SaaS Superstars: Standouts of the SaaStock Startup Pitch Competition

by | Apr 29, 2021 | SaaS Founders

SaaS leaders from around the world gathered in Dublin in October of 2019 for the SaaStock Conference, with 4,000 people from more than 70 countries attending the three-day event. Their numbers included executives from more than 400 venture capital funds and upwards of 250 exhibitors. 

One of the highlights was the Global Final of the Startup Pitch Competition. Winners from events throughout the world flew to Dublin for the opportunity to pitch SaaS experts and venture capitalists. The goal was to find the best B2B SaaS startups of 2020. By the day of the final pitches, the nominees had been winnowed from 80 companies that pitched at Startup Day to the 24 that made it to the semi-finals to the four that made it to the Global Final. SaaStock says it wants to recognize “younger companies that are growing fast, as well as those that are changing the way we see SaaS.”  

The judges at the final pitch competition were Tom Jameson, a partner at the venture capital firm CMS who specializes in group reorganizations and mergers and acquisitions; Gianni Clifford, a senior product designer at the customer service software company Zendesk who focuses on strategic design; Goran Deak, the CEO of Top Digital, an online platform that connects companies with digital agencies; and Matthew Price, responsible for Oracle’s program for startups. 

This year’s finalists were Klaus, Harvestr, CrankWheel, and Watermelon. Swit, a semi-finalist, was the most successful startup in terms of the number of marketing qualified leads generated from the conference.  

This year’s winner was the Iceland-based company CrankWheel. Founded in 2015, the startup offers an easy way for sales reps to share their screen with a prospect while on a call. CrankWheel came to SaaStock as part of a program supported by the Icelandic government. Founder and CEO Jói Sigurdsson pitched CrankWheel and accepted the $25,000 prize. 

SaaS Mag spoke with leaders from each startup to learn about their experience at SaaStock and to get their advice for other SaaS founders and executives.  

Jói Sigurdsson, founder and CEO of CrankWheel

Jói Sigurdsson, founder and CEO of CrankWheel

Can you tell me a little bit about CrankWheel and how you started the company? 

We started the company back in 2015, myself and my cofounder, Gilsi Sigvaldason. His background is in sales. He’s been doing telesales and inside sales for 18 years now, and my background is technical. I worked at Google for 10 years, and I spent another 13 years in various startups, including CrankWheel, which is my only one at the moment. Sigvaldason and I went to primary school together a long, long time ago, and then we sort of lost touch for a couple of decades. When we reconnected, I had just left Google and decided to start a company of my own. I’d left with this fantastic startup idea in my head, which I realized, a few weeks after leaving Google, had already been done exactly the way I intended to do it! So maybe I should’ve realized that earlier . . .  

I was on the hunt for what I should do, and so we started brainstorming, Sigvaldason and I, about what was missing in sales, his industry.  We reinvented a lot of sales tools that are available, but then we got to the idea of CrankWheel, a screen-sharing solution that would let you enhance phone calls. Phone calls are the number one tool of salespeople, and if you can enhance that with a screen share, you can accelerate sales. Once we got onto that idea, I asked him why people didn’t use that in the type of sales that he was used to doing. He said, It’s just never done—it’s too clunky and too complicated to use the existing tools. So this is how CrankWheel was born, as a solution that would let you screen share to any prospect, regardless of how non-tech savvy that prospect is. 

Can you tell us about the part of the process from ideation to bringing the idea to life?  

We started with an idea, and we were drawing a product on paper that was wildly different from what CrankWheel is today. We started talking to a lot of people who were at the periphery of our networks, so people who worked in the type of organizations that we envisioned would want to use this kind of solution. We asked them if we could show them what we had, get their feedback, and see if they wanted to buy. We really approached each of these meetings as a sales meeting, even though we had no product at the time.  

Initially, we were just describing the idea. A couple of months later, we had a working prototype to show. We tried to listen as much as we could and talk as little as we could during these initial meetings with sales leaders so that we could hear what they needed in a tool. We found that the product we had designed initially was unnecessarily complicated, so we pared away features. We ended up with an extremely streamlined product that solves a very specific pain point for a pretty specific type of customer. 

