🎯 Attio x Strategy Breakdowns (with founder Nicolas Sharp)

Asking the tough questions

Read time: 9 minutes 22 seconds

‘Content’ is our ‘Product’ at Strategy Breakdowns, and we’re borderline obsessed with experimenting, iterating, and improving the product experience each week.

One of the experiments that’s working well is interviews. The ‘interview’ is a timeless content format that allows us to resolve speculations with stories.

But interviews also come with downsides, from the perspective of the reader:

  • Context: If you don’t have context on the company the interviewee represents, it’s less interesting.

  • Questions: The success of the interview depends on the calibre of the questions. As a reader you don’t get to ask the specific questions you’d most like to hear the interviewee answer.

  • Format: The best video and audio conversations make you feel like a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ to a moment you wouldn’t otherwise experience. That feeling doesn’t translate well to written interviews.

This email is a humble attempt to solve these aspects.

Here are the Release Notes for today’s edition version (v0.1.43):

  1. Context: Our first piece on Attio explored their product strategy, and how they are attacking a legacy software category through contemporary product philosophy. Consider today’s article ‘Part 2’ - a follow-up that zooms in on a handful of curly strategy questions.

Attio’s product strategy, but compressed down to a few scribbles.

  1. Questions: In Part 1, we asked the questions. In Part 2, you asked the questions. A few weeks ago we included a sneaky callout to submit any burning questions for Nicolas Sharp, and that’s what he’s answering today. We’re nicknaming this a ‘Reader Mailbag’ interview.

Pro-tip I wish I learned earlier: Always read (and write) a PS. All the best stuff happens in the PS.

  1. Format: The first time we published a DM interview format, it kinda blew up (our tiny corner of) the internet. We’re doubling down here to capture that ‘fly-on-the-wall’ essence that written interviews often miss.

Seriously, this was both a valuable signal and a wonderful moment. So thank you for all the thoughts!

Feedback tremendously appreciated, as always.

Tom

10 questions with Attio founder Nicolas Sharp

Breakdown

The how: The strategic playbook boiled down to a few DMs

Tom

Ok - we have loads of questions submitted by Strategy Breakdowns readers, and we’ve hand-picked the most compelling ~10.

Fair warning, the aim is to make this a truly unique and transparent, hot-seat style Q&A, specifically for the strategy nerds, so some of these are a little spicy!

No easy layups today, folks are after the tough answers and the behind-the-scenes secrets.

Let’s go straight into it with q1:

CRM was one of the first ever ‘owned’ categories in SaaS. What made you think you could attack that market?

9:11 PM ✓

Nick

Love it - excited for this!

So the initial thing we saw was there was just a very big divergence in the quality expectations of software with the new companies and the old companies in CRM. So the fact that it's such a big old market is one of the reasons it was appealing.

9:16 PM ✓

Nick

In newer markets, you have lots of new companies that are building very, very modern products. But in CRM, we just didn't feel like that was the case. You look at the market and you're like, “wow, this is software people use every single day, and it doesn't look like the other software they use every single day”. And that was what initially interested us.

9:17 PM ✓

Tom

Saturation is a real thing for sticky core platforms like CRM. How is Attio thinking about the opportunity space within CRM market itself, and the pool of potential CRM customers/users?

9:22 PM ✓

Nick

The CRM market is growing and one of the things that we're trying to do with Attio is expand. CRM should be a tool that's used by everyone in a company, and it should really be about managing a customer's entire lifecycle, of which the sales aspect of that lifecycle is extremely important. But given modern sales motions and customer life cycles, it's less simple than just a transaction.

That complexity means that CRM is more important than ever and it's also reaching into more parts of business than ever. So our hope with Attio is that it expands the market by being more necessary and useful across more parts of the business.

CRM penetration into businesses is pretty high, but the question is what value the CRM provides those businesses. This is where we can make a really big dent.

9:28 PM ✓

Tom

Why push for brand marketing so much when you are at an early stage?

