In the sixth episode of the AI/ML leadership series, our own Jim Urquhart, Managing Director of FinTech at The Bowdoin Group, speaks with Elias Torres, CTO and a Founder of Drift, an AI-powered sales software startup that features on Forbes’ second annual AI 50 list of the most promising U.S.-based startups, one of nine companies building productivity tools for enterprise businesses. Elias is a serial entrepreneur and community activist passionate about supporting LatinX entrepreneurs across the U.S. Prior to founding Drift, he previously served as VP of Engineering at HubSpot and started his career in tech at IBM as an engineer.
In this special episode, you’ll hear more about:
- His personal and professional journey to becoming a founder of the $360M AI-powered sales startup
- AI’s impact on the way sales and marketing engage with customers
- How COVID-19 has changed everything—from setting company culture to hiring 7 executives remotely—something he never imagined was possible
Listen to this episode below on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you stream podcasts:
For more ways to get this episode, check out the transcript of Episode 06 below:
JIM URQUHART: Hello and welcome to Decoding the Journey, a podcast where you’ll hear more about stories from the technology C-suite straight from the mouths of CXOs who built these companies. AI and ML have moved to the forefront in today’s enterprise software development, intersecting dozens of ecosystems. And as executive recruiters working with the software and technology companies, we’re always curious to dig deeper into how C-suite leaders get to where they are today. I’m Jim Urquhart, managing director of FinTech here at Bowdoin Group. In this series, we will explore the stories behind these companies, leaders, and from their perspective what’s going on in the industry today.
All right, well, welcome to another episode of Decoding the Journey. Today, we are pleased to have joining us, Elias Torres, co-founder and CTO at Drift. Welcome, and thank you.
ELIAS TORRES: Yeah, thank you for having me.
JIM: Our pleasure, for sure.
ELIAS: Friday from our bedrooms and living rooms. Yeah.
JIM: (laughing) I think we’re all—there’s definitely some empathy. I think we’re all kind of doing things a bit differently than we’re used to. So, and hopefully adapting to some degree. So, I guess just—just to kick start us, if you don’t mind, maybe quick background on you a little bit about yourself. And professionally speaking, kind of how you got to where you are today?
ELIAS: Yeah, that’s a long story. I’d say the two components, or—you know, let’s say three big components of my journey is that I’m a Latin American. I’m an immigrant, first generation, right? I was born in Nicaragua, and I came when I was 17. So I lived most of my life—in my childhood, in a different culture, different country, different language. And so, you know, came here in search of the American Dream. Really pursuing my own version of success that I couldn’t achieve in my own country. Because in my own country, you kind of had to be born into the right family to do it. And in America, everyone can do it—we can dream that we can all do it. And we can accomplish it, regardless of our backgrounds, or the city, religion, gender. Anything, right? We can achieve that through hard work. So, we came in search of that. And that dream has been an incredible journey.
The first one is, I thought, you know— I had the option—the first thing I cleaned offices in Tampa, Florida. I cleaned dentist offices. And then I worked at a McDonald’s, I worked at a grocery store. And so the first step in my journey was like—how do I break out of that world of—just maybe under the table, maybe cleaning an office to work at those offices, right? I remember seeing some of those dentists or some of these insurance agents—American General was one of the offices I cleaned, and you can see some of those reps. You know, they stayed late, and they were like, you know, still working. And I’m like, I’m cleaning the office—one day, I want to sit in that desk, right and work. And so my step two of my journey would be like—okay, it’s like I worked at IBM, I got this job at this, like, super large company, biggest tech company. At the time, historic. It was a name that I recognized, there was a building in Nicaragua, I’d left the IBM logo there. And so like I would drive between, you know—ride between school and home and, and see IBM, so I recognized that stripe logo. And I’m like, I couldn’t believe that I was working for a 400,000-person company in the United States. And had an amazing journey within that company for 10 years.
JIM: What was that first—sorry to interrupt. What was that first role that you joined the company in?
ELIAS: First role—I joined as an engineer, right. And so I had internships at IBM, I apply. IBM had a strong diversity program. But, more mature companies are, you know, eventually start catching up to this and investing more in that compared to startups. And they had a diversity program, Bill Lawrence recruited me. He saw me at a job fair in Atlanta, that I went with some as a junior. And he says, “Contact me, come next year, I’m going to fly you to White Plains.” And that’s how I got my full time offers to join IBM. And I picked the one that was most technically appealing to me. And it was a big change, you know, moving up to the northeast, from Florida. First time seeing snow. Knowing nobody, you know, around—there’s no family. It was crazy. And so we did that, made that move, and worked there for 10 years. And it was an incredible journey. I learned so much. And my first job, actually, I was building chatbots at IBM under instant messaging. In 1999. That was my first project.
JIM: That—we’ve come a long way.
ELIAS: Yeah, we’ve come a long way. I’m still building chatbots, it’s no different. And then the next step after that, right 10 years in there—learned so much went to school. There’s just a lot that happened in those 10 years. I think everybody, you know, wants to grow and advance and think that like, you know—I have people come to me and they’re like, “Elias, I’ve been working one year at Drift, like, what should be my next step?” Right? It’s like am I growing fast enough and—and I just look back, and it’s well, that was 10 years. At IBM—two or three promotions I got. You know, and, and it was not about the promotions it’s about what I learned and the people that I met. And the experiences and maturity that I was able to gain. But it was time to go into phase three—startup world, right? I would say startup world is something that—I just felt that in the corporate world, I wasn’t making the impact that I wanted. I needed a larger impact into an organization into our customer base. And I knew that I had more throughput, to move faster, and make a bigger dent in the universe. And so that’s why I jumped off from IBM, met David Cancel, my partner. And we’ve been working together since 2008. So about 12 years now. And being in this startup journey until now. So, that’s kind of like the short, roundabout way of where I came from and where I am now.