SaaStock 2019 pitch competition

How did you then bring it to market?  

The very first customer was a local customer. We’re an Icelandic company, although only a small part of the team is actually in Iceland. We have people in the States and Canada and various parts of Europe. But the very first customers were Icelandic, a couple of companies in Iceland, and they are still customers today, four years later. But the first customers outside of Iceland—that snowball started after we went to a conference in Finland called Slush, which is a startup technology conference. 

Throughout the years, conferences have been one of our main ways to go to market, and it’s a channel that we try to scale as much as we can. Initially, we attended the broad startup conferences where innovative companies can meet larger companies, but over the years, we’ve progressed towards industry-specific and even vertical-specific conferences. 

You said some of your early customers are still customers. How do you nurture those relationships and those customers to retain them? 

Most of our best customers and the customers that we try to target today are at the type of organization where this kind of solution makes a huge difference to their business. It drastically accelerates their sales cycle, which just means more money more quickly for them. Once they’ve really adapted their sales process to build in the usage of CrankWheel, and maybe even made it a KPI, which many of our customers actually do, it’s very unlikely that they would leave. 

We do nurture them, though: We have a newsletter every week with topics that are intended for sales leaders and for salespeople on the floor. We also nurture by improving the product over time and letting customers know about the improvements, as well as actively listening to our existing customers when they have feature requests. If they tell us, “I’d love it if I could do this,” we try to figure out how we could enable that. 

Also, our pricing model is based on usage, not number of seats. We really like to tell our customers, “It can be a small start for you. You don’t have to take a lot of risk with us.” We love to see the product prove itself, and then over time, they’ll be using it more and paying us more, but they’ll be happy to do so. This has been a very nice model for us and for all of our larger accounts, which make up maybe 85% of our revenues. It’s actually led to what is called negative churn. Essentially, our accounts are expanding faster than any accounts are leaving. 

What did you set out to achieve when you got to SaaStock? 

Our primary focus was to find customers and potential partners. SaaS companies are one of the verticals where we have seen  success. Because we came in to the conference through a startup program, there was an opportunity to participate in the pitch competition. Initially, I wasn’t going to do it, but my cofounder, Sigvaldason, convinced me to. There’s an Icelandic saying that if you have a ticket, you have a chance. I decided to go ahead since we were already going to be there. I figured it would be great to get to the second round, to the semifinals, because I would be pitching on stage, which would give us some additional exposure. In the end, I got through all the way to the finals and won the finals. So that was a lot better than expected! 

What were you thinking as you kept progressing? Did you change your strategy or your presentation at all? 

Once you’ve spoken to enough customers and prospective customers and spent a lot of time trying to understand who is your very best type of customer, it gets a lot easier to pitch your startup. You really understand how you’re different and how you’re uniquely a good solution for these sales leaders and sales teams that are spending all day on the phone and want to accelerate sales. The core pitch was very much the same. 

But I like the way they structured the pitch competition because the first day, you had five minutes and you could use slides, and then the second day, you had two minutes and you could have one slide, and then the third day, you only had one minute plus you had sent the prerecorded one-minute video. I really had to create a whole new pitch for that second and third day. I had to distill the message down to, first, two minutes, and then only one minute, which was amazingly tough. 

CrankWheel co-founders Gilsi Sigvaldason (l) and Jói Sigurdsson (r)

Do you have any advice for other founders looking to advance their companies? 

I think what’s really helped CrankWheel through the years is to spend more time just listening to customers, speaking with them, forming relationships, really nurturing them and listening to their feedback on the product. Sometimes, you need to hear the same thing quite a few times before it actually makes its way into your brain and you realize what you have to do with the product to make it a better fit for that core group of customers. That would be my number one thing. 

