com. Currently I'm developing research analysis for a couple of universities actually in Australia. So, so I refuse to make it easy. It has to be on the other side of the planet. And that's going well. We are doing data analysis in different areas and I'm working with the research leadership teams there to, to get something from that to use the insights, to action them. And that is very rewarding and that's what I, that's what I do currently. And I don't know exactly today what the future will bring. But I want to use what I have learned there through many Years. Thanks to my curiosity, I guess.

Danu Poyner:

Oh, it sounds good. Well I hope that's going well, a huge amount of knowledge and experience you've built up. So I'm sure you're. Innovative ways to share that. and thank you so much for all your time and thoughts today, Bo It's very interesting. And once again, really appreciate your time. Not at

Bo Alroe:

all. Not at all. Take care. See you later. Bye-bye.