“The lean startup and MVP model is absolutely the right mindset to have, but that doesn’t mean that you have to throw spaghetti at the wall.”
Neil Caron, Product and Design Leader at Gartner, is doing something hard: helping a big company to innovate. Gartner is the company many technology buyers turn to for advice when they’re looking to buy mission-critical products. Traditionally, that’s meant reading reports and talking to analysts, but with the new BuySmart software-as-a-service product, they can now collaborate more seamlessly with each other as they go through their checklists and make a decision.
In this episode, Neil shares more on the challenge of innovating at a legacy corporation, including how to manage relationships with existing clients, pick the right pricing strategy, and the importance of autonomy in an innovation group — and how to go about getting it.
Neil – 00:00:00: We knew building a brand new product wasn’t going to be that way. It was going to be a lot of ebbs and flows at certain moments. We’d unlock huge values and wins and take leaps forward, but then we’d also have some setbacks along the way. So building new products from the ground up is just not a straight line.
Dan – 00:00:17: That’s Neil Caron, Managing Vice President of BuySmart at Gartner. And he’s doing something that’s not easy, helping a big company innovate.
Neil – 00:00:26: We’ve got an opportunity to change the way that a publicly traded company delivers value to the market.
Dan – 00:00:32: Lots of companies turn to Gartner when they’re choosing which technologies to buy and integrate at their firms. Traditionally, that’s meant reading research reports and speaking to analysts. And then tech buyers are kind of on their own. They make spreadsheets, checklists, coordinate with their colleagues on a core card and they make a decision.
Neil – 00:00:49: But because there’s never been a centralized place for everybody to be aligned and to be able to streamline the actual workflow of running an evaluation, it was just kludgy.
Dan- 00:00:59: But with BuySmart, Gartner is building a new software as a service product to help those buyers and Neil is running a startups playbook.
Neil – 00:01:07: The Lean startups and MVP model is absolutely the right mindset to have, but that doesn’t mean that you have to throw spaghetti at the wall.
Dan – 00:01:17: Welcome to Crafted, a show about great products and the people who make them. I’m your host, Dan Blumberg. I’m a product and engagement leader at Artium, where my colleagues and I help companies build incredible products, recruit high performing teams, and help you achieve the culture of craft you need to build great software long after We’re gone. I want to start with a bit of an oddball question. The show’s called Crafted, and I hear from one of my colleagues We used to work with that you were quite into craft cocktails. And so if there were a delicious cocktail and it was infused with the best of corporate innovation, what would you stir into it?
Neil – 00:01:55: Tequila. Tequila is a nice upper social. It gives you an opportunity to tell a story, get people kind of invigorated and excited and involved. Maybe a Mezcal Negroni, actually. Big fan of Negroni’s these days.
Dan – 00:02:11: And that makes you want to seize the day and innovate.
Neil – 00:02:13: That’s right. Some cocktails are kind of downers, you know, just kind of hang out on the couch and relax. We need something with some energy.
Dan – 00:02:20: How did you come to join Gartner?
Neil – 00:02:21: So I was working at HUGE, was really enjoying my time at HUGE, and agency life is challenging, right? Lots of ebbs and flows. And I had done some amazing work and worked with amazing people. But after four and a half years, I was really interested in owning my decisions. That’s one of the big downsides to agencies is oftentimes you’re going to exit at some point in time and you’re just going to cross your fingers and hope that the decisions you made were good and that the company that you were working for is going to take on that strategy and that execution that you had planned. And so I was introduced to Gartner and there was an opportunity at Gartner to build from the ground up a net new SaaS product that really redefined how Gartner delivered value to the market. I’ve always loved building zero to one products. I’ve spent most of my career in innovation and building new products. The opportunity to join a publicly traded company that’s got a great go to market machine, a huge client base, a great brand in the existing domain in which We deliver value, but taking a tech first approach to it and ultimately reinventing how We do that, it just felt like an amazing opportunity that doesn’t come along too often. So I had to take it.
Dan- 00:03:31: You say you’re building Gartner 2.0. And before We get to that, I’d love if you could just ground us a little bit in what Gartner 1.0 is, and then We can get into what’s new.