Also, I think a lot of companies shy away from spending the money and the time on trade shows and conferences, but they can be a tremendously valuable way to both find customers and accelerate the conversations with prospective customers. If you can go to a trade show, and you can spend a day or two in constant conversation with people and companies in the industry, that’s a tremendously valuable way of accelerating your understanding of what they need, what their priorities are—and what they don’t need, which is very important to understand as well. You can simplify your product and bring it to market faster.  

Tell me about your company’s name, CrankWheel. 

That’s a question that comes up quite often. The short version of it is I like to ride a bicycle, and that is really where the name comes from. A crank wheel is an infrequently used term for what’s usually called the chain wheel, which is what you turn with your pedals. We’ve broken it up into two words to make it our own. The idea was to have a name that would show that it’s a simple but powerful tool. It’s a little bit industrial and a little bit of something that you would use every day. In the end, it comes from me, the founder, being a cycling fan! 

Martin Kõiva, co-founder and CEO of Klaus, a conversation review tool for customer support teams. 

Martin Kõiva, co-founder and CEO

What inspired you to start Klaus? 

I’m not a single cofounder—we are actually three people. But the other non-technical cofounder, Kair Käsper, and I have been doing stuff together for 20 years, from middle school, basically. And for this particular idea, it came from my previous job running customer support globally at a company called Pipedrive, a well-known SaaS company. 

The problem that I was faced with at that company was, How do you make sure that the quality of customer service is at a high level and also at an even level? The answer to that question was that you need to give lots of systematic feedback to your support team. You need to go back and read what kinds of answers they are giving to the customers. It’s kind of like the editorial process in writing, for example. If you first come up with a draft, then you share it with your editor, then you get feedback, and you learn. A similar dynamic happens in customer service as well, where customer service agents get feedback from their peers and seniors and managers. That’s all very easy in principle. But if you need to give feedback to, let’s say, 2,000 customer support agents and you need to do it 10,000 times per week, which is the case in many large organizations, then you would need a tool for it. Klaus is that tool. It integrates with your customer service help-desk solutions, and it gives you an interface for giving lots of feedback. 

What’s the experience like for clients? 

It’s essentially a communication tool for teams in a very specific manner. Let’s say that you use Google Docs to collaborate on a document, so you provide the content and the communication is between the users. Google Docs is the platform that facilitates that communication. Klaus facilitates a very specific type of communication, which means that a customer would sign up for Klaus and internally you would determine what the things are that you want to get feedback on and how do you want to do it, like do you build a scorecard or just give free-form comments to each other. 

Let’s say that you’re my manager and I’m your customer support agent. You would log onto Klaus. You would have a handy way to come up with a good representative sample of my support cases from last week. You wouldn’t need to be bothered about, “Oh, what am I going to give feedback on? Where am I going to find good examples and how I’m going to structure this and how am I  going to notify the agent about it?” Klaus does all of that for you. You still need to come up with the content, but Klaus just makes it really easy. It’s a platform for facilitating systematic feedback on a massive scale. 

How did your team build the technology for Klaus?  

You don’t get a whole lot of value from Klaus if you don’t use a modern help-desk solution—something like Zendesk or Intercom or Salesforce Service Cloud or Helpshift. We have about 15 integrations. That means we integrate with your help-desk application programming interface. We will pull in your customer support tickets and it stays in sync with your help desk. It’s a little bit like using Outlook for your email. Outlook is the tool, but it communicates with your email server, so it pulls in your emails from somewhere else. That’s basically how Klaus works as well. It is a user interface built purely for this feedback process. Zendesk, for example, is a great tool for having those conversations; everything is geared towards collaborating with the aim of communicating with the customer. Then on Klaus, it’s a little bit different. You’re still working with the same data, but it’s all about giving feedback on those interactions instead of actually having those interactions. 

This process of giving feedback on a regular basis to your team has so many benefits. It’s almost like asking, “What is the benefit of talking to your spouse?”  If you don’t do it then maybe you’re not actively aware of what you’re missing until something breaks. But if you start doing it, your eyes will open. You as a manager or a trainer or a peer will learn so much from it, and obviously the agent will get so much from it. They will start to feel like they’re learning something and developing. And the customer will be better off because of the better alignment of the customer service team, and the product team will get feedback from the customer service managers.  

