Jesse Nieminen of Viima: “Create a great product that creates real value!”

Create a great product that creates real value! I know it’s a bit obvious, but if you don’t have something the market needs or values, you’re really facing an uphill battle in trying to build a business around it. The first versions of our products obviously weren’t that great, but the bigger problem was that we’d built […]

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Create a great product that creates real value!

I know it’s a bit obvious, but if you don’t have something the market needs or values, you’re really facing an uphill battle in trying to build a business around it.

The first versions of our products obviously weren’t that great, but the bigger problem was that we’d built it to fulfill a vision of what we thought companies should be doing — not what they actually needed to get done. So, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that the first versions didn’t sell particularly well, but as we learned what the market needed, the product got better, and our sales started growing.

As a part of my series called “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jesse Nieminen.

Jesse is the Co-founder & Chairman of Viima, the most widely used and highest rated innovation management software in the world with more than 10000 organizations on the platform. With Viima, companies can collect and systematically manage ideas all the way to innovations and start creating a culture of innovation. Jesse is passionate about helping companies of all sizes around the world make more innovation happen and holds an MSc. in Computer Science.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always been passionate about both business and technology and ended up studying computer science. In hindsight, that was a very good choice since it gave a very good foundation for understanding technology, engineering, design and business, all of which are pretty important areas to understand for would-be innovators.

During my studies, I ended up working for a rapidly growing and very well-led enterprise SaaS company called RELEX Solutions, which was a very fortunate turn of events for me. I really learned a lot during those years, and loved working with the brilliant people at the company.

Actually, even before that, together with two of my friends and fellow students, we thought it would be a great idea to found a company and learn what it takes to build one. Then, as our studies were nearing completion, we thought that perhaps the time was then as good as it was ever going to be.

After a few iterations with prospective customers, we settled on building a platform for managing ideas and innovations, which is the path that we’re still on.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Well, there have been so many that it’s difficult to pick just one! Getting our first few customers, hiring our first employees, getting the first international customers, all were obviously very big moments for us.

But I guess the one thing we’re very proud of is how we bootstrapped the company to being the world’s most widely used innovation platform, despite us obviously having very limited capital available for growth, and a very small home market of Finland to launch from against heavy competition, of which quite a few are either venture-backed or publicly listed.

Put together, these factors really forced us to try to innovate and find novel ways to grow and to provide our customers with as much value as possible, and I think that really forced shape our company and our product to what they are today.

Where the competition has been forced to try to add features and capabilities in a desperate effort to differentiate their products and go after the big clients with high price tags in a market where heavy competition has made growth difficult and increased their cost structures, we decided to go the other direction. We focused on just the parts that most companies needed the most and did a super easy-to-use solution that has enough features for maybe 99% of the market — and does all of that in a much simpler and more engaging manner, and at a fraction of the price. Since we also have a lean cost structure and super effective online-first go-to-market strategy, we’re able to do all of that with industry-leading margins.

It’s these market-driven, innovative decisions that have proven to be very difficult for competitors to copy as we’ve gained traction and have fueled our growth.

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 about that?

We’ve obviously had quite a few mentors and advisors help us out throughout the years, so it’s again difficult to name just one. The list includes quite a few other founders and leaders of some of the most successful startups in Finland, old colleagues, faculty members at our alma mater, and of course our friends and families as well.

For us, they’ve all played a big role in shaping our thinking and pushing us to get better that I wouldn’t feel comfortable naming just one!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When we first set out to build the company, we had already seen our fair share of enterprise software and knew that there’s usually a lot of complexity under the hood, and that there are also barriers to entry in terms of go-to-market reach and credibility. But, even knowing all of this, we still thought that most enterprise software wasn’t frankly very good considering how big of a leap the consumer side had taken in the last decade or so.

So, while we knew we were inexperienced, and certainly didn’t have all the answers, the “Life Lesson Quote” we lived by, especially in the early days, was what Jeremy Clarkson and the gang had always been saying on Top Gear when they took on a big new challenge: “How hard can it be?”

As was always the case for the Top Gear crew as well, the answer of course was “very”, but taking that confident attitude really helped us pull through the tough times in those early days.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Our mission is to help companies of all sizes around the world make more innovation happen, and this year has really shown how companies need to invest in innovation more than ever.