JIM: I appreciate that backdrop. That’s great. And a fantastic journey, no doubt. I’m going to back to some of the—maybe put a bookmark in some of the kind of big company versus startup experience. But, speaking of Drift, you know, your current company today. I think most people know Drift. But, we’d love to hear from you just kind of a brief overview of the company, where you all fit into the market.
ELIAS: Yeah, it’s like—so you know, David and I have been in the sales and marketing space for a long time, building software as a service. To help companies really with their go-to-market strategy and implementation, right. And so what happens is that—in order for business to survive, they need to know how to create a brand market, and be able to engage with our customers at scale. Through the internet, right. That’s really has been our bread and butter. And so through that journey, in that experience, we come to the realization that we—marketing and sales has to evolve. And has to be more buyer-centric, right? It’s like—we can no longer just blast thousands of emails and just put up a website and write blogs and just expect everybody to come and just buy from you. It’s a—it’s something that—that experience that we’re giving to the buyers is not enough. So Drift’s focus, right, what we’ve learned in our time is that we needed to create a platform that helps you accelerate revenue—were a revenue acceleration platform—that has to be focused on meeting the buyer where they are. And communicate and respond—be responsive, be helpful, be delightful. And so that’s what Drift is, right. Drift is the platform that will help you marriage sales and marketing to really serve the buyer. In order to beat the competition. And so, we have created that and our entry into the market was with really opening the doors of communication. You know, people were going into a website, before—and it was kind of like if you build a store, imagine you built an Apple Store with this all-glass, beautiful—and you fill it. Who is inside the store, an Apple Store, who’s inside?
JIM: A lot of people.
ELIAS: A lot of people. What are they wearing? What kind of shirts do they wear?
JIM: What do they call it—Geek Squad? Or, you know, they have a bunch of, you know, Apple logos?
ELIAS: Yeah, they wear this blue shirt with the Apple logo on it. Right. So they’re your salespeople, right? What they’re there for, is to facilitate you purchasing hardware and products from Apple.
ELIAS: Imagine you build that store, you filled it with people with blue shirts, and they’re ready to sell. And you have all these beautiful laptops, and in this inventory, iPhones, Apple Watches, everything. And you don’t build a door on that store. And you tell every person that goes by and you start screaming through the glass and you say, “Fill out that form that you that—and just leave it in that mailbox on the corner of the building.” “We’ll get in touch with you later.” “We’ll look at that mailbox later.” “And then we’ll give you a call and tell you—and ask you what is it that you want.” So in the same way, we are creating websites where we—we’re not even communicating with people and we say, “Here we are, this is our global store.” Should be available 24-7 over the internet but we can’t talk to you, fill out a form. And so that’s where we started. We said like—we have to use messaging and we have to catch up with the times of how people want to communicate. And so we started with the conversational marketing platform, we started with the messaging, then we started with automating and scaling that. But we keep growing that in levels of intelligence and sophistication to provide an amazing experience to your buyers.
JIM: That’s awesome. And you know—so talking about, you know, yourself and David, knowing each other, working together in this space for a long time. Was there a certain kind of origin story or inspiration that got you onto this kind of sales and marketing—kind of revenue acceleration path? Did it—was it just lack of anything like that in the market at the time? Or like, what triggered that?
ELIAS: Yeah, we are—you know, I was talking to somebody this morning says that, you know, people—some people think that they’re not creative, right. But I think that everybody can be creative, right. And so I think in the same ways—everyone can be innovators. So, not saying that we have an exclusive of innovation, but David and I have been working together for so long and he’s been work in the field even longer than that. But we’ve been surrounded by innovators all of our lives. And our job is to innovate. Is really to look at these problems that haven’t been solved and think about them hard and come up with new ways of solving that, right? And so it’s something that the only way you get to it is by spending time with customers. And so we knew that the system was broken, we knew that filling out a form and waiting for an email response and for something else, and—and then it’s like, wait for another email step in the nurturing campaign. And that’s not a way to scale a business, right? We knew that people were like, if I—they already did all their work before they came to your website. If they say, “I want to talk to you, I want to buy.” It’s the difference between me going through the Apple Store, because I’m bored, and I’m on a walk on a Sunday afternoon through Newbury Street in Boston. And, “Let’s just look in here.” Versus like, my son is starting school and he needs a laptop before the fall. And like, I’m coming in to buy a laptop. Like, he needs a laptop. Like one of three options. That ability to differentiate needs to be supported in a company if they want to scale and grow fast. And so, those are things that—we knew it was broken but, we didn’t know how broken the entire sales and go-to-market technology system is. Right? It’s been, you know, inundated with so many little point solutions. And no one really is thinking about the overall customer—buyer experience, right? The customer—the true customer. And so we knew there was a problem there—we had that inkling, like, the more we spend on and the more we speak to our customers, the more we realize what needs to change. And so we just keep adapting and building for the buyer.