If we’re talking about KPIs and results and customer satisfaction, that’s the obvious thing. But many of our customers already have a super high customer satisfaction rating—they are teams and companies that already are at the top of the heap anyway.  Here the added benefit comes from is retention and conversion and all the actual serious business metrics because it’s essentially about what benefits you get if you become better at talking to your customers. 

The Klaus team: “Your people are your biggest asset,” says CEO Martin Kõiva

What are three key takeaways that other entrepreneurs should know to improve their own customer support experience?

They’re all kind of simplistic and maybe clichéd, but sometimes the big things are. The first one is hiring. I’m not a big believer in putting up barriers. The current trend in the industry is just a race towards automating everything and using chatbots as much as possible and pretending to be human while actually implementing all these solutions that take the human away from the interaction. But I would argue that only very few companies can actually afford to do it, and that would be a case where you have such a massive scale, where there are just so many inbound requests that you can’t handle them.   Your people are your biggest asset. If you hire well, if you have people who are capable of change and you pay them a decent salary, then that will be better than anything else. Having a very high human quality in the service organization, that’s by a long shot the biggest factor in having great quality in customer service.  

The second one would obviously be what we do, which is feedback—so, giving systematic feedback to your agents. If you have these great people, but they don’t know what “good” is supposed to be, then you’re not going to get the results that you want. There needs to be this feedback loop.   It’s the same as any other department. If you have great people in marketing or sales or engineering, but they don’t hear from you as a manager on where they’re supposed to be going or how they’re supposed to be performing, then they’re not going to deliver the desired result. That continuous feedback, I think, is a crucial, crucial thing. And you don’t need tools to do it in the beginning at all. In fact, in a small team, you can just do it in the form of a meeting, and that’s how we started as well. When I was at Pipedrive, we just sat in the room, pulled a few samples of each other’s work, and said, “Oh, I think you did a great job here, and here you could’ve said this other thing.”   Third, I would say, Don’t make things too complicated. Because, if you make things too complicated right away, you’re going to lose your way. Nowadays, in customer service, you have such a vast number of tools that you can use and metrics to follow and channels and ways to communicate with your customer. It’s very easy to get lost. It’s very easy to start using everything, all the channels, all the metrics, everything, all at once. Then your attention, which is inevitably limited, will be split among the million different things.   

Some of the best decisions when I was running customer service was where we stopped using something. For example, our resources were spread very thin among different channels, so when we decided to phase out phone support, everything else just got so much better, overnight basically, because all of a sudden we were focusing on the channels that we knew worked, and we weren’t spread too thin. Before, we were spread so thin that we couldn’t possibly excel at all different channels. But once we cut one channel that wasn’t really working for us, then we were able to become better at the ones that were left. The same goes for metrics. If you focus on 15 different KPIs, then that is no focus at all. 

What was the SaaStock competition experience like? And what advice would you give to other founders who are thinking of pitching in competitions? 

The most important thing is to recognize what your goal is. We weren’t there because we were trying to win at all costs. We were there mostly to get attention and to get our name out. If you look at it from that perspective, then it makes it easier to decide what you will include in your pitch and what you won’t. In our case, I tried to approach it from the angle that I was speaking more to the wider audience and not to the judges. 

Klaus co-founders Martin Kõiva (l) and Kair Käsper (r)

How did you come up with the name Klaus? 

That’s an interesting story. We actually used to have a different name. We were called Qualitista, which was supposed to be the words “quality” and “barista” put together, but unfortunately, nobody could spell it! It was a little bit too clever. When we raised our last round of financing, we decided we should change it to something that people can spell and pronounce. We have a cat for a logo, and Klaus was what we called the cat internally. When we had to come up with a new name, it was like, “Yep, it has to be Klaus.” 

How did you and your cofounders meet?  