We’ve written about this before, but in the last decade, it’s the innovative companies that have grown and triumphed, and this has year has only accelerated the trend. If a company doesn’t find new and better ways to serve their customers and isn’t able to adapt to the changing requirements of a rapidly moving market, they really are looking at a very bleak future.

Conversely, when the world is changing as rapidly as it is now, there are tons of terrific opportunities to capture for those who are able to creative and novel ways to create value for customers and for the society!

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

This really goes back to the story I told you on how we had to rethink the way companies in our field operate, to be able to build a viable and sustainable business with the conditions we set out from.

Everything we do is a result of this: our extremely generous free plan and low-cost business model, our online and content marketing-focused go-to-market approach that is designed to be low cost and to scale, our software’s focus on ease-of-use eliminating the need for most support, our customer success materials that help customers succeed well with little human input from our side, and so on.

Had we had more money and people on the team, or a bigger initial market to work with, we probably wouldn’t have made the decisions we ended up doing since those aren’t the easy or the obvious ones. They all take a lot of hard work, and initially show very little direct business results, but in the long-term, have really enabled our success.

The reason for choosing that way is that we really had no choice but to:

a) be laser-focused on figuring out what the customers really needed, and

b) see how we could deliver that in smarter way than our competitors had traditionally been using

And this is what’s really important to understand about innovation in general: scarcity is usually good for innovation.

Sure, when you want to scale something up to its full potential, you need quite a lot of resources, but to come up with the right things to scale, you probably need a lot less resources than you’d think.

When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?

For us, there have always been two clear primary motivators:

  • Learning, and
  • Seeing the impact of our work

And for someone who’s still early on in their career, even if you can learn a lot and have a big impact in a larger company, becoming an entrepreneur really does turn the dial to eleven on both of these areas.

The thing with entrepreneurship is that I’ve seen a lot of people do it for the money, but I think that really is a very poor decision. If you were to work just as hard at a larger company, the expected earnings will always be far superior to what you can expect to see as most entrepreneurs unfortunately either fail, or at least fall far from their initial goals.

But, if you want to learn, or to see the work of your hands, build something bigger than just your career, or even just see how good you really are at something, it is a great, albeit extremely tough, road to choose!

What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?

It’s still very much the same!

We’ve obviously learned a lot, and seen our work help a lot of companies create incredible results, and those are still the things that personally drive and motivate me. Whenever I hear complements of how awesome our product is, how our blog posts have really helped people understand innovation, or about some customer doing extremely well, I know that all of that work really hasn’t been for nothing, and that really makes me want to try even harder.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

As a matter of fact, we’ve just launched our new online coaching program for corporate innovators called The Innovation System, and are starting to roll out that to our customers, and the wider audience.

The idea behind the program is that while we really think our software is a great tool for helping companies make more innovation happen, it’s still just that: a tool. And, as with every tool, if you don’t know how to use it, it won’t do much good for you.

So, as we saw some of our customer struggle to create and run their innovation programs, we wanted to find ways to help corporate innovators succeed there as well. The traditional way, which we’ve also been doing, is to of course provide professional services to help our customers on those fronts, but that has a couple of fundamental challenges:

  1. It doesn’t scale. We already have more than 10 000 organizations signed up for our tool, and as a still relatively small company, there’s no way we could serve all of them, and even if we were to grow the team, it would be really hard to try to find, or train, professionals to know enough about innovation to be able to succeed in that role.
  2. The price is still relatively high, there’s likely to always be room for high value-added professional services to solve the biggest and most difficult problems companies face, but even in our field of customers, most of the challenges are relatively universal, and so the solutions are also relatively straightforward to teach.

So, together with a few pilot customers, we set out to solve both of these challenges by offering a scalable, low-cost coaching program that any organization can afford, and get tons and tons of value from, and the end result is that program.

It walks the customer through the process of creating their innovation program and using it to really make more innovation happen within their organization step-by-step. We cover all of the fundamentals, the key best practices and all of the most common challenges we see companies struggle with.

We’re so confident in the promise the program has that we’re willing to fully refund the program after the customer has completed it if doesn’t live up to its promise, and that’s something your average innovation consultant probably won’t offer you.

The topic of this series is ‘Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue’. Congratulations! Seven figures is really a huge milestone. In your experience what was the most difficult part of being able to hit your first million-dollars in sales revenue?

