Episode 13

How Growth Stage Software Companies Can Set the Right Price

Accrue Founder Ammanuel Selameab shares interesting insights on pricing products and services in this episode of Rise of the Next.
Ammanuel Selameab

Picture courtesy of Accrue

Shereen Abdulla

Podcast Host

Published

03.06.22

Ammanuel Selameab worked for more than a decade as a pricing expert at various companies, including Carta, Gap and Cargill, before founding Accrue in 2020. He realized that companies lack the right tools when it comes to pricing their products–one of the most consequential business decisions. Set your price too high, and you can lose customers; set it too low, and you can lose revenue. 

More than anything, pricing tends to be a process, and it’s important to get it right, especially for growth stage companies that are at an inflection point and building a sales team, says Ammanuel. He joins us on Rise of the Next for some fascinating insights. 

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TRANSCRIPT

Shereen Abdulla 

Ammanuel, thank you so much for hopping on the show. I would love for you to introduce yourself and also introduce what Accrue does.

Ammanuel Selameab   

Yeah, for sure. Super excited to be here. Proud 500 Startups portfolio company.

Shereen Abdulla  

500 Global now, actually.

AMMANUEL’S BACKGROUND

Ammanuel Selameab  

500 Global, yeah. Proud to be part of the 500 Global family. 500 took a shot on a kid from Minnesota. I was born in Ethiopia, we moved to Minnesota when I was two or three. [I] grew up in Minnesota [and] always had a drive and passion for entrepreneurship. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to start a company. So, about five or six years ago, I moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, and wow, what a culture shock that was, in a lot of different ways. I just thought to myself, “I want to build a technology company and the best way of doing it is just to be in Silicon Valley.” My belief at the time was, do scary things in life and good things will happen. So, I moved out, didn’t know a soul, didn’t know any VCs, but just had this chip on my shoulder and this determination to make it. Five years later, I was accepted into 500, and the journey for Accrue began. 

My entire background has been exclusively in pricing. Pricing and monetization decisions are critical; they are existential. They have an outsize impact on your survival as a company, on your growth as a company. And yet, for a lot of teams, over my 11-12 years or so in pricing, they don’t have very good tools for making decisions. They, basically, resort to guessing and then hoping it works out — copying what competitors do or hiring consultants who come in and pull data and then tell them a bunch of stuff they already know, and then charge him a lot of money for it. So, I saw this gap in the market to give teams tools to do pricing science to make more scientific decisions on their pricing and packaging and monetizing. So, I formed Accrue a couple years of ago to do that.

HOW 500 GLOBAL HELPED AMMANUEL WITH ACCRUE

Shereen Abdulla  

Ammanuel, you mentioned that you had the idea to create a better way of pricing and therefore wanted to build Accrue, and then you also mentioned that 500 Global helped you along that journey. I’m wondering if you could elaborate on your journey with 500 and how they helped you set it up?

Ammanuel Selameab  

I absolutely would not be here without being a member of 500 — to be backed by 500. It’s helped not only the business, but me, my own personal, professional development. There’s just so much about starting a company/ scaling a company that you don’t know, as a first-time founder. You can do it the hard way, which is [to] go and try to figure out a bunch of stuff on your own and then make a ton of mistakes, or you can partner, if you’re lucky, with an investor like 500. Being part of the accelerator, which I think it was — now a couple [of] years ago — was game-changing.

HOW AMMANUEL CAME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR ACCRUE

Shereen Abdulla  

You mentioned that you actually came from a background of pricing for a living; so, what was the aha moment? How would you actually come up with the idea for creating a pricing tool as a business?