I have two cofounders who were former product managers. They have been building products for years. They realized that there was no appropriate tool to help them build the right products for their customers. They were using spreadsheets or Jira boards, which were not really suited for their work—understanding the needs of customers, understanding the features that they should build for their customers. They were missing this tool, and they were struggling with the existing solutions. 

Valentin Huang, co-founder and CEO of Harvestr, a product management tool that collects customer feedback and data 

Valentin Huang, co-founder and CEO of Harvestr

What inspired you to start Harvestr?  

We decided to build Harvestr as a tool for product use — specially made for product teams to help them build the right features at the right time by understanding the needs of their customers. We realized that there were tools for salespeople, tools for marketing people, and for developers also. But we saw that there was no real tool for product users and for the people that we call product managers.  

How did you meet your cofounders?  

I met them at school. My two cofounders have more of a technical and product background than I do. I was bringing more sales and marketing skills. I was finishing business school and they, as engineers, were doing masters degrees in this business school, HEC Paris. It’s actually the number one business school in Europe. And that’s where we met, during our last year.  

What is the Harvestr experience like for a client? 

Our customers can subscribe directly on our website to use the platform. It’s a self-service platform because we address product teams. They expect the product to be very easy to use, and it’s very straightforward to sign up and start using Harvestr. Our customers can create an account and then plug their CRM tool, their support system, like Zendesk or Intercom, into Harvestr in just a few minutes. And then they start aggregating all the feedback that they get from their customers in the different tools and systems and start seeing priorities emerge, and they start understanding what they should build to make their customers happier. Of course, we also help them quite proactively during the onboarding. We help them organize their project inside of our tools, we help them understand the value of the tool, and we have a whole success management side of the onboarding. They always have someone they can talk to to make sure that they are onboarded quickly and that they can get the most out of the platform. Then they can invite their team and start using Harvestr as a team. 

What are some of the results that clients have seen so far?  

The KPIs where we help our customers are quite various. First, it’s a lot of helping product teams be more efficient and save time in their workflows and processes. We estimate that by using Harvestr, teams and one product manager can save around five hours per week compared to the previous situation. This time is saved in the work that product teams do when they manage customer feedback, when they do all their discovery and research work. We also measure that we can help our clients reduce up to 50% of the support tickets they get, which is a great timesaver for support teams. A better product basically means less work for the support team. That’s a second impact we have. The third impact is that clients are losing about half of the feedback that they’re getting that never make it to the product—we help them recover that.  

Harvestr performed very well at SaaStock

What are three pieces of production management advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs? 

I think the first one would be, Talk to your customers. What we see is that, the smaller a company is, the easier it is to talk with customers. That’s what founders usually do a lot in the beginning. But the more the company grows, the more customers you have, and the more teams you have, the more the product is actually separated from customers. Which is, of course, dangerous  because it’s really in your customers that you will find the truth of how to improve your product.  

The second piece of advice, which is actually linked to the first, is when a customer is asking for a feature, always ask, “Why?” Try to understand the underlying need and not just implement the feature because a customer asks you to do so. The role of a product manager is to understand the customer’s problems and the underlying problems and not just to implement ready-made solutions. 

And the third piece of advice would be, Implement processes and the right tools as soon as possible. The product is one of the key success factors of a company, so you need to be really efficient and relevant in the way you build your product. The sooner you put the right processes and tools in place, the faster you will also grow, and the better the experience will be for your customers. 

Tell me a little bit about the SaaStock competition. What would you say to other founders thinking about doing a similar pitch 

Prepare for the pitch and prepare as if you were actually going to the final because, of course, when you first come to the competition, it’s more of a secondary priority usually because you are there more to meet people and for business opportunities. I think what really helped us is to prepare for it seriously. The pitch is a difficult exercise—you cannot improvise. And everything needs to be thoughtful and really ready for the time when you will be pitching. 

 Do you have any tips on preparing and how to tell your brand’s story?  

 First is to think about the message that you want to insist on during the pitch. There can be different things you want to say, but there needs to be one, two, or three really important things that you want to say during the pitch, and not more. Make sure you can build a story around these messages. And once you’re clear on that, make sure you practice a lot.  

