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Andrew Butt of Enable: “Create a hybrid of skills”

Create a hybrid of skills — I’m learning about how to combine the founding team and first employees with those who have deep experience of running the functions of fast growing SaaS companies prior. We have been very successful by hiring people with the right calibre and attitude out of university, and promoting them over time. But […]

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Create a hybrid of skills — I’m learning about how to combine the founding team and first employees with those who have deep experience of running the functions of fast growing SaaS companies prior. We have been very successful by hiring people with the right calibre and attitude out of university, and promoting them over time. But that’s not enough to create hypergrowth and define a new category.


As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Butt.

Andrew Butt is the Co-founder and CEO of Enable, a modern, cloud-based B2B software solution for rebate management. Launched in 2016, Enable is used by companies across 50+ sectors to analyze, negotiate and execute complex trading agreements to drive profitable growth. The company has offices in San Francisco, CA and the UK and is backed by 13M dollars in funding from notable Silicon Valley investors, Menlo Ventures and Sierra Ventures.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My two passions in life were always flying and computing and I had dreams of being an airline pilot. I was lucky to stumble into a flying school at the age of 12, and the owners gave me some great advice: “stick to aviation as a hobby and make a career out of computing.” It was inspirational being around entrepreneurs learning to fly. And they all had IT challenges! So a couple years later, I launched my first business — offering domain name registration, web hosting and web application development. I left school at the young age of 15 and compressed five days a week of schooling into four hours on Saturday mornings.

I met my co-founder, Denys Shortt OBE, while learning to fly helicopters. Denys was already an established entrepreneur building the DCS Group, the largest distribution company for health, beauty and household products in the UK. We have founded three companies together, the latest and most exciting of which is Enable, a modern, SaaS for B2B rebate management.

Enable empowers distributors, wholesalers, retailers, and manufacturers to make better trading decisions to drive mutually profitable growth, while improving cash flow and reducing risk. We have more merchants and suppliers in the UK and US than any other comparable software solution.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Denys and I realized that the complex rebate agreements that were giving DCS a headache were also giving problems to every other distributor in over 50 other sectors. We had initially built a custom solution for DCS and version 1.0 was not the most pretty. But every manufacturer, customer and buying group who saw it, wanted to purchase it.

At the time, Denys and I had a steadily growing and profitable software engineering business, with a team of 100 supporting customers in many sectors. But the opportunity to launch a SaaS product to solve the rebate problem was so compelling that we pivoted the whole company in this new direction.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I have never truly considered giving up. In the very early days, some of the ‘hard times’ were customer-related, where we’d sign up a very large customer who would load their millions of rows of data and the product wouldn’t cope well with the volume. We would have the customer telling us we must “fix it” immediately or they’d walk away, and I’d know that it was going to take a few weeks to resolve. I found that type of conflict quite hard.

Then as we grew the engineering team and scaled the product further and further, those types of situations happened a lot less. But our costs had significantly risen and cash flow was often a big challenge and some months we’d find ourselves in need of collecting a lot of cash just to make payroll that month. I always found that very stressful. Whether one is short of cash personally or in a business, it’s a similar feeling and not a nice one at all. We went from being entirely bootstrapped to raising a healthy Series A from two top Silicon Valley investors (Menlo Ventures and Sierra Ventures), at which point our short term cash flow challenges evaporated — at least for now!

In terms of ‘drive to continue’, it’s always been clear to me that I wouldn’t be content doing anything else. There is no alternative. So I have always been completely committed to the path ahead and whatever it takes to continue on that path.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are going well. This is very much an ongoing journey so I would not call it ‘eventual success’ and I don’t think even the best entrepreneurs of our time would believe in such a thing!

I love the Churchill quote: “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”.

There are many stages to conquer in building a business.

Initially it’s all about convincing others to work with you and support you to build version 1.0 of the product, which is probably not too difficult.

Then it’s about convincing the first few ‘proper’ customers to sign up and pay to use the product, while you’re extremely small and vulnerable and there are much more established and financially stable companies claiming to do what you can do. This is often pretty tough, and can absolutely make or break the business in the very early days.

I guess the third big stage is convincing investors to come onboard to help you reach initial scale. It’s so competitive. There are millions of others trying to do the same, and demonstrating that you are the outlier worthy of serious investment can be tough.

And once you’ve raised investment you need to build a strong and professional organization, and attract proven leaders who have done it before to leave Google and Oracle and join your tiny startup.

Every stage is a roller coaster with lots of rejection interspersed with (occasional!) positive results which are of course hugely satisfying.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

As a young and naive startup founder, I can remember sitting at the table of a 30B dollars company, explaining why they should use our solution rather than an established competitor. They were giving me a grilling and asked “what do you think about the risk of failure if we select you” and my response was along the lines of “there is no risk — this project will be a guaranteed success.”

I realized almost immediately how naive my response was. Of course there is always a risk of failure and my response reduced my credibility even further. In the end, we won the contract, so it wasn’t a fatal mistake.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are mostly serving companies in traditional industries — distributors, retailers, manufacturers. And most people don’t dream about managing rebates — it’s not the most exciting space!

But we’ve injected modern Silicon Valley SaaS into this area and we are disrupting the category.