JIM: What did you see is like— I mean the voice of the customer and spending time with them and really just soaking it all in makes a ton of sense. What did you see as the biggest challenge early on of kind of, you know, maybe shifting mindsets, or getting people to kind of—I mean, it sounds so obvious when you talk about it, and then like, but I’m sure it wasn’t so obvious at the time. And it’s not—nothing’s easy. So what do you feel like was the biggest hurdle to overcome initially?
ELIAS: I think it is the opposite of what you just said. Right? It’s—you know, five years ago, it was not obvious, right? Conversational marketing, what? You know, I mean, we—it’s like people don’t realize—you know, I say all the time, like, you know, we—one of our principles of Drift is feedback, not consensus. If everybody every time, I had an idea, said, “That’s a great idea.” Then it means it’s so obvious that somebody already did it. Right? It’s like when you-when you are—when you have an idea, usually great ideas have to start as a really bad idea. Because nobody thought—nobody thinks that’s really the way it goes. And so that’s how—you know, in a way, that’s kind of why we knew that Drift was on the right path, because it was really hard, right? When people tell you, oh, you took a company public like HubSpot and there’s two of you working out of a rock-climbing gym. And you say to people, “What are you building?” “I’m building a chat app.” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s what you’re building?” And so, you know, it’s really hard, right? It’s really hard when you go to a company that says, “No, I don’t want to put chat for my sales chat is for support.” Right? We tried that before. It doesn’t work. When people tell you that you’re like, are you on the right track? You kind of have to stick to your guns and say like, “This is what we saw.” “This is what we see the trend in the market.” And everybody’s messaging—grandparents are messaging with their grandchildren. Right. And so it’s no longer an issue, right? When one of our investors said, “You know what, I went to this website in Peru, I was going on a trip and I bought a tour for $2,000, over chat.” Say, “I didn’t think so, right, that I was going to do that.” And we had—so many early customers would be like, well, “My customer base does not want to chat.” “They’re professionals.” And they’re like C-level—sorry, they’re this. And, “My industry people don’t chat.” And there was just people not realizing that every day they were using messaging to talk to their family and talk to their friends. And they just couldn’t see that transition. So I’d say—yeah, that’s the life of an entrepreneur. It’s like you—you’re going to get a lot of opposition.
JIM: Right, I would imagine, yeah. And I think, you know—you become more resilient, and, you know, learn to look at those as opportunities. You brought up an interesting point, though, when you’re talking about, you know, the difference of—buying a T-shirt for $25 online is a pretty simple transaction, I probably already know, I’m going to buy that. And it just it’s much easier. But did you find that the level of gravity or the level of difficulty—you know, if you’re trying to think about this in the B2B enterprise, and these buying decisions are hundreds of thousands of dollars, like did that come into play from a level of difficulty perspective? And getting the people to kind of engage on the—trigger those buying decisions at the enterprise level?
ELIAS: Yeah, absolutely. I think that selling to the SMB, selling to the enterprise is two different—completely separate beasts. Right? That takes a lot of time and understanding. And Drift is— what’s nice, again, it’s we have to be customer-driven. I’ve known, you know—many of the great companies that you see today in history—especially those companies that are truly, truly enterprise—they really were pulled by, by large customers, right? It’s—the way that you start a company is that sometimes the easiest way to start is you started the SMB, build a simple product —catches on, people use it, people don’t think about it too much. But then everybody has to go into the enterprise, right. And so you kind of force your way into the enterprise, because you can sell deals on a much larger price, right? And so you can afford to grow fast. Very few companies stay and are successful in the SMB space. In our case—our enterprise customers are pulling us into the enterprise. Instead of us forcing our way into it, they’re saying, “No, no, no, no, I can use your product. I understand it, I need it.” And so that’s been interesting—it’s been more than interested it has been exciting. But you still have to realize that you have to learn how to speak their language and how to understand how to address their needs, and what is the process that they go about buying. But it’s- it’s two different things. But selling at the end of the day is still the same, right? It’s about relationships. It’s about helping the customer. It’s about giving the treatment, the experience that you’re going—that they want. It’s not that different, it’s just maybe longer and more complex. Maybe it’s not just getting one buyer but you have to involve a committee of 15 people to make a decision of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Right? But when you have the right people and the right leaders in place, it’s actually—it’s a pleasure, right? It’s like when you see an enterprise and the whole team of people being successful—how do we grow our company from $1 billion to $5 billion in revenue—it’s pretty rewarding, right? Going back to wanting to make a larger impact.
JIM: That’s awesome. I think there’s something to be said about just truly listening to customers. And then low and behold, getting pulled into areas that you may not have necessarily sought out to get into. But then you’re in really, you know, strategic conversations—and open and honest and transparent conversations, which is not always a given. So that’s, that’s really well said. I guess starting to talk a little bit more about Drift. I mean, it’s, you know—it’s clear that you all at the business have grown very rapidly. Right. And, and which is awesome to see. And, you know, as a nice Boston company. Or Boston-based, I should say, and with growth usually comes some element of change, and you know, good, bad, indifferent. So as you’ve you know—in recent years—as you’ve grown fast, are there aspects of the business that you’ve tried to keep the same or consistent? Versus making necessary adjustments to just simply scale—if that makes sense? Or maybe, you know, talk a bit about, you know, protecting—preserving what’s core to the integrity of the company, when you and David started it? Versus just what you have to do to become a big company at scale?