Ammanuel Selameab  

It was actually a funny story. I was back in Minnesota, I was texting a friend of mine — I remember I was in a Chick-fil-A parking lot, I don’t know why, it has nothing to do with the story, but I just remember I had my second Chick-fil-A sandwich and I’m like, “This is gross, I need to stop eating Chick-fil-A.” It was actually my friend, at the time, he was just talking about how, “Man, startups have no idea how to price, they are just completely guessing.” I’ve spent my entire career doing pricing; and, I think, when you’ve spent your whole career doing something, you just assume it’s easy for everyone else. If you’ve developed the skill or an ability in something that you have a blindness to, “Oh, it’s actually difficult for other people.”

There’s a great book called Made to Stick and there’s an idea of the curse of knowledge. When you learn something, you forget what it’s like to not know that thing. And so, that was an aha moment, mid-bite in this super healthy sandwich — wow, okay, teams really don’t know what they’re doing.

Shereen Abdulla 

Not all teams. I mean, the company you were working for would have realized that, “Hey, we need a pricing expert,” and had hired you.

Ammanuel Selameab  

Yeah, you’re absolutely right. The solution for a lot of companies is to hire someone like me. I lead pricing at Carta, prior to starting Accrue. Pricing is a ubiquitous problem, it’s not just an early-stage problem, it’s a growth-stage problem, it’s an enterprise problem. The problems change the fact that teams have to rely on external consultants or hiring a pricing team — and I’m not disparaging hiring a pricing team, but those price teams themselves don’t have very good tools. They manage pricing and spreadsheets; they have frameworks, but they don’t really have software to help them do what they do.

APPROACHES TO PRICING

Shereen Abdulla 

So, what did you do back when you were doing pricing, prior to having founded Accrue? Were you using Excel or did you have a more sophisticated SaaS subscription?

Ammanuel Selameab 

You had to build your own homegrown tools. Yeah, Excel was a big part of it, a big part of — surprising, you would think that as — when you’re working on pricing projects, so let’s say you’re asked to price a new product. As a pricing professional, you have a bunch of frameworks and tools and best practices to go do it. But, you would think that on a project like that, most of your time is spent doing pricing stuff; but, really, the vast majority of your job is just pulling data, building Excel models, testing those models, pulling more data, merging multiple data sources. Actually, 70/80% of your job is working in Excel and other visualization tools to help you understand the data. A very small percent of your job is actually the creative thinking, the problem solving, and so and so forth. If you think about SaaS, as an example, SaaS is a pricing innovation. Instead of, back in the day, having to just buy software outright on a perpetual license, I [had to] pay the $10,000 to buy software. Someone said, “Ah, if we priced this differently as a subscription service, this would help spread — there’ll be a greater proliferation of software, and more people will have access to it.” And so, SaaS was born. That kind of innovation is what you want pricers to think about. How do we think creatively about monetizing pricing, not pulling data and building models?

HOW DOES ACCRUE WORK

Shereen Abdulla 

So, how exactly is Accrue a better tool to do it? [Does it] help people whose jobs it is to look into pricing, or even companies who don’t have the means of hiring dedicated pricing resources, to be able to price properly?

Ammanuel Selameab

You want us to tell you our secret sauce?

Shereen Abdulla 

Yes. What are your algorithms? All your IP. *laughs*

Ammanuel Selameab 

The long and short of it is — to answer any pricing question we’re not sure how to price a new product, we’re not sure what packages or bundles we want, we’re not sure if we’re charging on the right metric. Should it be a per-seat basis or pe-send? They all boil down to really a question of understanding your customers’ price sensitivity. 

I remember, back in economics class, you have a demand curve and the higher you raise the price, the less people want to buy. There’s actually a right price on that curve where you’re maximizing the revenue that you can generate from your customers. You price too high, and you’re going to lose business. You price too low, you’ll get more business, but at crappy prices. So, there’s a sweet spot in between those extremes. Understanding that is price sensitivity. It turns out, if you have a way of measuring for anything you’re looking to sell, the price sensitivity of your customers, then you can price to do whatever you want.

Shereen Abdulla 

And the people who you ask this question to, are on the client side? Do they often know the answer? And are they expected to know the answer, or is this where you help them determine the answer?