Well, as were a B2B company with pretty low prices, we obviously needed to get a lot of companies to buy our software, and while you can buy our software without ever talking to us, in B2B, most sales still require at least some human interaction.

Now, if we were a venture-funded company, that wouldn’t be too difficult. We could simply hire a small army of sales reps and unleash them on the market.

But, as mentioned, we took the longer way. We built out that scalable low-cost go-to-market approach, and that takes much more knowledge, time, and effort, but can obviously lead to better results down the road.

So, for us, the hard and time-consuming part, was to build and get our flywheel off the ground, which has really allowed us to get to where we are now.

Could you share the number one sales strategy that you found helpful to help you reach this milestone?

For us, it’s been the combination of having an extensive online presence that drives traffic to our website, and then offering the Basic version of our software for free for an unlimited number of users.

We’ve always heard people say how crazy it is to offer something for free that our competitors charge thousands of dollars every month for, but we beg to differ. Once someone has tried our software, they almost never end up choosing another solution.

So, it’s this one-two punch of providing a lot of free, value-added material to drive traffic, and then providing even more free, value-adding software that’s helped build our brand, presence, and trust with customers even though we’re still a relatively small company from Finland, and that’s what’s allowed us to punch way above our weight in the market.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you or your team made during a sales process? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don’t know if this the funniest but it’s pretty recent, so it’s what came to mind for me first. A while back, we had one of our advisors shadow us on a sales meeting we did for a big prospect.

For some reason, we had introduced ourselves as being this startup from Finland, which some of us had still been doing every now and then since we are proud of where we’ve come from, but as our advisor rightfully pointed out that, that’s not necessarily a great sales argument for a big client!

So, he advised us to not be too humble in our presentation of ourselves and to boldly say what we are: the most widely used and highest rated innovation management software in the world, and we’ve certainly tried to take that advice into heart!

Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Yes, we do! Sales is of course as much a science as it is an art. I think one of the keys to success there is to really know what you’re selling, and to whom, and to make sure that everyone really understands how you as a company, can help your prospective clients to succeed. Just getting that right will go a long way, but there’s of course much more to it than that.

One of the things we’ve had to learn the hard way is that sales really is a numbers game, so make sure to follow them and figure out what’s going on with your efforts to acquire new business. Also, make sure you set the bar high enough, and then lead the work very systematically and methodically.

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”. Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Create a great product that creates real value!

I know it’s a bit obvious, but if you don’t have something the market needs or values, you’re really facing an uphill battle in trying to build a business around it.

The first versions of our products obviously weren’t that great, but the bigger problem was that we’d built it to fulfill a vision of what we thought companies should be doing — not what they actually needed to get done. So, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that the first versions didn’t sell particularly well, but as we learned what the market needed, the product got better, and our sales started growing.

2. Inbound marketing

We knew we couldn’t spend as much on sales and marketing as our competitors, so we had to figure out a way to reach customers in a more affordable and scalable way, and inbound marketing was the perfect fit for us.

We’ve invested for years and put in a lot of hard work to create tremendously value-adding content on everything innovation related.

It took us three years to really start to see meaningful results in terms of number of traffic and leads, but once we did, things really started to pick up quickly, and this year our blog actually became the most popular innovation-related blog in the world!

So, if you search for something innovation-related, odds are you’ll run into one of our articles. And if you don’t, please let us know and we’ll fix that! 😉

3. Find the right positioning or niche of the market

For us, the sweet spot is customers that want a modern, no-hassle product for engaging people in innovation, and managing the funnel of ideas all the way to innovations, usually in medium to large organizations.

For a long time, we wanted to move up-market with our solution and go after the biggest, the most demanding, and the most lucrative customers, and it’s really only been in the last couple of years that we’ve fully understood that it just isn’t a good fit with our product, our organization, and our business model.

And that actually brings to my next point.

4. Figure out your product-market-channel-model fit

A while back, I read this great piece by Brian Balfour, which really does a great job of explaining what’s required to really be able to grow quickly.

It isn’t just about product-market fit as is often believed, you also need to find the right business model and pricing, as well as the right distribution channels to work together with the product and the market.

