Inside a SaaS Startup: Marc Bernstein of Balto

We had a great time catching up with one of our talented entrepreneurs, Marc Bernstein, CEO and Founder of Balto, the #1 real-time guidance for contact centers. Marc founded Balto in 2017 after noticing that he kept making the same costly mistakes on his phone calls, like talking too much, not asking enough questions, and forgetting to set next steps. Marc quickly realized that post-call analysis and coaching alone weren’t working. He knew that there had to be a better way to help him say the right things at the right time. 

Marc shares his thoughts on what it’s like to start and run a Software as a Service (SaaS) startup and his tips for entrepreneurs who are building a SaaS company.

How did you decide to start a SaaS company?

It started with the pain: forgetting the right things to say on my phone calls. I remember the distinct feeling – everyone in sales or customer service has felt it – where your whole body tenses up and your face starts to feel flush after totally screwing up a call. I was spending so much time learning sales – reading, listening to call recordings, coaching – but still making preventable and expensive mistakes. 

I actually created an Excel macro to try to solve this (I could write VBA code, but not much else). When I typed a keyword into the macro, like “pricing”, it would pull up my pricing table and pricing talking points. After a few iterations, I was able to ping Google’s speech API to transcribe a snippet of the call and automatically populate the macro. This was the beginning of Balto. As they say, “The rest is history”. 

What is Balto and what products and services do you provide?

Balto, powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), listens to both sides of a conversation and shows agents the best things to say, live on every call. On the back end, managers get immediate insight into what’s working and what’s not. With those insights, they can roll out top-performing behaviors to all other agents at the push of a button.

For contact centers, that means closing more revenue than humanly possible, converting your customers into raving fans, and not having to worry about compliance lawsuits for saying the “wrong” things. Agents can embrace every call with confidence knowing that Balto will be there to coach them through it instead of relying on post-call analytics to tell them what they did wrong after the fact.

What’s your favorite part of working at a startup?

A startup is one of the truest forms of meritocracy out there. Smart, kind, hard-working people get recognized. There are no “levels”, bureaucracy, or massive chains of command preventing you from making an impact. You’re empowered to have a good idea, talk to your team about it, and then go make it happen. Everything is green space.

The startup meritocracy can be an incredible catalyst for people’s personal growth, professional growth, and career growth. Opportunities that are typically only open to people who are more advanced in their careers are open to anyone who can execute on them. A startup gives you the room to progress as far as your skills and work ethic allow.

What’s the hardest part about working in a startup?

As your startup grows, your relationships inside the company need to change. These changes are happening constantly and at a breakneck pace. The implication is that you can develop an awesome working relationship with someone at one stage of the company, only to need a totally different relationship with that individual six months later. For those who are highly adaptive, self-aware, humble, and open-minded, these changes are easier, but still not easy. For someone without those traits, it often means the company’s growth can outpace the individual’s, which is a recipe for conflict.

Needing to constantly “reset” your working relationships can be a lot of fun – as the startup is pushing everyone to grow as fast as possible – but it also paves the way for many difficult conversations and painful decisions. 

What challenges do you believe are unique to SaaS startups vs others?

In non-SaaS businesses, customer retention is a luxury. In SaaS, it’s a necessity. In non-SaaS businesses, repeat purchases are icing on the cake. In SaaS, repeat purchases are your lifeline. 

The importance of customer retention in SaaS puts a ton of pressure on implementation and customer success functions. This can be good because it aligns incentives to treat your customers like your business depends on it, but it can also be pretty damn stressful. One disappointed customer can rile up the entire team.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs working in the world of SaaS?

Don’t be afraid to do potentially unscalable things to create an incredible product and delight your customers. Entrepreneurs worry about scale way too much and way too early. Scaling is a gradual process, not a single flashpoint, and certainly not the starting point. 

Meet every one of your early customers face-to-face (even if virtually). Overspend to deliver an unmatched customer experience. Prove results to your customers again, and again, and again. Go over the top to fix your customers’ product or service issues. It’s all so worth it!

Check out Sierra Ventures Managing Partner Tim Guleri’s blog post that details Why Sierra Ventures Invested in Balto.

Are you building a SaaS startup? Check out these Tips for SaaS Startups.

Learn more about What Investors are Looking for in SaaS Businesses.

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