ELIAS: Yeah, I mean, I think that-that-there are—the constant, right, is the structure of our company, right? For example, one of them is their leadership principles, right? Those are principles, those are not laws, those are not just values, but is really how we operate. And those have been around for many years now, right. We’re talking about putting the customer—there are verbs or sentences, right, they’re not just a word, not a noun. But is-one of them is—the first one is “put the customer at the center of everything that you do.” Create a culture of trust and respect. Stay scrappy. Seek feedback, not consensus. Deliver daily results. Be a curious learning machine, practice extreme ownership, right.
And so those principles, they are like, you know—one of the key components of our culture. Another one of our culture is our rituals, our meetings, how we meet, you know, how we celebrate. Our language, and the people in it, right, and the people that we want to attract, right. And so I think that—that that has not changed. What changes is the way we operate. When you start a company, a really early small number of people. It’s just an amazing, you know, chaotic dance, right? Of like, go as fast as possible, hire this, mistakes. So like we are, you know—maybe if you separate a company into three phases, I would say phase one is like the put yourself on the map at all costs. And there’s no good way of saying, “This is the perfect way of doing it.” This is how to do that. Phase two is like pre-IPO of like, how do you really grow up into an organized—into a rhythmic company, right, that really knows how to operate, how to communicate, how to make decisions. And that’s the state that we’re in—the state that we’re in, right. It’s like, we’re almost 400 people now, and you always get caught into this middle stage of like—people expect, you know, us to not behave like a startup, but they’re also sometimes expect us to behave like a 10-year-old company, right? With thousands of people. And so that’s really the journey that it is—that is what changes every day, right? How we operate? How do we make decisions? How do we stay consistent? And how do we train? How do we educate? How do we communicate? Those specific things are the ones that have to constantly keep changing, because the number of people that are in the company, and the amount of information that needs to be disseminated is increasing every day. Right? The complexity of communication changes daily.
JIM: Yeah, that’s a great point. Very interesting. So given that—you know, the state we’re in, in this pandemic, right—and most of us, most people—certainly, at least kind of within tech within services are working remotely. And, you know, most businesses are selling remotely. Right. So has this presented any opportunities to Drift that might not otherwise have been there? In other words, are there any kind of silver linings that that you and the business have seen? You know, for the duration of this year?
ELIAS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it’s not just for the duration of this year, but moving forward, right, the silver lining about COVID, is that I think it changed us as a company to really embrace, you know, working virtually, right? As a company. And in order to be able to scale and not be locked down to a specific location, right—we have San Francisco, we have Boston and then we have Tampa, right? So we had three locations. And we were kind of very, like hybrid-geographic—like we were just like thinking, like, we got three offices, we put people in those offices. And we had a culture that was very strong about the office and the people. Very extroverted, I think we—we tend to attract extroverts. It’s the way that we were used to. But, we now have evolved, right, and we are now a different company, right? We are embracing the future that is not the present. That we can be and do this from everywhere. And learning how to communicate and how to encourage and support the company, the team and their development and their growth, from a distance.
Now, from the customer perspective a silver lining is that it has also accelerated this digital transformation, right? It’s like a-you know-you-you know—for example, events are almost, you know, destroyed, right? And it’s like, we moved to virtual events. And now the question is like, how do you engage in virtual events? Well, guess what, Drift plays a big role in that. How do you attract people to the events? How do you engage with prospects on your website? Website has taken now back to, you know, the attention be at the center of everything, as we always thought of it. Right. And so I think that it’s opened up so many conversations with our buyers have, like, now they come and they’re like, “We need this. Right? It’s an important time. And they’re like, “We need this, we need we need your help.” “We want your experience; how can you advise us to really change the way we sell.” Right? And so it’s been—it’s been fantastic. And now it’s a matter of us learning how to scale and how to help as many customers as possible as quickly as possible.
JIM: That’s awesome. Well, something you brought up, made me think—and this could go both ways, both internally at Drift, but also externally with your customers. It sounds like there’s something—you said, you know, it’s changed things now, but also kind of forever going forward. So, it sounds like—are there things that you feel like—again, either within the company or externally—that are takeaway that aren’t just moments in time, or “Hey, you know, we’re going to do things like this just for the, you know, over the course of a pandemic, but then we’ll immediately go back.” It sounds like there’s some things that you feel like could be long-term gains. Or things that maybe are pleasant surprises that you’ll, you know, stick with going forward.
ELIAS: Yeah the world changed. I mean, there’s that we’re never going back. We’re never going back to normal. I don’t know, what normal—you know, whatever normal was before, it’s never going to be the same. Right?JIM: Right.
ELIAS: So we, you know, I’ve hired like seven executives during COVID—key people in the company that I had never met, you know. I’ve hired in-person, right. So only met them over Zoom. We’ve hired more executives remotely than I’ve ever had in my life. You know, it was like, you know—I would be hiring executives like, “Oh, yeah, you’re in Boston. Right. Okay.” Like, you know, when a firm is helping me and then looking for somebody it’s like, what is the search limit radius? Boston, right. San Francisco. Maybe we’ll do San Francisco, we’re headquartered in Boston. Now, like, the balance of our executive leadership team, it’s now spread out throughout the U.S. And it’s incredible—something that’s never going to change. Right. So it’s—we’re going to stay that way. So it is—yeah, we are never going back.