We’ve consumerized something which is very traditional and made it fun. Part of the way we’ve done this is with the use of 3D characters to represent the roles we serve — see www.enable.com.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I know it’s a cliche, but you have to love what you do. When you love what you do, most of it is not work, it’s just what you do! I’ve never understood ‘work life balance’. Work is the biggest part of life for most people, not something to be balanced against it. Whether the work is building a company or doing charitable acts, or something else, it’s work.

I remember Steve Jobs saying that you will not succeed if you don’t love what you do, because it will just be too difficult and nothing else will be enough to keep you at it. For instance, the possibility of making a lot of money is not enough if you don’t love what you do.

I think daily sustainability is important. I work seven days a week, 365 days a year. I don’t have ‘time off’. But I do make sure that I get a good night’s sleep, and prior to the pandemic, I traveled regularly as the change of scenery is very refreshing. A change is as good as a rest. Also, it’s important to form healthy habits such as exercising — that’s all part of daily sustainability.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are so many people, it’s difficult to name just one. My father had his own accounting practice advising SMB owners, and was therefore always pro-business and hugely supportive of my ambitions. But I would say my parents and the circles they mixed in were very cautious, and growing up in the UK in that environment was very different from being in Silicon Valley with other startup CEOs and VCs.

We’re all such creatures of our environment and upbringing, and my life changed forever when I started visiting the flying school regularly as a teenager. The owners of the flying school and the people learning to fly, made me realize that I could achieve whatever I put my mind to. Flying a helicopter, growing a business, relocating to California. It was all doable.

Another person that helped me achieve success is the owner of the flying school, Capt Mike Smith. He had served in the Navy and was one of the first to pilot helicopters. He helped me to see the world differently and introduced me to many others who helped to shape my views, including my co-founder.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

We have around 3,000 companies across North America and Europe using our platform. The way we got there was to sign up a handful of significant distributors across a few market sectors, and have them invite their trading partners to use our platform. These are mainly the suppliers to our customers, but they can also be customers of our customers, too. That has been much quicker and easier than trying to approach every company individually.

Once we win a big customer in a sector, we then focus on that sector to get more customers there. And that means each supplier on our platform can access multiple of their customers when they login. It creates a big barrier to entry as this network effect takes time to replicate, as well as recreating the software.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

We charge a monthly SaaS subscription to any company who wants to create, publish and calculate rebates and B2B deals on our platform. The recipients of these deals can use our platform for free, so that allows us to get high numbers of users. And as soon as a recipient of a deal wants to create and calculate their own, they then upgrade and become a paying customer too.

Our go-to-market motion right now is quite traditional — we have a sales team who sign up enterprise accounts on our platform. There are many additional opportunities and we are creating a product-led-growth strategy which will be fully self-service. But right now that’s a bit of a distraction from our main goal of tripling our revenue by scaling our existing GTM approach.

Our goal is to increase the number of companies using our platform from 3,000 to 10,000 over the next 12 months, at which point we’ll invest a lot more in monetisation.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

Understand and solve a specific problem well — you need to have first hand experience and develop a deep understanding of a problem. It should be as specific and focused as possible, at least at first. Once you get traction with 100 customers, you can consider branching out into adjacent spaces.

You can never be too distinctive — there are so many SaaS solutions out there. To stand out from the crowd you need to be different. and you can accomplish that by being super-focused on a tight group of people. Keep sub-segmenting, and then sub-segment some more.

Make it easy — one of my previous businesses was in consulting and we were very selective on who we worked with. We wanted customers that would pay top dollar and meet all of our terms and conditions, because we had limited capacity and we wanted to fill our capacity wisely. That approach doesn’t work in SaaS. To build critical mass, you need to make it ultra easy for anyone to sign up and use your platform. You need to take all the friction out of process of buying and using your platform. If customers want to pay quarterly, that’s fine. If they want an extended trial, let them have one. If they want to have the option to cancel after their first quarter, let them. If you don’t then someone else will. You need to do anything and everything it takes to achieve escape velocity.

Be patient for profit and impatient for growth — once you get traction with your first ten customers who are getting big value from your product, you need to grow rapidly. In my case, that involved moving from a bootstrapped approach, to raising venture capital. I have built other businesses through steady profitable growth, but if you want to create something big and build a company of consequence then you have to go fast and accept that profit will come much later.

Create a hybrid of skills — I’m learning about how to combine the founding team and first employees with those who have deep experience of running the functions of fast growing SaaS companies prior. We have been very successful by hiring people with the right calibre and attitude out of university, and promoting them over time. But that’s not enough to create hypergrowth and define a new category.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It’s so important, especially in the present times, to have a clear purpose and a plan. Something to channel energy into that has a result and can be measured. In my experience that is such an important part of being satisfied. There is enormous satisfaction from creating things that we are passionate about, whether that’s software coding, building a business, or creating something crafty.

Too many of us spend too much time doing things that we don’t enjoy, and then for ‘downtime’ we sit in front of the TV or more likely Facebook or other social media and ‘consume’ (rather than create). Too much consumption is not a good thing… makes us feel lazy, lethargic, negative, and grumpy.

So where am I going with this? Maybe I should start a ‘creativity movement’ where everyone is encouraged to create the things they are most passionate about, to bring inner and outer peace and satisfaction to the world 🙂

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/awbutt/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/EnableSoftware

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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