9:31 PM ✓

Nick

Ultimately, it comes back to why we thought we could build a CRM. It's because what's out there is really lacklustre and legacy, and brand marketing is one way we can make people realise that we are not that.

We are also in a market which we would classify as a “why us” market, so we’ll have to sell the value proposition of our particular one. This is closely tied with brand marketing because it creates a signal that can differentiate us from the rest of the market.

9:38 PM ✓

Tom

This reader loves how you’ve “managed to balance product design and data enrichment”. Those usually sit at opposite ends of the spectrum of a company culture.

How exactly did you do that? Is it in the culture? Hiring? Principles you’ve set? Did you start with data enrichment as the priority, or design?

9:43 PM ✓

Nick

It's actually all of those things. When we built Attio, we started with the data engine and enrichment - whether it is demographic information sourced from publicly available sources, proprietary information held by our customers in their communications, etc.

That's the genesis of the product so it was very foundational to the way the product was designed.

We hired very specifically for what we call ‘product engineers’ rather than software engineers. The intention there is that who we hire should first and foremost care about the end product that they're shipping. Second to that, as part of being able to deliver on a better product, they have to be good software engineers. So that's implicit in the fact that we have to deliver a good product.

9:49 PM ✓

Nick

Culturally, we have incredibly strong design principles adhered to by designers, PM’s, and engineers. Some people might say that we're an engineering-led company, but we actually would say that we're more of a design-led company where engineering is a huge part of that identity. Design really is both form and function, and data enrichment in this example, is a key part of function.

9:52 PM ✓

Tom

Legacy CRMs are often seen as overcomplicated. Beyond just design principles, what are some specific tactics/ideas you’re leveraging to ensure Attio remains simple for users?

9:54 PM ✓

Nick

Beyond design principles, we think of everything in terms of systems.

What that allows us to do is to keep the number of systems that we have to the smallest set possible to deliver on the features in an uncompromising way. By thinking about everything in reusable systems and subsystems, we can reduce a lot of the complexity.

Many products just keep on bolting things on, or acquire lots of companies and then try to integrate them. This way they’ll end up with lots of very similar subsystems and patterns. We fight very hard against that. What this means is that when we're building something new, we're often thinking about what this might power in the future.

9:57 PM ✓

Nick

A really small example of this is our notetaker. When we built that note-taking capability, we knew that we were going to do email composition. We also knew that we were going to do drafts, templates, and comments, so rich text input would be something that would be ubiquitous across different parts of the app.

When we build those, we don’t just build note-taking and then start again to build email-sending; we will build a rich text framework that we can use internally. What that means is that when we went to build email sending, we were really building a very small amount of functionality around it. But the actual email composition, formatting, etc. was using this framework we'd already built.

From our perspective, that makes things easy to maintain; from the user's perspective, it massively reduces complexity and learning curve because the process of writing an email or a note works in the same way.

While that's a small example, if you do that across the whole app, you can start to distill it down to a small group of important components, patterns and systems that then can be remixed and composed to make features.

10:04 PM ✓

Nick

Even on a bigger scale, the way we handle any kind of data or state in Attio, again, uses the same subsystem. It uses what we call ‘Particle’. Whether you're creating a task or a contact under the hood, the data model that stores those things is the same.

And again, that provides an amazing experience for the user because you get all of the same benefits and UX across all of those different elements.

10:07 PM ✓

Tom

What is the one element of Attio that has you most excited about the future of the product?

10:08 PM ✓

Nick

What we’re most excited about is what we're doing with LLMs, because it has the potential to solve one of the biggest multiple decade old problems with CRMs - which is that the data is not up to date fundamentally and they require a lot of manual maintenance.

I think we are very close to a point where that won't be the case anymore so we’re very excited about this future where you log into a CRM and it's just correct.

10:11 PM ✓

Tom

Where do you think AI can make CRMs better, and where has it gone too far into novelty territory?

10:13 PM ✓

Nick

There's loads of novelty, but that's to be expected whenever there's a new technology. We're just learning how it works, what the paradigms are.

There are lots of things which won't survive or will be very different in the future, but there's equally lots of things that are happening that we think are really exciting and are very much at the new normal.