JIM: Right. I agree with you. That’s an interesting point too, because I mean, what—I mean it’s probably not surprising from an executive search perspective. I mean, some of the biggest trepidation and kind of slow-downs—aside from companies just taking a few breaths and figuring out where they were really at when this kind of broke—was getting some level of comfort in moving forward with these virtual hiring processes. Right, and forget about onboarding. We’ve hired new people from the spring to now and that’s just decidedly different. And you’ve got to build a whole new set of muscles around that. But were there certain things that—I guess knowing what you know now—certain things that got you comfortable. Other than the fact that you just have to keep moving forward with the reality, that, “Hey, you know, we can’t bring this person in the company, I can’t go take him to lunch or get coffee or a beer or something like that.” How did you get yourself and the company kind of comfortable with that?
JIM: And maybe you’re not—maybe that comfortable is the wrong way to describe it?
ELIAS: Yeah, I mean, I think that, um, nature is to be very adaptable and very flexible. Like we were interviewing a CRO. I remember in early March, I mean, I think that we closed the office, I think March 10 at Drift and we tell everybody to stay at the beginning. Yeah, people were like, “Oh, it was early.” Early March 1, we were like, we’re going to start planning—a lot of CEOs in the area were like, we’re going to start planning some alternate every other week. We’re going to do like a test, like a drill. And we’re like, what is happening? A drill for what? We all use Slack and Google and like, phones and code, and everything’s on the cloud, like, what do we need to drill? Right? And then it’s like, fire drill. And so then we’re going to do that. Then CEOs in Boston, we’re like, oh, we’re going to do that in like, mid-March, we’re going to try it. But March 10, everything accelerated for us. And we were just like, everybody sent an email Sunday night, and they were like, don’t show up at the office tomorrow. Right? And we just like pulled the plug. There was no other way to do it. But I was in the middle of interviewing a CRO at the time. And we’re like—this is the CRO. I’m like, “I’m sorry, but I can’t just hire you.” I said and the CRO came in and flew from San Francisco, showed up Sunday night, we met in an empty office—at a Drift office and we like, you know, David, the CFO, myself—I think there’s like three or four of us. And we spend the whole day talking and getting to know each other. Right? And unfortunately, it didn’t work out—that candidate, but that’s how I felt that day. Right?
ELIAS: And then the next CRO, you know, Todd Barnett, we ended up hiring. I talked to—I started talking to him maybe, you know, two weeks after that. And now it was pretty serious, pretty understood from everybody. Like, don’t get on a plane, right?
ELIAS: And so there was no way I was going to ask that. It’s like this person cannot come. We were going to do this over Zoom and over phone. And so it’s—I don’t know, it’s I think—I think maybe there’s another big silver lining. I think people always talk about, well, how do you get comfortable with X? If you’re not forced to get comfortable, you just drag it out is because human beings just don’t want change? Right? When you have no option? Look how quickly we adapt. There was no—I did it for one. Everything else after that remote. Never looked back.
JIM: Well, that’s—I think that’s sage advice. And I think your view by—if I heard you right, going forward, and just being—I think a lot of progressive companies and progressive leaders look at this as opportunity, right. Where, you know, geography is no longer a limiting factor, right? I mean, if you are truly a remotely distributed, globally distributed, business, or however you set up. But, I think we took for granted—or maybe didn’t think about it enough that we’re all using all of these tools in our day to day work lives anyway. Personally, professionally. It’s a bit jarring when you’re told, “Hey, you know,”—overnight— “do not come to the office anymore. And you can only do it this way.” So there’s a little bit of shell shock, but you probably think—one or two cycles through you realize, “Hey, look, it’s not it’s not as big of a deal as we might have thought.” And frankly, there’s more to be gained. I mean, I’m not meeting you in person right now. We’re not—we didn’t shake hands. And obviously, there’s something that is missing there. But I don’t think it’s as big as people that on to be, you know, at the beginning of this.
ELIAS: Yeah and I want to make sure we don’t we don’t downplay the fact that we are extremely fortunate, right. That we have homes, that we have the ability to have no groceries delivered. That we have camera, that we have internet, right. Compared to a lot of a lot of communities, right, that don’t have the access, or the kinds of jobs where—the only way that we are here—I want to make sure that people don’t forget this, the only reason we’re here, because there’s a lot of people working really hard and putting their lives at risk for us to be in this position. Right. So, the last thing I want to do is complain about the situation and how this is difficult, right? It’s like that, you know—there’s a lot of people that are that are taking even more risk than we are for the country to keep going. And so we have to appreciate that. And so we got to do our best to create jobs to support the economy to support the communities and that’s something that I’ve been finding ways to strike a balance and helping with many nonprofits here in Boston for us to overcome it. So like—that’s why it’s like I think —how hard is it for me to get comfortable and it shouldn’t be any hard, right? It’s a—we got to go for it and help—keep supporting the country. Right?
