The city of Zurich does not exactly scream "disruption." Alfresco lunches, beautiful mountain views, afternoon swims in the lake: this is not Mountain View we're talking about. Time and time again, Zurich has been deemed the city with the best quality of life in the country with the highest wealth per adult in the world. And the trains are always on time.
Did I mention that a regular workday there involves going to the lake with your colleagues, stripping down and going for a swim?
Of course, Zurich did not get to this point without putting in some work. The crown jewel of Switzerland's educational establishment, ETH Zurich, is based there. It's currently ranked the fifth best in the world in engineering, science and technology: Einstein taught there, if that tells you anything.
This is the world from which Thomas Steinacher hails.
Steinacher, now 25, is co-founder and CTO at Close.io, a full-service sales app trying to carve out space in a market dominated by Salesforce and other startups, and doing a pretty good job of it.
Growing up about a three hour drive from CERN, the birthplace of the Internet, you might say it was meant to be. He began writing code as a kid, designing websites with scripts so complex they'd crash browsers. He was obsessed with technologies and with learning new things, and not just in tech: a trained concert pianist, he took second prize at the National Youth Music Competition of Switzerland.
At 19, though, he won a Young European Scientist Award for building a multi-touchscreen and coding the software to match.
IBM took an interest in his creation and wanted to buy it for use as a medical technology, and they wanted to hire Thomas too-fresh out of high school. But Thomas turned them down to attend ETH Zurich, where he studied-duh-computer science.
While there, he co-founded Pigeon Apps Inc. with Flavio Rump, where he built two applications taking advantage of Twitter and Facebook's social sharing capabilities. Venturekick, a Swiss private fund, donated $32,000 to the company, which made it to 1.9 million registered accounts.
Then came Steinacher's first pivot: he left Switzerland for Mountain View, where he helped develop an internal sales communication platform for Elastic, a consulting firm combining software and manpower to allow other companies to outsource their sales operations. Within a year, they were making millions of dollars a year for their partners.
Internally, Steinacher was churning out tools one after the other, each uniquely suited to solve the problems that existed in sales-as-software.
TaskTiger, for instance, which has just been released to the public, was designed to facilitate more efficient task processing with features not seen in other kinds of task queues. Quotequail and flask-mongorest, two tools to help developers build email and web applications, have been used by hundreds.
Then there was ciso8601. Almost every piece of software out there needs to handle dates and convert them from a human-readable format to one storable by a machine: the Python programming language has an inbuilt capacity for this. However, Steinacher realized that the conventional protocols for conversion were simply too slow to give Elastic a real competitive edge, and so he set about optimizing the routine. In the end, he rewrote it in C and made it 97x faster than the next best alternative.
With all of this work going on behind the scenes to make Elastic's sales processes more efficient and powerful, it didn't take long for Steinacher and the team to realize that their "secret sauce," the key to their ability to optimize sales, was quickly becoming more interesting than Elastic itself.
Hence, Close.io: A fully-integrated sales application with minimal data entry, maximum customer communication, and the fastest, most distraction-free experience.
A couple factors made Steinacher and the Elastic team the best group to take this on: they had salespeople and engineers for founders, they had a wide variety of test cases available to them through their clients, and they knew exactly what they were doing.
"A startup should never again fail because of a lack of sales expertise. We work with startups that have great technology and cutting edge products but don't have the know-how or capabilities to put a big sales force out on the streets to sell it."
Let's call it the internal pivot. It's something that Steinacher and his team pulled off to amazing effect-twice.
"You begin by building something, and that's good. You have to start somewhere. But along the way, you run into a problem, and maybe it's a problem that everyone who's doing something in a certain field is having. You can be short-sighted and solve it only for yourself. Or you can try to solve it for everyone."
The premise that underlies the idea of Close.io is simple-more sales in less time. Everything about Close.io is optimized around this goal, rather than, say, trying to sell you expensive upgrades just to make the software do things it should already be doing.
There are plenty of companies in the CRM market and elsewhere that innovate on something small in order to steal a small niche of customers away from the big players. That's not what Steinacher and the team at Close.io are doing. They're innovating on the foundational level, building something that can benefit just about every sales team out there.
And one reason that I think they're going to succeed is because of Steinacher's customer-first ethos. They didn't come into this market to make money or show off some flashy features. They came in because they needed a simpler piece of software that would help their salespeople make more sales.
But that is, of course, what every company wants.
Salesforce come to the fore as the first cloud-based CRM out there, but in many ways it's stuck, still riding off that initial innovation. Nowadays, their technology is everywhere, ubiquitous. This is an industry ripe for new management, and Close.io is looking like the hottest contender.