Neil – 00:03:40: Gartner has been around since the 70s. It’s really rooted itself in an advisory company. So Gartner hires some of the best experts in mind in different business domains. And then those experts become analysts who write research and ultimately guide and help our enterprise clients make better decisions. We do offer advisory services for many, many different facets of an enterprise. It is, but one of the core domains is enterprise technology. And so as an enterprise is buying a new technology, let’s say a CRM, for example, that is an absolute massive investment, right? And you need to nail that investment. You need to make sure that you buy the right software, making the wrong decision can be catastrophic at times. And more and more technology is obviously becoming just mission critical to how businesses operate.
Dan – 00:04:31: So what is Gartner 2.0 that you’ve been building for the last couple of years?
Neil – 00:04:35: I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m reinventing the entire business. But like I mentioned, that core business of helping guide our clients through decisions as it relates to buying enterprise technology is what We chose to go dig deep and try to reinvent. The previous journey that our clients would go through is hopping on a phone call with analysts, reading research papers. And really, through a lot of our research, We just learned that there are a lot of disparate channels that our clients would have to go through and a lot of really deep research to unpack exactly what they needed. So what We decided to do and what we saw as an opportunity in the market was let’s build a workflow product that allows our clients to manage the tech evaluation process from start to finish. And let’s power that with Gartner Insights. And so what We’ve done is we’ve gone to the Gartner ecosystem and found all the most relevant content and insights related to a particular piece of technology. And then We packaged them into what we call tech templates. And when our clients come onto our platform, they just click a button and We automatically ingest all the most relevant requirements, vendors and market insights for that particular technology. And We do it contextually in a tool that allows our clients to manage the actual evaluation all in one place.
Dan- 00:05:55: So in the past, if I were an enterprise technology buyer and I were thinking of getting a new CRM, the process would be I would get PDF reports and talk to analysts on the phone.
Neil – 00:06:04: Yeah, the old journey was the client rooted the evaluation in the business objectives and what they wanted to get accomplished and gaining alignment across different stakeholders because evaluations are typically enterprise wide. You’ve got a lot of different players involved. So it involved getting everybody aligned on what We’re trying to accomplish here. And then going to different sources of information many times, and after consuming all of that, it still required people to go manually build a list of requirements. They had to go figure out the vendor landscape because it’s critical to not go too broad when it comes to finding your initial set of vendors that you want to reach out to because the evaluation process is incredibly long. So what We often heard is clients just didn’t have enough objective information they could use to identify that initial set of vendors that makes sense for them to go reach out and have a one to one conversation. In the past, evaluations have always been run as a team, but because there’s never been a centralized place for everybody to be aligned and to be able to streamline the actual workflow of running an evaluation, it was just kludgy, right? So it was critical to make sure that there was one place for all this information to live, but also We gave the right collaboration tools that the team needs to be able to assign responsibilities and anybody that needs to be involved in the evaluation could do so. So our existing clients can log into BuySmart and kick off an evaluation, but they have permission to invite absolutely anybody inside their organization to collaborate on that evaluation because without doing so, We knew that the platform wasn’t going to be successful.
Dan – 00:07:44: Innovating within a legacy organization is easier said than done, requires a different kind of mindset and understanding.
Neil – 00:07:50: I had the fortunate opportunity to really dig deep in user- centric design and the Lean startups and MVP model that exists that is in the zeitgeist. That is absolutely the right mindset to have because at the end of the day, once you get a product in front of a customer, you never know what’s ultimately going to happen, but that doesn’t mean that you have to throw spaghetti at the wall. There are things that you can do early on to build really good strategic rationale to understand who your users are, what their needs are, what their mental models are, the barriers, the challenges. If you understand that really, really well, you have a way higher likelihood of getting close to hitting it out of the park day one and obviously iterating from there because what is different about innovating in a corporate environment versus a startups is you’ve got existing customers and existing brand. There are existing expectations. So it’s not like you’re a no-name startups that can go throw something out, get in front of 10 customers, burn those 10 customers, and then go move on to the next cohort. So there is a bar that’s a bit higher than a traditional startups that you need to meet because those clients just expect that given the relationship they have with you already.