JIM: That is incredibly well said. Inspiring and I completely agree. Right. I mean, I think it could be a hell of a lot worse. And so I think a lot of us are very fortunate. So, well done. I guess shifting gears a little bit, I’d love to get your take on kind of—it feels like, you know, AI and machine learning has become a bit in some senses—it’s become a bit trite in that everyone says they’re in AI, right? I mean, my local coffee shop, I’m sure says they kind of use, you know, machine learning-based robotics to sort beans. And from a sales and marketing perspective, can you talk a little bit about what the state of AI is right now? You know, how do you think about it internally and how it’s being harnessed, utilized? And I guess what are what are potential downsides or misses? You know, that people might not know about, might want to hear about?
ELIAS: Yeah. And one bad thing to ask people in the audience is to go watch The Social Dilemma. If they want—have you watched that movie?
JIM: I have not. I’m familiar with it. But I haven’t gotten to it yet.
ELIAS: So, like, if you want to be depressed and be doom and gloom, and the world is ending, go watch that. You know, if you think 2020 is bad, wait till you watch this movie,
JIM: That’s frankly what steered me a bit away from it. But—not to not to run and hide. But I—yeah, that’s kind of the sense I got.
ELIAS: Yeah. I don’t-sometimes it is like-there is documentaries on—I mean, every documentary is trying to create that kind of impact. I feel like this is one of the most powerful documentaries there is right now that is going to affect us in the future of like, what technology is doing to us. So and I’m a technologist, right. So it’s a big responsibility that we have. So, I think that it does connect to your question in the sense of—AI is truly can be used for evil. Absolutely. And it is affecting us in the real world. And it’s affecting our minds and affecting our youth. And so there is a [unintelligible] and deploy. That is not gimmicky, that is extremely powerful by big companies. It is the truth, go watch that and make your own opinion, right.
On the other hand, I would say—I’m in the early stages of AI, right in that businesses, right? It’s like, there’s just so many businesses online, there’s so many websites, and we just don’t have the capacity for every business idea for every business that is running to staff them and to create the experience that we need to give to each one of our prospective buyers, right. So we do have to find ways to scale that, right. It’s just we’re never going to be able to create as many businesses if we are as inefficient as we are today. And so like, there’s been promises made, you know—do I have my behind the cloud book here, somewhere? But it’s like, you know, Marc Benioff, of why do we—I truly believe this—it’s like, why are we going to have human beings do work? I’m kind of lazy, tell you the truth, by nature. And I say, “Why? Why do something that a machine can do for me?” If the machine could digest for me that meaning into those points. And I focused then on reading those points and prepping my next action suggested, right? My focus is in building that relationship with that customer. It’s like, why spend that time? I can do two customer calls in the same amount of time. And so, why do that? So I think that there’s so much that AI can do to help businesses scale because, it takes-you know—being in a startup, you realize how hard it is to really grow your go-to-market team. And the strategies, and the processes and the training, and the education. Any idea, anything that you learn from another company, and how do you disseminate that is so difficult. I think that AI has a really very promising future for us, to help us do those things. And, and a lot of people are talking about AI and don’t have AI. And like, for example, in the chatbot world, right, which is—we’re very familiar with it. Most of the companies out there only have a decision tree bot, which is kind of like an IBR. And so—
ELIAS: We have the next generation of chat bots that are truly AI-based, right? That we train based on human conversations. So we can have this conversation well, “So how’s it going Jim?” “How’s it going?” “How’s everything?” “How’s everybody’s treating you?” “How is COVID?” “How is this?” “How’s your business?” “What is your biggest challenge today?” And then listen. And you get to tell me your problem instead of telling me your title and your budget and your number of employees in your company. And so that’s what decision tree bots can’t do. Right? They cannot have a conversation. In AI, the AI technology that Drift has can actually have a human conversation. So, that’s really the differentiation when I say in my field we’re like the leader in the space because of that, right? Because the advances that we have made—comparable to even large companies, even companies like IBM Watson doesn’t have that way. It’s still optimizing intent-based decision trees and not having a true download manager. That is event-based—that can do context switching like a human can. A lot of stuff coming. Very accessible.
JIM: So maybe a good lead in too—when you think about that from just to kind of the AI landscape, and then just from a kind of a sales and marketing perspective, and maybe bring those two things together, like, what do you think that next digital frontier looks like? Right? Like differences—and how buyers and sellers are going to engage going forward being different than it is today? Or any sort of innovation that you think of as being kind of, you know, whatever that next horizon is?
ELIAS: (laughing) It’s like-I would—I have, like, many answers to that, but I can’t share all of them. I would say, Drift is reinventing the entire space. Like, it’s like—what we have, like, what we are embedded in right now—we’re so deep into sales, right? And how we are talking to our buyers, that we are really re-envisioning the entire process, right, the entire experience. Just the way that we treat customers is completely broken, right? Like, we just send them emails, we don’t respond to them—we did a study, and like over half of them never responded. Only like, you know, 10-17% of them responded and under like, on the same day—under a couple of hours. The amount of effort that we are putting in our marketing teams and sales teams to set up these systems that we never even use, that are broken these systems—it’s like, let’s change that. Let’s use technology. Let’s use AI. Let’s simplify. We made it overly complex, there’s seven to 10,000 tools out there that people are buying from— every sales team, every marketing team, each buys between 50 to 100 tools for a company, and they’re trying to stitch all this stuff together. And this is actually very simple—Drift is starting to be that solution—that customer comes to your website we will route you and get you in front of the right person that needs to talk to you. And AI is going to be there to assist you along the way. And that’s kind of the way that we see it, how do we scale your organization to accelerate towards the revenue goals that you have?