Co-founders Valentin Berthomier, Jeremy Cahen and Valentin Huang

How did you come up with the name Harvestr? 

It actually comes from “to harvest,” which is linked to the fact that we are harvesting customer data from various tools and systems to make them available for the product teams, which can then leverage them to understand the needs of the customers. 

What additional advice you would give to other SaaS founders as they’re building their technology and scaling their companies? 

The most important thing is determination. Always stay confident and determined in what you’re doing, and never abandon your ideas and your convictions along the way because you’re going to face many difficulties. I think determination is something that’s really critical—whatever you’re doing, whatever your project is. I think that determination, for an entrepreneur and especially a SaaS entrepreneur, is critical. 

Then: Ship the first version of your product, and then ship features as fast as possible. It’s really in the first months and years that you need to iterate quickly on your product. It’s critical to have this product velocity, especially in the beginning.   

And next: Think about the markets very early as well, even when you don’t have a product. Think about who your customers are going to be. Think about if the market needs your solution. Is the market ready to pay for it? That’s all very critical, even when you don’t have a product yet. 

What’s your philosophy on creating a minimum viable product? What did the first version of Harvestr look like versus what it looks like now? 

The first version was really simple. It was actually an inbox, like an email inbox where product managers and their teams and the companies could send feedback. Then in this feedback inbox, they had a very simple system to categorize feedback. So that’s how it all began. The minimum viable product was to show this very first value proposition to our customers and understand if it was already solving their problem. We had to build more on top of that to sell even more products. In a way, it’s still a part of our product today.  

You’ve raised funding, but before that did you bootstrap the company?  

 We raised $650,000—our very first seed round—with private investors here in France. And yes, before that we bootstrapped. 

What advice do you have for other founders who are raising funding?   

Because it’s also a pitch, prepare.  Because it’s usually the CEO who is responsible for doing it, make sure that you as a CEO are focused on this when you’re doing it and put the rest as a secondary priority. It can take a lot of time and energy, so the more focused you are, the better will be.   

Josh Lee, founder and CEO of Swit, a collaboration and project management tool 

Josh Lee, founder and CEO of Swit

What is Swit and how did you start it? 

This isn’t my first startup. My previous two startups were successfully acquired in Seoul, South Korea. I’ve been learning and working in the enterprise SaaS industry for the last 10 years. Enterprise companies had the need to make their employees work more efficiently with cross-functional teams, company-wide. We found a suite to bring everything they need to get things done together. We built a new category—we named it “enterprise collaboration,” not just team collaboration. 

Was there a specific point when you realized that collaboration was the piece that was missing? 

Often, people in a company have to use multiple apps because there is no company-wide team collaboration app available. The design team must use their design team methodology-based software and the development team has to use development team methodology-based software. Every team has their preference. 

How big is the Swit team? Are your staff all based in one office or are they in multiple locations? 

At the moment we are a team of 45, in three different locations. San Francisco is our headquarters and San Jose is our marketing office and Seoul, Korea, is our research and development office and remote team. 

How did you determine that you wanted to be at SaaStockAnd what happened after that?  

We generated the most qualified leads at SaaStock, even though we are a very small startup.  And 91% of the people who saw our demo were then registered in our private beta testing for the last year. And then 41% of the registered users were converted into daily active users. 

We released our official version last March. And since then we have been growing in revenue, in daily active users. We saw when we released our private beta, 91% were converted to registered users. We had to pay for lots of technical data to build a very solid product and meet the high standard of users. For the duration of beta-testing last year, we didn’t have any mobile apps. We just released our mobile apps eight months ago.  

Swit at SaaStock

Swit’s logo and some of the videos seem playfulCould you talk about what you want people to take away from the brand?  

The Swit name is an abbreviation for “Start Working in Teams” or “Stay Working in Teams.” We say we can make your team collaboration a little bit sweeter. This is a full-suite platform to have everything you need in one place. The logo and the name mean communication and collaboration in one convenient place.  

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