For the last few years, we’ve been working on doing just that, and have made great strides thanks to our efforts of doubling down on these efforts. For example, we expanded the limit of users on our free plan from the already generous 50 to be completely unlimited, and made our pricing more transparent, to help show just how great value for the money we are compared to the competition. These, along with many other smaller tweaks have really helped us get this part right.

5. Always look for ways to do everything better, even if it’s just a little bit

The compounding returns of continuous improvement and incremental innovation is one of the most underappreciated, yet powerful forces in business.

That’s one of the things we always preach to our customers, and what we also try to do ourselves in everything we do. If you just get 1% better every week, but keep that effort up for a few years, it’s really incredible how big of a difference that will make even in one area of your business.

And if you do it across the entire company, we’ll the results will speak for themselves.

What would you advise to another business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Well, I’d suggest you go back to the fundamentals and really re-think what is that you’re trying to do for your customers, see if that still is the thing that they need the most, and if what you’re currently doing is the best possible way to solve those needs or problems.

As long as you find novel ways to create more value for your customers, I’m pretty sure you’ll also be able to capture some of that value in the form of renewed growth.

Innovation isn’t rocket science, but it often is a lot of hard work!

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

At least for us specifically, I’d say that it boils down to two things, which I’ve already briefly talked about:

  1. Being found when people are searching for solutions to problems related to what we’re doing, and that’s what inbound marketing really is all about
  2. Generating trust and good-will by creating a lot of value for prospective customers for free before we ask them for anything

Let’s imagine that you’re an innovation manager. Whenever you run into problems at work, you probably Google for advice. After a while, you start to notice that there’s this one site that always keeps popping up called Viima. You get interested and want to see what we do in more detail, and discover our product, which is very relevant for what you do. You then notice that it has a very generous free plan and decide to try it out to see if it could be of use for you.

Once you see how the software works, you realize just how much you could do with it and start using the product. At that point, you really don’t even consider any competing solutions. And, even if you did, they will be more expensive than Viima, that you’re already familiar with, and that you already like using. Can you guess which software they end up choosing?

Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

I think a great customer experience and great customer service are what really allows you to retain customers for longer, so here are a few of my top tips for improving on these areas.

  • A great product is again paramount — if you don’t have that, there’s no magic trick that will allow you to avoid churn. Conversely, a great product that is easy-to-use eliminates most need for support, and that is what we really try focus hard on.
  • Timely support is another super important thing. Everyone is busy, and nothing is more frustrating than having to wait long times to get your problems solved under deadline. We try to focus on this with all of human-based customer support activities, but also by providing self-service materials that are always available for customers 24/7, and that cover almost every possible difficulty they may run into.
  • Being proactive is also important. Problems are often easier to prevent, than they are to fix once they happen, so we have a small customer success team that tries to stay in touch with all of our customers to see how things are going with them and help guide them in the right direction. And that’s also where The Innovation System coaching program comes into play: it seeks to help our customers before they run into problems, so that we can ensure we’re always creating value for them, and as long as that is the case, churn is pretty unlikely.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

Last year Viima became net carbon negative for the entire lifetime of the company, and we also committed to keeping the company that way. We wrote about this in more detail here in our blog:

Since then, we’ve seen a number of big companies like Google and Microsoft also follow in our footsteps and make big commitments on this front, which has been great to see.

However, this year the whole COVID-19 situation has obviously put the whole climate change discussion on the backburner for a while. We’re obviously not out of the woods yet, but climate change is such a big and urgent issue, that I think we all should really be paying much more attention to it than we are, and while solving the issue will require political backing, we all need to do our part in building momentum and leading by example.

So, if you work in a company, or especially if you lead one, I’d urge you to take action and to commit to making your company take the Climate Neutrality pledge as well.

It does take commitment and investments, but it’s important to understand that it’s not just a cost! Our climate actions have actually saved the company more money than it costs to offset the emissions we are unable to currently reduce. Besides, seeking to become climate neutral is another constraint that can really help the company innovate!

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Well, as someone who’s super excited about innovation, the obvious answer would be Elon Musk. The way he takes on these really big and important, seemingly impossible challenges, and finds ways to innovate and solve them is incredibly exciting and motivational. Given the sheer difficulty of what he’s set out to do, it’s incredible how he’s always somehow found ways to pull those things off — and in very different industries.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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