Startup Stories: TinderBox’s co-founder on starting a company based on solving a common enterprise pain-point, and the importance of company culture to success

By Editor May 15, 2013
Dustin Sapp, TinderBox

Editor’s Note: This is a Q&A series that features entrepreneurs and leaders who have successfully guided their startups to maturity. It is meant to complement StartUp Beat’s coverage of early-stage startups and an effort to provide further insight into the experiences of entrepreneurs.

A Q&A with Dustin Sapp, co-founder and president of TinderBox—a software solution for sales and marketing teams that accelerates the customer acquisition process. The company’s platform allows collaboration on presentations, proposals and other sales content, the tracking of real-time prospect activity, and the continuous refinement of an enterprise’s most effective content. The cloud-based platform blends brand consistency and sales efficiency for long-term revenue growth. TinderBox was founded in 2009 and is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Dustin Sapp, TinderBoxSUB: What was your first entrepreneurial venture?

Sapp: I started my first company, NoInk Communications, with several classmates in 2000. We built mobile sales and logistics software for medical device and pharmaceutical companies and had the chance to work with some of the largest medical companies in the world. We sold NoInk in 2004 to Everypath out of Silicon Valley.

SUB: What prompted you to start TinderBox in the first place?

Sapp: As a founding team, we had all experienced the pain associated with managing proposals and contracts in our own businesses. They’re time-consuming to build, difficult to share and manage, and almost impossible to track. Surprisingly, there had been little-to-no innovation to streamline sales content, so we decided to build a solution that we would want to use in our own companies.

SUB: Was there a point at which you knew TinderBox would hit it big?

Sapp: Our original goal was to create a solution that would drive value in the companies that we’d been involved in. When we shared the initial version of the product with other local companies in Indianapolis, we were overwhelmed with feedback and requests to purchase the service. Within 100 days of conceiving the idea, we were generating revenue.

SUB: Was there a ‘tipping point’ (for lack of a better term) when TinderBox really picked up steam and where it started growing exponentially?

Sapp: We’ve been fortunate to experience increased subscription revenue every month since we launched in January 2010. The market has continued to mature since, and mid-2012 is when it really began to ripen. The number of prospects contacting us increased, analysts began paying attention to the space, and we continued to grow our team and a satisfied client base.

SUB: What were the first steps you took to establishing TinderBox?

Sapp: Once we identified the problem, the very first element we focused on was designing the TinderBox experience for our end users and their clients.

The only way we can maximize value for our customers is to drive adoption within their organizations, and to help reduce the friction in their sales process. By designing the user experience before writing a single line of code, we put the highest premium possible on driving that adoption.

SUB: If you had it to do over again, what would the first concrete step to establishing TinderBox have been?

Sapp: We’ve seen a great deal of success and opportunity as a result of our focus on user experience. It has been proven how important it is to put the customer first. It paid off for our product and company, so I can’t imagine changing the first step that we took.

SUB: What were the most significant obstacles to growing TinderBox to maturity?

Sapp: Educating a young market is always a risk for companies with new, innovative solutions. We still live in a business world where PDF, Word and Excel documents are the norm, and we’re disrupting a market that hasn’t changed in decades. Because the market is so large—five million non-retail sales reps in the U.S. alone—we must be deliberate in not trying to serve every vertical and business model. Knowing when to say ‘no’ is a lot harder than knowing when to say ‘yes.’

SUB: What kinds of outside funding have you raised?

Sapp: We bootstrapped the company from idea to revenue. Since then we’ve received investments from local Angel investors and investment groups like Gravity Ventures and HALO Capital Group. We were the first company outside of Silicon Valley to secure financing through FundersClub, the world’s first online venture capital platform, during our last raise. In addition, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation granted us just over $1.4 million in conditional tax credits and training grants based on our job creation plans.

SUB: What was the metric/milestone that indicated to you that TinderBox had moved past startup stage?

Sapp: As a private company, we don’t disclose specific revenue or growth metrics. That said, our growth has taken off since the beginning of 2012. We’ve tripled revenue and increased in team size by 400 percent.

SUB: What were the most important lessons you learned about entrepreneurship while building TinderBox?

Sapp: You can’t underestimate the impact company culture has on your team’s performance, and it’s surprising what affects that culture. It’s obvious that things like hiring ‘A players’ are important, but how you part ways with an employee can have a much longer-lasting impact. The personalities you bring onto your Board of Directors, how you choose to handle customer service, and the ways that you opt to celebrate success and recognize failure all play major roles in the definition of that culture. One of the most important things a founder or CEO can do is act deliberately and proactively in defining the culture and avoid becoming guilty of making poorly thought out minor decisions; all decisions have impact.

As president of TinderBox, Dustin is responsible for technology strategy and day-to-day management of the business. TinderBox is the third company Dustin has helped start in Indianapolis. Prior to TinderBox, Dustin served as co-founder and president of Vontoo, leading operations and product development. Before that, Dustin co-founded NoInk Communications and served as director of professional services before its 2004 sale to Silicon Valley-based Everypath.