JIM: Right. Do you think of—you mean, broadly speaking, do you think of AI more as like a utility versus the—
ELIAS: We see AI as a way to augment your company and your team to really work side by side and be able to enhance like the capabilities of a rep. Right? It’s like, let’s help reps do things before they have the meeting. Let’s do-let’s then—let’s help the reps after the meeting. And let’s do—help to the reps and the managers of like how to understand what’s happening at the entire—you know, at the team level. Right?
JIM: Right. It is interesting, as you might imagine this—you know, you go back however many, you know, five, six, seven years when, you know big data burst onto the scene. And everyone wanted to be a big data company before and then they want to be an AI company. It’s like what does that actually even mean? And at the end of the day, it’s a means to an end. It helps you—like you said, augment, it helps you facilitate and, you know, drive better scale and efficiency. But, at the end of the day, you have to be a something company that’s using AI or machine learning to create better outcomes.
ELIAS: So for example, like concrete solution, you buy a Drift today, right? It’s like, so, you know, companies have sales organizations. And the AEs, the account executives tend to be a really, you know, expensive employee, right, they make a lot of money. When you have those employees, you’re like—the way that the CRO’s think is like, we want to maximize their time in front of customers.
JIM: Right. And a sales rep and an AE has to do two things; they have to build a pipeline, and they have to close deals. Building a pipeline requires communication and development relationship nurturing relationships with buyers, right, to get them to the point that they’re engaged in the buying cycle. And so companies, CROs will hire—create SDR organizations, right? That this early, you know, soon to become AEs, right, are helping and assisting as to—to nurture the pipeline. And so one of the ways you do it is really by creating like an inbound SDR, for example, where they’re like, responding to every question—back to that store that had the closed doors, we are opening doors. And we’re saying you come by our store, and we’re going to say, “Here, how can I help you?” You’re looking to buy something, right? And so, how can I help you today? And so that process doesn’t scale. Because, you know, you might have, you know, 10 to 50 SDRs in your organization. But guess what, there’s this—humans have to sleep, right. And we see that you have—over half of your traffic on your website is coming at night. And even the traffic—those people that you have distributed takes time to hire them and takes time to ramp them up. And so you never have enough people to talk to every single visitor on your website. And so what Drift does is that we have the ability to create virtual SDRs that we put on your website, and they’re available 24-7, you know. And so when you ask a question on a website, do you want to wait 50 seconds, or do you want to wait one second to be helped?
ELIAS: But that’s how we provide an enhanced—we’re not you know, the SDRs are not going away because they have to train to become sales reps. But we are helping them—they can go to sleep, we work 24-7. Work geographically, work in multiple languages—so our large companies that are deploying our AI in other languages are saying “Okay, I can expand to Germany and Japan faster.” And Spain, and Latin America, when I don’t know yet the market and who I can train over there to build pipelines. So we’re helping them today.
JIM: That’s awesome. I mean, to use your, your Apple example, I agree with everything you said— I mean the way they lay out the store with their customer service, the whole kind of just atmosphere there is fantastic. What—as a consumer, what would make me what makes me reticent to go into the store is that there’s plenty of people who greet you who bring you in and kind of get you going. But there’s usually only one or two people who can actually solve your problem. And then you have to fix it—unless you’re just buying something quick, and then you’re out—but if you need a real fix, it takes a lot of time. Right? So to be able to kind of bring together that mentality on a—you know, on a digital plane, and not have to wait in that line, but be able to have that same kind of approach directly to me and meet me where I am. Like, you don’t need me to tell you, but it makes a ton of sense. So why don’t we—we’ll wrap up here, just have a couple quick questions for you. I guess, what you—based upon what you—you know, what you know now, going back to the very beginning of your kind of career arc—what would you recommend to you know, people trying to found companies and build companies today, right, in any space? Doesn’t have to be kind of specific there. But I guess, are there any kind of learnings from the road that you would you would pass on to the next founder who hopes to build a billion-dollar company?
ELIAS: Well, I think that our lives are—our battle is like, like a speck of dust in the universe, right? It’s like—it’s like we live for such a short amount of time. So we have this contradicting that dichotomy. Oh, you got to go live fast. You only live once you got you know, YOLO, etc. But on the other hand, our lives are long, right? It takes time to get experienced, right? To really understand all the things you need to do to be successful. So, when I talk to younger Drifters, and in their ambitions to start their own companies and to be successful—we always talk about it. And I think people have like a distorted time, view of time, right? It’s a tough thing. They have this compressed notion of like, whatever my journey is—so where I am, they think that well, like how do I get there faster? And I’m not moving fast enough. And so I think that it’s about learning patience, and understanding, or acceptance of the timescales, right? For example, there are no $10 billion companies that were built in less than 14, 15 years. Because every founder—or every $10 billion company was their first company they started?
JIM: Likely not.
ELIAS: The answer is no. And that—and did every founder of those $10 billion companies start when they were 19, or 21—they dropped out of college? They did that?