Ammanuel Selameab 

It’s a great question. I mean, it varies. Some people do, and some people have no idea. When they say that they do I double click into that — tell me what the maximum price of your prospects are. It turns out, there is actually a price that’s too low. If you priced too low, people question the quality or the value of what you’re offering. Your hunch and intuition [are] great [places] to start; but, unless you can show me numbers, then I don’t believe you. So, most companies — no, actually, they don’t. When you actually click into what information they have, what data they have, they don’t. They actually don’t know what the price sensitivity of their market is.

ACCRUE’S TARGET CUSTOMERS

Shereen Abdulla 

Now, there are so many products out there in the market, what industries — and let’s say, products — would you say Accrue knows best, so that you can advise accurately in those areas? What I’m trying to get at is who do you target as customers?

Ammanuel Selameab 

We focus on growth-stage software companies, for a number of reasons. I guess I’ll talk about the stage first. Really, early-stage companies tend to not have a lot of data. What they really need are benchmarks. They need a set of reasonable hypotheses that they can start testing with their market. If nothing else, I get on a call with early-stage founders,and I just give them framework and tooling. I’ll buy them a couple of books and give them the tools to do it; but, a lot of the price discovery that they need to do, they need to go pitch people and collect data and all that.

Enterprise companies — we made a decision to not support right now because of the complexity of the sales cycle. The number of people that need to sign off, that’s a whole separate animal to support at a later stage.

So, growth-stage companies — we found through a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation — we can help the most, because they get to an inflection point where they’re transitioning from a founder-led sale to a sales team. That early-stage sales team is largely managing their things in Excel. They’re building quotes in Excel, they don’t really understand, exactly, the price sensitivity of their customers, and someone realizes, “Crap, if we want to continue growing, you can not continue being/ operating in spreadsheets and just this duct-taped sales process.”

I don’t think people recognize the challenges in their business as pricing problems, at first. The symptoms are, “Hey, we’re not getting the upsells or upgrades that we want. We don’t have the —.” I think, when you get to Series A, Series B, and the grown-ups, the VCs, are more actively involved and the expectations go up on your ARR growth and your payback period, and all those core metrics, founders like to look at their numbers and go, “Oh, crap, we actually don’t have the revenue expansion that we need,” or, “Our ARR is slowing down,” or, “Our payback period is forever. It’s taking forever to break even from any of our customers.” And the ones that go home, of all the things that we could — the leverage, we could pull here — I think, actually, pricing might be contributing to some of these problems. They don’t know exactly how and why, but then they go, “Maybe we should talk to a pricing consultant.”

HOW USING ACCRUE DIFFERS FROM WORKING WITH CONSULTANTS

Shereen Abdulla 

What would be the difference that a growth-stage SaaS company would experience in improvements in their pricing — or rather, even their approach to pricing — when they go to a traditional pricing consultant, as you’ve alluded that they may go to, as opposed to coming to you and coming to Accrue?

Ammanuel Selameab 

So, what a typical consultant does — and I don’t rag on people for using consultants, there are some really talented consultants out there, and I know a lot of them in the world of pricing. We all go to the same nerd pricing conventions; we all just get in a circle and pat ourselves on the back about how smart we are. It’s awesome. A typical consult will come in — you have a discrete problem, let’s say, you’re not getting the renewals that you want. And so you’re like, “I don’t know anything about pricing. So, reasonably, I’m going to go find someone who knows something about pricing.” So, a pricing consultant will come in, they’ll pull some data, maybe they’ll interview some people, maybe they’ll read some studies, they’ll build a deck for you, come back, and they’ll be, “The right answer is 10 bucks. Charge 10 bucks and your renewals will go up.” And then the company goes, “Cool.” And then, the consultant just disappears into the night. They just get a deck, and then you’re on your own again.

