We talked to Patrick Bönzli of SPOUD on how they encourage collaboration around data transparency and ownership.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Patrick Bönzli: Considering that we are in a crisis, we are doing well. It’s not easy for anybody today, especially now that days are getting colder and daylight is getting shorter here in Switzerland. I am thankful that my family and everyone in our company is healthy.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded SPOUD?
Patrick Bönzli: I am a dreamer and a builder at heart. The software’s ability to build something huge with your own two hands fascinated me from a very young age. I studied electrical engineering at the ETHZ in Switzerland but always worked in IT after that. I went through software engineering at Google, Xerox, Infineon, and Netcetera until one day, I started a job that got me frustrated and sleepless, and I quit. At that point, I was feeling lost and relieved at the same time.
After taking a little time with my girlfriend to travel and reflect, a chain of accidents led me to found my first company for organizational reasons: It was easier to do freelancing this way. I used to laugh about those so-called “entrepreneurs” with their fancy words for trivial logical implications. My journey swept me from body leasing to project work for supporting other startups to build their software. 4 years later, I founded SPOUD together with a good friend on seed money from investors. Since then, we push this baby every day, and no day ever has been the same. I still don’t call myself an entrepreneur, but I think my younger self would probably laugh about how I talk sometimes.
How does SPOUD innovate?
Patrick Bönzli: I believe people and especially companies get “innovation” wrong. It assigns a word to a process that should naturally occur every single day in the life of somebody that repeatedly works on something and with this experience accumulates too. Look at a carpenter. A carpenter does a lot of different things, and among them, he also cuts wood to shapes and sizes.
In my opinion, innovation is a process that naturally occurs when a willing person in his profession grows his experience and adopts the working process and its tools to get better or other results. That’s why it’s hard to do innovation if you are not “on the job.” From the outside, most things look simple; from the inside, they are often overwhelming.
The way we apply this reasoning to the innovation process of SPOUD is by rotating our team members between product development and customer service/projects. For some months, a person works with the customer in a project to get a hands-on understanding of the problems and how we make a difference. And even more, importantly get the satisfaction of seeing our customers when we solve a problem for them. After this project work, people return to product development and so forth. This process suffers from a slight loss of efficiency. Still, the change between product and project work helps us keep rooted in the market and gain perspective that naturally gets lost during a more extended period of engagement in a static problem field.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Patrick Bönzli: Corona strongly shaped our company and business in the last months and forced us to do our first – and hopefully last – layoffs.
On the service side, Corona immediately crippled our ability to acquire new projects between March and August. Nobody would pick-up the phone to buy softwares. We have found many engineers with more flexibility and openness to engage with our products on the product side. That’s why we rolled out a beta-testing program for our B2B data platform, SPOUD Agoora. It also helped us cope with the loss of many tech events that our strategy relied upon for the product rollout. We have learned that there are other possible ways to reach out to our target audience effectively. Of course, we attended online conferences, webinars and even participated in an American podcast (it’s going to be published in January). But we also launched our newsletter and picked up on writing to our blog, and we had more than 3000 views in the last couple of months.
And at the end of November, we launched a video-campaign called #proudspoud to present our product development team and explain Agoora. We realized that just because we can’t meet in person with our target audience, that doesn’t mean we can’t get in touch with them. So we publish two videos every week where the actual members of SPOUD answer questions about our product. It’s enjoyable, and I’m very proud of everybody.
So by now, our business has stabilized, and through our beta-testing efforts, even gained a lot of speed that we would not have done without Corona.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Patrick Bönzli: I learned that prolonging hard decisions will not make them more manageable. In March 2020, we were in a difficult situation, and it became clear that we needed to layoff some SPOUD members. It is an obvious choice in retrospect but a difficult one nevertheless. We carefully handpicked our staff, and there was nobody that was not an integral part of our family and through their skills and experience vital to our business. At that point, I was afraid of how the company and our team would react to our decision. It was even more moving to see that everyone was responding with kindness and understanding. That was really moving.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Patrick Bönzli: I believe, as part of the Middle-European culture, we have a strange relation to stress. It’s feared and respected at the same time. For me, stress and anxiety are as significant as joy and proudness. They are substantial signals about where we stand on our relative path. I often face stress or anxiety when I am not fully honest with myself, for example, when I decide on something that I can’t believe in.
In our startup, I have experienced that my family is a reliable source of balance throughout the years. My kids take a lot of my attention from the business, and I am thankful for this. I also take a small amount of time every day to meditate in (short) silence. These short minutes and being with my kids are very important to me.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Patrick Bönzli: Our first competitors have emerged in our market this year. This is an awesome moment for us to see our thoughts interpreted, changed, and reflected to us. We are the first company that has created a data-catalog for data-streams. This gives us a good headstart compared to our competition. We see three factors that will help us to keep us ahead of the competition:
- Better information
- Better ecosystems
- Build faster
Precisely in this order. We must build better features closer to customer expectations, distribute them with leverage through ecosystems, and ideally build faster. The last point is a resource problem and doesn’t apply without the prior points. Our Service business is a crucial part of this strategy.
Your final thoughts?
Patrick Bönzli: As a startup, we have been in many crises. Some speculate that if we are not in a crisis, we probably are just transitioning to the next one. Looking back, not all situations have been real crises, but they were all pivotal points for our thinking process. Problems have been integral points in time that define who we are today and what we are doing. I don’t like the expression that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’; it wrongly implies that pain needs just to be stood out. Crises may be thrown upon us, but we decide how we deal with them. The hard point is to get over the emotional shock and depend on nature to admit errors. The crucial point is to stay open to changes and learn from these situations rather than become frustrated or give up.