Dan – 00:09:10: What did that look like in practice?
Neil – 00:09:12: That was challenging, especially on our engineering team. Engineers love process, right? And so when it comes to processes like Lean startups and just getting MVPs out the door, it took some time to be able to work with them and explain, We can’t just go throw this little thing out in front of customers because it’s not coherent. So it was mostly about teaching people internally what a coherent product was end to end. And then a lot of negotiation about what’s needed and what’s not needed. And there are times where We stood our ground and We made sure that it was up to the level of polish that We expected. And other times We said, hey, this wasn’t a battle worth fighting for. So there’s no perfect playbook, but it is really important to reinforce that We’re not just a startups. There is a level of polish that’s required. Part of that is us explaining that. Part of it is us getting those experiences in front of clients in getting their feedback and being able to have other folks see that feedback and to be able to hear that in first person.
Dan – 00:10:19: How did you test those ideas cheaply in the early days if it wasn’t putting something out there to existing clients? What were some of the tactics that you did use?
Neil – 00:10:27: Yeah, We did a lot. We’ve been a lot of concepts in Figma and did a lot of prototype testing. Fortunately, We had such a large customer base already available to us. So We had the opportunity with partnership with that sales and service organization that I mentioned earlier and saying, Hey, We’re building this net new product. What We did was we found sales reps inside the organization we could partner with and they would go and find clients that they felt would be really great candidates that understood the idea of providing feedback to a brand new product that ultimately would launch one day. So We found some really good customers and then had a lot of live feedback calls. Sometimes it was just pure discovery where We’re asking questions and then we’d follow up with an actual concept that met their expectations. And sometimes it was a couple more rounds of iterating upon it.
Dan – 00:11:19: I’d love to know a little more about the structure of Gartner. I’ve been a part of a number of corporate innovation programs at the New York Times, at Citi Ventures, and what I found is that structure matters a lot. Incentives matter a lot. I’m interested in how you and how Gartner sort of created this innovation group and did so in a way that really set you up for success.
Neil – 00:11:39: The key is autonomy. We were very fortunate to be able to explain to our executive leadership the importance of autonomy. Really mature products just operate at a different cadence and a different motion, especially if you’re publicly traded. We’re looking at fiscal quarters. The currency of measurement is typically revenue, growth, and it’s very linear. We knew building a brand new product wasn’t going to be that way. There was going to be a lot of ebbs and flows. At certain moments, We’d unlock huge values and wins and take leaps forward, but then we’d also have some setbacks along the way. Building new products from the ground up is just not a straight line. It was really critical that We had that autonomy in that space to have those ebbs and flows and not necessarily be held to a strict cadence of seeing progressive linear growth. That’s one real key to autonomy, but a second key to autonomy is allowing us to operate a little bit differently. We really built our own culture. We hired people that were experienced in building SaaS products, whether it was product managers or designers from the outside and brought them in. Same with our engineering team. Given the fact that We were building the product from the ground up, we had an amazing opportunity to do things like Test Driven Development (TDD), automated testing, feature flags, all of the latest and greatest product development practices. We built the culture. We got the right skills. We implemented best-in-class processes. Also what comes with that is best-in-class tools. We started looking in the market and saying, hey, what are some of the best tools that We could find and bring in-house that could allow us to operate in a much more Lean fashion? I’d rather us be Lean and a little bit stretched than be too bloated because that’s key to ensure you reduce the amount of Touch Points and information that’s traveling along the because everything is so dynamic and it requires so much context to be able to make decisions. And so We really wanted a small, Lean team that owned this thing together from start to finish.
Dan – 00:13:47: That all makes a ton of sense. It also sounds really hard. Were you just given autonomy and given permission? Or like, how did you actually get the autonomy and the permission to operate differently? Did it come easy or what’s the trick to getting it?