So, what invariably happens is that you’re not — the company, they’re not pricing experts, so they go try something, and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, and then they’re back on their own again. So, it’s kind of a one-off effort and exercise. What teams really need is ongoing support — give me a recommendation, but then, help me get to the outcome that I’m after. So, when we work with companies, we will pull the data and produce the same recommendation, a better recommendation, because we’re using better data and the whole thing is automated — we generate recommendations based on what you’re trying to accomplish. And then, that’s the start of the journey. We come back to you, we size the prize, tell you what to do, and then your reps go, “Try this new idea.” At the end of the quarter, we sit down, we pull the data and we go, “Here’s what worked and here’s what didn’t.” Either we moved closer to that goal, or we moved away from it. And so, we’ve learned something — either we’ve made progress, or we’ve learned something — and we iterate again. We go quarter-over-quarter of running effective experiments until we get you to where you need to be.

Shereen Abdulla  

You mentioned every quarter, which effectively means you would need to give a recommendation a three-month’s shot and then evaluate whether it’s worked or not, before iterating further.

Ammanuel Selameab  

Exactly. And some companies are more comfortable on a bi-annual basis. But, from a pricing methodology standpoint, that’s the best quality data you’re going to get, [it’s] from your market. To go run it — to make an actual offer to people and see what happens. And you have to measure not just the net result, but was it really pricing or was it some other confounding variable? Was it that we just introduced new sales training this quarter and people were able to sell the value more effectively? Or, maybe a competitor changed something? So, you can’t just look at the number quarter-over-quarter, you have to run this statistical analysis. That’s the sign of the science bit of it — is to say, “Okay, we changed this one variable, what is the effect on this other variable that we’re after?”

If you think — different context — but, if you think about consumer brands like Amazon or Uber, they’re running hundreds of pricing experiments every single day. They are constantly saying, “Hey, on your route to City Center in SF, what if, between six and seven, we ticked up prices by a dollar — what happens?” They take down prices, they’re running these experiments continuously because they know that’s the only way of figuring out the price sensitivity of their market. 

B2B is obviously totally different, you don’t have the same volume of deals; but, you can still take this exact same framework of continuous experimentation and use a tool — shameless plug, like Accrue — to automate that work for you. So, you don’t have to do any of that work yourself, but then you’ll converge on whatever answer you don’t. So, that’s why, in essence, you don’t need a consultant. It’s helpful, it’s going to be better than guessing. But, what you really need is that motion of testing things in the market and seeing what happens. And, the results are astounding. That’s why I’m so — think, “Why the hell have I spent my whole career in pricing? What a boring subject!” But, the exciting part is when you start seeing these lifts. You start running experiments and you’re like, “Crap, we’re at 150% net retention,” or, “Man, we just doubled revenue.” Or, you eventually arrive at these really exciting outcomes after a lot of hard work and you’re like, “Geez, of all the things that you could do to increase growth, pricing is the most accessible.” You don’t have to spend a bunch of money on R&D, you don’t have to go hire a whole sales team, or invest in sales training, you just change the numbers and see what happens. You’re unlocking growth instantaneously, which is why I’m so passionate about this space. And yes, that is the primary defense to get it, circling back to your original question.

THE MARKET OPPORTUNITY FOR ACCRUE

Shereen Abdulla  

You mentioned a few things that I want to pick up on, and one was mentioning Amazon. Now, you made the case earlier why you saw an opportunity working with growth stage SaaS companies — given that you also touched on how Amazon would go about pricing, the challenges they face, and their approach, I’m wondering, at large, what are the industries that grapple with pricing more than others?

