Building a Great Business Means More Than Just Building a Great Product
February 14, 2012

Bob Tinker is CEO of MobileIron, the innovator in enterprise management and security for mobile devices and apps. Positioned in the Leaders Quadrant of Gartner, Inc.’s Magic Quadrant for Mobile Device Management Software 2011, MobileIron is an NVP-backed company that is solving the problems CIOs face as business data and applications move to smartphones and tablets.

We recently sat down with Bob Tinker to discuss his thoughts on what it takes to build a standalone, profitable business, and what he learned from his customers early on that changed the direction of the company.

When you were first starting MobileIron, what were the top things on which you focused as a CEO?

Ruthlessly listening to customers was the first step. We spent six months talking to customers before we wrote a single line of code or raised a dollar of venture capital. This was critical because there are many technologies out there in search of a market or a value proposition. By talking to customers, you can truly understand their pain and determine what the right solution to this pain is.

Figuring out how to make money was step two. I prefer a business where you sell something valuable to your customer and they give you money–nice and simple. If the value chain is too complex and you have to worry about your solution being monetized through a third party (for example) and you rely on multiple parties getting involved in order to make the sale, you could also end up four steps removed from your customer.

What did you learn from your customers that changed MobileIron’s product and company direction?

When getting out there and speaking with the users of your product/solution, it is important to listen to what their challenges are today, as well as predict what their challenges are going to be in the future.  If you look at today’s wildly successful companies, they all skated to where the puck will be, and not necessarily where the puck is. This is when I think you can find your “Gretzky moments.”

One of our Gretzky moments was the realization that BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) was going to be an enormous shift in the market, so we built our solution from the beginning specifically for BYOD. Our second Gretzky moment was when our customers gave us the idea to build a mobile enterprise app storefront. Some of our more progressive customers were struggling with how to get these new mobile apps distributed to employees. They kept asking themselves, “I can do this in the consumer world, why can’t I do this at work?” That is when we put the mobile enterprise app storefront idea into action and it has been well received.

When it comes to making money, it seems pretty clear how to do it with a product for corporate IT. What are the factors that are not obvious?

Once you’ve figured out your product, it’s important to determine how you are going to sell it. If you can’t convince your salesperson that they can sell this product and be successful, you’re certainly not going to be able to convince the customer.

The Silicon Valley startup ecosystem talks a lot about the market, the pain, value proposition, product development and then sales execution. However, the thing that doesn’t come up until the very end is cost of sales. You can have a great product that’s profitable and that customers will pay for, but if you can’t afford to sell it, you don’t have a business–you just have a product. That’s the hidden reason why some highly successful companies end up deciding to sell themselves as opposed to building standalone businesses.

What are some ways you get people to rally around improving sales efficiency and what core metrics do you pay attention to?

Whether you’re an enterprise or a consumer company, you need to have a passion for how to make your customers successful.  The core metrics we pay attention to at MobileIron are three-fold: renewals, NPS (Net Promoter Score) and paying close attention to cost of sales. Renewals help us to very quickly understand how our customers truly feel about our product. The nice thing about this is that follow-on orders and renewals also have great cost of sales. Embracing NPS is also critical for us. NPS gives you a metric to measure how happy your customers are, and how likely they are to recommend your products to someone else.  This can also shed light on the areas for improvement or things that aren’t working that need to be addressed. Lastly, understanding how you get cost productive sales over time is critical if you want to build a high growth business.

What was the most challenging situation MobileIron has faced to date?

Some of the darkest moments in a company take place when you lose a big customer. The lesson I’ve learned over time is, don’t shy away or give up when you lose a significant deal—It can often be one of the best learning and rallying opportunities for your company.

Very early on in the life of MobileIron, we lost a really big deal in the pharmaceutical industry.  We used it as a learning opportunity. We continued to work with the customer to understand why we lost the deal and what we could have done better. Then, we created a rallying cry at MobileIron to do whatever we needed to do to win this customer back, and it became this mantra for 60 days… How do we fix the things we needed to fix, how do we fill the gaps that we need to fill and how do we go back and win this customer?

Two quarters later, we won back the business, and it is now one of our lighthouse customers. I talk to the team a lot about “learning from your losses.” Losses are not only great teaching moments, but also key opportunities to rally the troops.

What was one of the most important lessons you learned early on as a start-up CEO?

I’ve learned quite a few lessons over the years. In an early stage company, one of the big tricks is figuring out what you don’t do. This means having the courage to say no to certain opportunities that might be significant, but are beyond the scope of what is actually the priority. It is really important to ask yourself, “If we do this work to win this customer, will the result be something that other customers will use? Are we putting too much time and resources into an extremely customized solution that can’t be replicated for multiple customers?” Those two questions are a really good test.

I’ve also learned that hiring the right sales leader who knows how to build a sales machine is paramount to the business. You need to hire the right sales leader and constantly reinforce to the company that you’re building a sales and marketing-oriented culture. This allows you to be nimble and flexible in the face of changes in the market.

How do you know you’re onto more than just a successful product, but a successful business?

I think the ultimate test is the “crowdsource business test.” When other companies start to build a business on the back of your business–when they really start putting the capital, time and sweat equity into it– that means you’re on to something.  This applies in any market–our market, the software sector, web services, you name it. Let’s take eBay for example. What makes eBay so powerful is that people have built businesses on the back of eBay. eBay has enabled an entire economy of people to build businesses. If you look at SAP, what made it so powerful? Entire consulting firms built practices on the back of SAP.  Look at the iPhone– people are building businesses on the back of it by building mobile apps. When this happens, it is the ultimate compliment that you’re on to a real business, but it’s also a big responsibility.

What advice can you share that you wish someone had told you earlier?

It’s really important to be intellectually honest. However, unless you look into the mirror frequently you don’t actually learn or get any better. When you are no longer being intellectually honest, it puts you in a position where you are probably going to start making the wrong decisions.  Intellectual honesty requires trust. As you add new people to your organization, you have to be able to create a safe place where it’s okay to talk about what’s not going well.

Another piece of advice is sit down as a founding team at the very early stages of building your company, talk about the kind of culture you want to instill and write it down. The very first meeting we had as a company was centered around, “what kind of culture do we want to have at MobileIron?”  The following five key themes are still up on the wall at our company today:

1)     We, and our customers, win together

2)     Intellectual honesty

3)     Individual accountability (we later amended it to say, “individual accountability to each other”)

4)     Be smart and intense

5)     Frugality

Defining these five principles is probably one of the best things we ever did—and it still feels like us today.

You really have to be humble and hungry in this business.  Ego is the ultimate enemy of leadership and success.  Whenever ego gets into the equation, it’s all downhill from there.

You really have to be prepared for the highest highs and lowest lows when you start a company. The ups and downs associated with building a company are wild—but it’s all a part of the thrill… and I wouldn’t change it for anything.


Bob Tinker, Chief Executive Officer, MobileIron

Before MobileIron, Bob led the Business Development team for Cisco’s wireless business units, a combined $1B business. As a member of the executive staff, he was responsible for driving long term revenue growth and expanding Cisco’s wireless initiatives to laptops and smartphones. Before Cisco, Bob was the first business executive at enterprise wireless pioneer Airespace, where he was Vice President of Business Development. Cisco acquired Airespace in 2005. Bob’s previous roles include Director of Marketing at Vertical Networks and Vice President at NationsBank, with oversight of IT, sales, product management, and operations.

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