10:19 PM ✓

Nick

The point of the CRM is to create records for the messy interactions that humans are having out in the world for management, reporting, and to take further action in the future.

What AI, or specifically LLMs, allow us to do is capture that messy human interaction and then put it into a format that is easily digestible by humans. That's a really exciting element.

10:21 PM ✓

Tom

Other CRM challenger brands are popping up - what do you see as Attio's main strategic advantage?

10:24 PM ✓

Nick

There are some great companies in the space and we have a lot of respect for what they're doing. But we've got a very unique approach, which makes us the strongest product where people really want to build powerful systems.

The way we’ve designed Attio - it’s very easy to use out of the box and you can get value within minutes. But we also don't want that value to stop as your company gets more sophisticated and as you want to build more.

Attio is extremely powerful and this is where we've pulled ahead of the rest of the market. Through both the power and scalability that a product like Attio can offer, and the fact that it’ll increasingly become more integrated with the ecosystem.

So now we have customers that have literally millions of records in Attio and run millions of very sophisticated automations and it really is not a problem at all. That’s really the strength of the product that we’re building.

10:27 PM ✓

Tom

Why do you think now is the right time go after the CRM space, specifically with ‘innovation’ at the heart of your strategy (often a notoriously difficult wedge)?

10:29 PM ✓

Nick

It’s actually because of a few reasons. One is that people's expectations of what software can deliver has massively changed since the incumbent platforms were built. Those were built as systems of record that you would manually put things into.

They are now so old that they can’t change even when people’s expectations of software are changing. And if you can’t change what that looks like in your product, then someone else is going to do it for you.

10:35 PM ✓

Nick

So when a generation of hyper horizontal software came along and showed us how flexible software can be - we’re talking about Notion and Airtable - they really shaped the software industry in many ways.

This means there is a clear understanding amongst a lot of people that if you applied the philosophy of flexibility, power, and of ‘building a toolkit’ to the slightly narrower domain of CRM, you could get 90% of the way out of the box. And this was really the initial catalyst that got people excited about what a next generation CRM could be.

Of course, more recently we’ve had this LLM revolution which again has widened the gap between incumbents and what’s possible even further. That has sparked another round of excitement for this space.

10:36 PM ✓

Tom

I’m going to sneak in one final question I’ve been curious about, so thanks for indulging me here: what’s a tempting opportunity that Attio is deliberately ~not~ going after? Why?

10:41 PM ✓

Nick

CRM is full of these opportunities because they’re the most horizontal products and they end up being just huge feature checkboxes. You go to the feature list of any CRM and there are thousands on there, so there are so many tempting opportunities in that regard.

But what we've done is that we've created a set of product principles at Attio, which means there’s a pretty clear decision framework for us to use when we decide what to build. As much as possible we try to build features that are applicable to more than just one particular problem so they can be used again to add to the toolkit of things that Attio can do. So we really think about the sort of the core systems and how we can improve those rather than adding new ones.

An example of this might be that someone might want a very specific feature like, they want a Slack notification when a deal has gone stale for more than seven weeks. We could build that as a feature but then someone would say they want a Slack notification when they’ve won more than ten deals in a month. So you can start building all of these and get very complicated.

What we try and do is take all of this feedback, recognise that there are a lot of requests of Slack messages of varying types, and build a Slack message block in Automations which allows them to build any notification they want.

And that's how we think about things. We try to bring the problems those features/opportunities would solve, and we try to add them to what we have in our core systems to deliver on the problem that the customer has. And sometimes that ends up being these big bets that we need to take to build new systems.

Again, when we do that, we try to not go after one tempting opportunity but try to open up a whole new capability for our customers.

10:50 PM ✓

Tom

That’s all for now! Thanks for doing this 🙏 

10:41 PM ✓

Nick

Thanks for having me!

I’ve got a fun idea for Part 3 if you’re interested

10:50 PM ✓

Nick is typing…

Rabbit Hole

The where: 3x high-signal resources to learn more

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