Ammanuel Selameab  

That’s a very interesting question. I would say, industries or products that are not pricing-adjacent. So, marketing products or sales products. They have an intuition that pricing is somewhat related to what they’re doing, so they have — it’s on their radar. But, if you’re selling healthcare software, you’re not probably a go-to-market person. You’re not probably thinking about pricing as something in this constellation of things for your consideration — hardware, or other things where your product focus might be [like] engineering, or healthcare, or pharmaceuticals, or whatever. You’re not really a go-to-market person, so you don’t really think of price as something worth considering. You probably think of price as being, “Oh, I’ll just figure out what the cost of the thing is and then we’ll tack on a margin.” Or, “We’ll just look at competitors and figure out what our competitors are doing and then just, I guess, price lower, or higher, or something. I don’t know.”

I think products that are more like sales, tech, or marketing tech, especially — marketing folks, tend to have an easier time with this because they — marketing, as an example, where pricing is one of the four P’s, have a connection or affinity to this problem. I would say, another way of looking at this would be the availability of data. So, if you’re in an industry where it’s hard to collect data on your customers. There’s a whole wave now of PLG of —

Shereen Abdulla

What does PLG mean?

Ammanuel Selameab 

Product-lead-growth. It’s basically — the branding of PLG is that, instead of having salespeople sell your stuff, have your product sell itself.  You have a pricing page that people can opt into. They don’t need to ever talk to someone, they just pull out their credit card. Maybe there’s a free version upfront, so you don’t pay anything and you get to try the product out for free. Calendly is a good example of a PLG company. You then — or Zoom. There’s a whole wave, or base, of people who use Zoom and never pay for it. But then, the idea is, you get addicted to the product and then you go to a higher plan — I don’t want 40 minutes. So, that’s the sense in which a product sells itself.

Shereen Abdulla  

Given that accessibility of data is a strong factor, in the world of B2B SaaS where Accrue operates, what data does your pricing algorithm account for?

Ammanuel Selameab  

You want just the full —

Shereen Abdulla 

The sauce. All the ingredients, all the herbs —

Ammanuel Selameab  

That’s funny. I mean, we have a set of data connectors today, data sources we pull in, and that list continues to grow over time. So, primarily, we pull data directly from a customer’s CRM. So, salesforce. And out of salesforce, we’ll look at all the historical deals that, the who those deals are sold to, which seller sold them, etc. We supplement that data with external data sources, like Zoom info, so we can tell, actually, more about a customer. And as — in the future, will we are going to integrate with product usage, get product usage data in so we can look at your customers buy this. But then, they actually use this.

ACCRUE’S SCALABILITY

Shereen Abdulla 

Now, in the way that you, at least in my opinion, seem to be differentiating Accrue from pricing tools that others provide, it seems that you guys are very hands-on. And I wonder, then, how scalable Accrue is?

Ammanuel Selameab 

Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s actually a lot more scalable than you think. Here’s the dirty secret about consultants. They have a list of 20 things that they look for. So, they work with a customer and they have a checklist of 20 signals we look for. Turns out, that list of 20, you can automate. And that’s what we’re doing. That analysis, it’s the same analysis you’re doing on every single customer. You’re looking for the same 20 signals.

AMMANUEL SHARES AN ACCRUE CUSTOMER STORY

Shereen Abdulla 

You did, as well earlier, mention that you see results. I’m wondering if you have any examples you can share of companies where your help and pricing led them to increase — let’s say, revenue. You don’t need to mention the companies by name, but a few examples would be good to illustrate the impact.

Ammanuel Selameab  

We worked with a FinTech company that was really struggling with their — well, a number of different issues, but one of the big ones was their net dollar retention. Net dollar retention is — all this jargon that SaaS has, it’s so funny.

Shereen Abdulla 

I was about to ask you to please explain that jargon.

Ammanuel Selameab 

We all try to make ourselves look smarter than we actually are. The simple definition is, how much revenue are you getting from the same customers? If I buy a subscription to a software and then, a year later, I’m adding additional seats, you’ve now made more money on me as a customer. On the same customer, you’re able to generate more revenue. Really successful SaaS companies can continue growing revenue without ever adding new customers.

AMMANUEL ON CHALLENGES

Shereen Abdulla 

Now, are all results rosy, or are there some far-more-rosy results? And to that matter, actually, I’m curious, what have been some of the challenges Accrue has faced?