ELIAS: No. And so—but just, we don’t even have that education. So like, you know, I’m a big believer in role models. And say, like, role models teach me of what’s possible. And so I always want to have role models that are way ahead of where I am, right. And so, you know, in the same way, the role models is what helps us bring reality into this. When we don’t have role models, when we just look at an Instagram post or looked at a Facebook post or something on Twitter, we just see a headline that is click-batey as like, “$10 billion company success.” Snowflake, largest—you know, everybody is now worth, you know, $2 billion plus in that company or something like that. So okay, I want to build that. Well, it’s a—it just doesn’t work that way. The CEO, Frank Slootman, has been CEO three times. Has been extremely successful, and he has more gray hairs that you and I. He’s a professional CEO. And he’s been doing this for so many years. You know—I took 10 years at IBM working. You have to have failure, you have to try companies, you have to learn it takes time. Experience is what you get after you need it. It’s—you’re not going to have it. You can’t acquire it before that. And so I think that that’s really what’s in it. And you know, the average founder of a successful—some studies, and depending on how they rate them—are 42 years [old].
ELIAS: Yeah. And it goes up. And after that, it just gets better after 40 to like 45. I mean, it’s so—there’s a long road ahead. And there’s—in some ways, there’s no shortcuts, right? There’s—nothing is an overnight success. So that’s the biggest advice is to not be in a hurry. Right? Have urgency. But, understand that you got to learn so many different things. And it takes time to get there. So, just keep going. And if you persevere; if you’re persistent, you can get it. I think it’s—we’re living in the American dream, right? This is a great country. Despite everything that’s going on. It’s possible because it’s been possible for myself. And if it’s possible for me, it’s possible for 99% of this country.
JIM: Very well said I think. So, balance I guess is a key takeaway too of like you have to operate with urgency, you probably have to move fast, but it’s not going to happen overnight. And if you—if you’re too focused on quickening the pace, you’re going to burn yourself out and not realize it—anything great’s going to take you no time to get there.
ELIAS: Everything great’s going to take time and you’re not going to be able to understand what’s working and what’s not working. Because you’re going to think nothing is working. Right.
JIM: And very quick sidebar, I will just—because our listeners won’t be able to see us as you and I can see each other now as we record this—not a gray hair on your head whatsoever. Whereas I have more than a few. So we’ll leave it at that.
ELIAS: You’re wiser. You’re wiser.
JIM: Yeah, fair enough—we’ll go with that, for sure. You’re being kind. So, you started on a personal note—you talked about your journey, which is very inspiring and much appreciated. Ending on one and maybe a lighter note, I guess talk to us-tell the—I think the burning question our listeners want to know is what’s your favorite food? And any sort of, you know, kind of personal connection to it.
ELIAS: My, my favorite food? Um—
JIM: At lunchtime, no less. So you might be hungry and craving it?
ELIAS: No, no, I am actually—you know, growing up in my country, right? I have, you know—I have the food from my country that I grew up and I love. But you know, I have adapted—like we talked about it in the beginning. And I love so many foods. I love all foods, right? And I think that I have favorite dishes in almost every cuisine. And I enjoy learning how to cook them and how to eat them. So I think that I’m—I’m extremely flexible, right. And I love Asian food. I love Thai food. I love Chinese food. I love Italian food. I mean, I love everything. I—in fact, one of the recent things that I’ve been doing is, you know, in Cape Cod, in Boston, you know, eat a lot of seafood. You know, we make our own clambakes now, so I’m becoming like a true New Englander.
ELIAS: And the outdoors and just eating, you know, clams, corn, and all kinds of spices and lobsters and seafood is just a wonderful experience to share with friends and family. Especially in times like this. That we’re able to do it with friends sometimes, in a safe way, has been moments to cherish.
JIM: That’s fantastic. Well, that-there’s-you definitely—if you weren’t already, you’re definitely meant it as a New Englander when you go through a clambake. But, I agree there’s a communal aspect of that—family, friends. And it’s, it’s nice to hear kind of the—you know, the element of enjoying good food. But there’s something to be said about it—we’ve all got our favorite restaurants and little dives we go to but also just—you know, there’s something communal and I think familial about making it yourself too. And learning and, you know, picking up that culture. So that’s really awesome. So, appreciate that inside view into, you know, one of your side hobbies. But it’s been great talking to you again. If you’re joining us now you’ve missed out on a great podcast on—from Elias Torres from Drift and we thank you for joining us. It’s been a great pleasure.
ELIAS: Thank you for having me.
JIM: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Decoding the Journey here with The Bowdoin Group. Don’t forget to subscribe to and like our podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you stream. And subscribe to our blog at bowdoingroup.com for the latest episodes when they drop.
Do you know an incredible technology C-Suite leader who has a story to tell? Send an email to Jim Urquhart, Rachel Kohn, or Paul Manning if you have a suggestion for our next guest on “Decoding the Journey.”
About The Bowdoin Group
Founded in 1994, The Bowdoin Group is an award-winning executive search firm that specializes in leadership and strategic roles, recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) services, and major hiring projects for a wide range of companies, from small firms building out their executive team to larger firms sourcing talent for rapid market expansion. With deep expertise in BioPharma, Digital Health, FinTech, and Software & Technology, Bowdoin is a national leader with the ability to source talent and service companies globally. The company’s service reputation has earned it a ranking in the top 2% of the recruiting industry for client satisfaction year after year. The Bowdoin Group is also active in supporting the local entrepreneurial ecosystem as well as several non-profit causes, including Life Science Cares, NEVCA, Hack.Diversity, and FinTech Sandbox.