Neil – 00:13:58: We were given permission from the get-go, but it was definitely with the prove it mentality. We had to prove it. We were given the space and the latitude to do what we said we were going to do. And We just needed to build trust along the way and establish credibility in the process that We were going through that this will net a positive outcome. And that’s what We were able to accomplish. In the early days, it’s demonstrating why We need to work differently. It’s looking at different beacons in the market and practices to be able to point to it and say, this is closer to how We operate as opposed to this. And then you’ve got those checkpoints along the way to be able to demonstrate that it’s different and you need a leadership team that is willing to commit to it. Without a leadership team trusting us and funding us, We never would have been able to accomplish it.
Dan- 00:14:44: You mentioned the currency of measurement in the early days of most any product. Typically it’s not revenue. So what was it? What were the milestones that you promised and then you said you built up trust?
Neil – 00:14:54: As cliche as it sounds, it’s really just learnings. In the early days, We leaned heavily on qualitative insights. When you have a nice mature product and you have a lot of usage, you can look at data to be able to help inform how much something is occurring and you’ve got targets and you can go push towards that. But in the early days, your sample size is tiny, right? And that is tricky. Publicly traded companies don’t typically operate that way. It’s a numbers game. Right? So that took a little bit of work for us to tell stories to our leadership that We’re making progress and here’s why. And here’s the proof points to us doing it is different. And luckily, I think that We were able to tell a convincing story to get where We are right now. Honestly, I do think that storytelling is a big component to it.
Dan- 00:15:45: It’s been a year now since BuySmart’s been in market. So now how are you measuring success?
Neil – 00:15:50: Right now, BuySmart is not a revenue generating product by itself. It’s what We call an entitlement. Gartner’s business model is really designed around building content packages for different roles within an enterprise, not just at the C-suite, across many levels. That’s been our business model always, and so monetizing digital products, We haven’t done that quite yet, and I hope we do do that. So for the time being, We became an entitlement. And so back in September of last year, We launched our product to about 60,000 clients. And a year later, We’ve been used by, I’d say, about 19 to 20% of them. So from a penetration standpoint, We’ve penetrated about a fifth of our TAM. In addition to that, the big outcome that We measure by is client retention. So because We’re not a revenue generating product, of course, we want to understand how well we’ve penetrated. We want to understand monthly active usage, and we do measure that. But the true North Star metric is, do We impact client retention? And the answer We’ve learned is unequivocally yes. When our clients use BuySmart, they retain at 13% points higher than those that do not.
Dan – 00:17:04: That’s awesome. I mean, a double digit increase in retention is massive.
Neil – 00:17:09: Absolutely, especially if We’re talking about a publicly traded company with the $4 billion market cap, it’s big.
Dan- 00:17:14: So I wanted to get into the decision to start with BuySmart as an entitlement or a sweetener to existing subscriptions that clients have, and how you made that decision to start there. And it sounds like you’re thinking ahead to maybe its own separate offering. I’ve been part of conversations like this with different retention products, in particular at the New York Times, where you don’t want to cannibalize existing customers and they go off to potentially some new cheaper thing. How did you and the team wrestle with this decision, and how are you continuing to wrestle with it as you think about whether this should be a standalone offering?
Neil – 00:17:44: It was the path of least resistance. In building a new product, there’s always a high degree of risk, right? As much strategic insight and rationale went into building the product and the process was run really, really well to ensure that We built a product that met our client’s needs. You never know until that product is built, launched live and We’re measuring user behavior. So the path of least resistance was, A, let’s make sure that We are delivering value to our clients. Get confirmation that this is valuable, they’re willing to use it. And if not, make those classic pivots and tweaks that We need to make. But two, it was really tied to our go-to-market. Our go-to-market is heavily driven by sales and service. We’ve got a really large footprint of sales and service reps that are out selling our clients new products, checking in with our clients on existing products. So as a result of that, We just felt that it made the most sense to confirm the value of our product that We were building to tie more closely with our sales and service associates, attach our product to existing offerings as an add-on and then learn along the way how impactful BuySmart was in that selling process and in that retention process. And over time, learn what our clients actually value this individually as a standalone product. And that’s where conversations are definitely starting to happen.
Dan – 00:19:08: Tell us more about the tech behind the product. Did you start with an existing Gartner product and build from that? Did you start brand new?