Ammanuel Selameab 

I mean, not just Accrue, but my own career. When you run experiments, a lot of them don’t work. So, a lot of teams think that the way to win more logos is to slash prices. So, they will plummet in price, thinking that that is the one thing that is preventing them from getting more logos. And so, we’ll run an experiment around — we can try it, but I don’t think that that’s the problem, and you see the revenue tank. Price is one of the things that typical buyers do, and it’s a very important, obvious, aspect of a purchase decision. But, there are lots of reasons why people don’t buy. They may not just trust you. They may not believe the product can actually help them. There might be a better option for them. I mean, any number of things — the price is always the scapegoat. So, there are a lot of instances where I’ve run experiments and they’ve just absolutely tanked. But, there’s no other way through it other than to try stuff out, run the analysis, and see whether it worked or didn’t.

From an Accrue standpoint, a lot of the challenge, to date, has been figuring out where we want to play — the classic problem of product-market fit of who wants us the most. When I started the company, because I’d spent my whole career in this space, I knew pricing. It didn’t matter what the stage was, or industry, everybody sucks at pricing. But, that’s a huge — every business everywhere sets prices. So, where do we go first? We can’t be — try to serve everyone.

So, in the early days, it was just a lot of getting ignored, getting ghosted. People are not really caring. It’s not only the stage of the company but also the role. And then, you hit those people that are really excited about what you’re doing, and then you’re, “Cool, I’m home.” It took us — it wasn’t obvious that growth-stage companies are where we needed to play. That took a lot of — and then, within is who do we talk to? Who cares the most about pricing here?

Shereen Abdulla 

Ammanuel, I’m curious, on that note, as a pricing expert yourself, how hard or easy was it to — then, in the end — price your own product?

Ammanuel Selameab 

Easy, we just used Accrue! I mean, we really — we use our own product. I don’t know how else I would — I would have to go back and build reports, and it’d be an absolute nightmare. I mean, I’m building the product that I have always wanted to use and it’s a cash machine, it’s so exciting! I mean, not only is it just the financial impact that I can see with ourselves but the peace of mind and certainty about what you’re doing. There’s so much anxiety — you don’t want to lose a deal to a price you don’t want or leave money on the table. And there’s just a lot of stress and anxiety that people experience without — again, shameless plug — a tool like Accrue.

Shereen Abdulla 

So, I got to ask then, Ammanuel, and perhaps as a closing question — thinking of, let’s say, revenue optimization and price being one lever to get customers, would you ever consider extending what Accrue offers beyond a pricing tool to help customers look at various facets of what it takes to get customers?

AMMANUEL ON EXPANDING ACCRUE’S OFFERING

Ammanuel Selameab 

There’s a lot, yeah. I thought about just the ideal lead scoring for STRs. If you had a list of your leads, and you knew which one had the highest willingness to pay, that would be very valuable for you to guide your prospecting efforts. Not waste time on people that actually have no money to pay you. Or, sales enablement — a lot of the problem that reps experience around pricing is being able to speak to value, being able to defend the price, to say why this price has the clear ROI or value. They just get scared, they just discount and hemorrhage money. So, there are a lot of other use cases. I don’t know, from a product standpoint if we will attack those. I think we can partner with folks in those areas and give them data and support. But. you never know. We’ll see what the future holds.

Shereen Abdulla 

Ammanuel, thank you for your time, I had a really good conversation.

Ammanuel Selameab

I’m glad.

 

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Shereen Abdulla

Podcast Host

Shereen Abdulla has more than 12 years of experience in innovation management and entrepreneurship in the financial and tech industries. She has helped foster startup ecosystems across the Middle East to bring together founders, investors, corporations and government entities, and consulted on corporate innovation. Shereen holds a BSc from the London School of Economics and an Executive MSc from Columbia University.

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