Neil – 00:19:14: We started brand new. I remember writing the first user story. We started with absolutely zero code base. When We first got started, it was really important to make sure that We adapted some of the most modern practices such as Test Driven Development (TDD), automated testing. I really wanted to ensure that We reduced the amount of Touch Points. And so We were able to not include manual QA in the process. We wanted to work in more of a Lean Kanban style where We’d be prioritizing the most important things at the top and just releasing product to market under feature flags. And so We developed the right processes and then our engineers obviously found the right tools to be able to do those things. We also went and said, hey, We want to make sure that we’re using some modern front-end frameworks, modern design systems that already kind of come out of the box. And so We went and used Material UI and React.
Dan – 00:20:04: That’s awesome. How did Artium help?
Neil – 00:20:06: Artium was great. We brought Artium in about two years ago at this point to be able to help reinforce some of the product development principles and processes that We knew we wanted to go after. We had a great engineering team, but we felt that we just needed an outside consultancy to come in and to be able to, you know, adapt the way that We operate with the best practices that they see across different organizations and provide some of that leadership on the right modern way to go about building software and ultimately helping to reinforce a really solid culture between product and engineering. We brought in engineers and product managers, and it was just a tremendous success.
Dan – 00:20:48: You said you hired the initial team. I’m interested as to know how you hired, what you looked for and how you fostered an innovative culture.
Neil – 00:20:56: I was looking for people that had already worked in SaaS or SaaS like environment. So B2B was a nice to have, but it wasn’t critical. What’s more important is understanding how to build SaaS products and how a multiplayer platform ultimately would operate. It was critical to make sure that people understood workflow, understood that there were Touch Points and handoffs that would take place between different users. I wanted to make sure that people came from products that had a really, really high bar from a design and UX standpoint. Part of our remit that I’ve put on our team is that We are going to build a best in class modern B2B product, just like in Asana, a Monday and Intercom. So critically important to make sure that We hired talent that has a really high bar for design and UX, but also was really open to that entrepreneurial culture, right? Really open to feedback, really comfortable with ambiguity. We’re going to have domains and problems that are going to be hairy and sticky. We’re not quite sure exactly where it’s going to go. So I need people comfortable with that and people that trusted the process to go through it and develop ultimately the best that We could think of based on those insights that fed it. People that can go from strategy, talking with a customer, understanding what those needs are and being able to pull that all the way through to doing acceptance testing for engineers, because our product managers especially are going to be making critical decisions along the way. And I want them to have that context, right? And so that requires that Lean team that can do everything from end to end. I like to hire Full Stack Product Manager that can work in strategy all the way down to writing the acceptance criteria and tickets.
Dan – 00:22:46: When I imagine that some of the folks you talked to probably, I’m making a few assumptions here, but I’m guessing that some were like, Gartner, that doesn’t sound like a tech company. I’m not sure about this. What was your selling point to get them to come in?
Neil – 00:22:58: Well, recruiting was interesting, right? I did a lot of outbound because a lot of the inbound that would come in were people that didn’t quite understand exactly what We were building. My selling point was really, We’ve got an opportunity to change the way that a publicly traded company delivers value to the market and you have an opportunity to be involved at the ground floor. And that’s really exciting there, especially as a product manager. Product managers get excited about outcomes. We want to affect change. And so the opportunity here was to work at a small team and innovate and create substantial change, not only for our clients, but also for our business. And then from a design standpoint, that’s also equally exciting, right? To be able to be involved in designing a net new product and changing how Gartner actually views design, because that’s something that We’ve done. The product that We’ve designed and built has changed the perspective of both the clients and associates alike of what’s possible here at Gartner. And thus it’s an opportunity to become a thought leader inside of an organization as well.
Dan- 00:24:07: Awesome. Neil, thank you so much for your time. This is really interesting stuff.
Neil – 00:24:10: Yeah, thanks, Dan. This was great. Really loved it.
Dan – 00:24:14: That’s Neil Caron, and this is Crafted from Artium. If you’re challenging the status quo, let’s talk. At Artium, we love partnering with visionaries to help them build incredible products, recruit high-performing teams, and achieve the culture of craft needed to build great software long after We’re gone. You can learn more about us at thisisartium.com and start a conversation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you liked today’s episode, please subscribe and spread the word.