Interview with Brent Frei (Smartsheet)
Smartsheet is an online project management and collaboration application that helps users manage tasks, responsibilities and documents.
I interviewed Brent Frei, Smartsheet Executive Chairman and Co-Founder to find out more. This is the hundred and eighth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Brent!
How would you describe Smartsheet in under 60 words?
Smartsheet is a widely useful cloud app for planning, tracking, collaborating, and getting work done everyday. It looks like a spreadsheet, which makes it easy for teams throughout the company to use, but also features file sharing, project management and workflow capabilities. It’s a foundational online business application for SMBs and large enterprises alike.
How would you describe yourself in one sentence.
What made you decide to startup on Smartsheet?
It was the confluence of two things that kept bugging me. The first came from my own experience managing large teams at Onyx for 10 years. I was never able to get a good solution for work management and tracking for the entire organization to standardize on. And secondly, there’s isn’t a killer app created for managing work projects and processes — and there hasn’t been over the past 25 years.
While spreadsheets had become the defacto answer for this challenge, they ran out of functionality fairly quickly when it came to teams working together, automating processes, and leveraging the power of the cloud. I wondered if the real answer might be to just “fix the spreadsheet” so it included the missing features we search for in alternate, purpose-built solutions.
Turns out, most of what people are looking to find in all those disparate apps can be built into the spreadsheet paradigm. And, with a ready market of millions upon millions of already trained-up Excel users out there, it seemed that a killer app for this category might be possible.
What were you doing before Smartsheet?
I was running Onyx, a publicly traded enterprise CRM software company with 800 people across 11 countries.
What did ten years of developing Onyx – a CRM software company you co-founded in 1994 teach you when embarking on starting up Smartsheet?
I first wanted to double down on what we did well at Onyx, namely:
– Staff the company with only the best and brightest
– Make customer success the key metric of the business
And then, we needed to address things we didn’t do as well:
– Have marketing superstars as well as technology superstars in the founding team
– Design software from the customers’ perspective
– Let marketing drive product development and not the other way around
– Less is more (make powerful concepts very simple – Apple approach)
Has your initial vision changed since first launching?
The vision, no. The nuts and bolts of how to best design the product, yes. We have a very engaged customer base and their success and their pain are ours directly. The product is a direct reflection of amping up the former and reducing the latter.
What was technically the most challenging part of developing Smartsheet?
Creating a powerful tool in a simple user interface is tough. Steve Jobs’ quote fits us perfectly: “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Smartsheet is trusted by more than 15,000 subscribing organizations in over 100 countries. What big clients are on your list?
Sony, PepsiCo, Cisco, HomeAway, Cleveland Clinic, ESPN, Columbia University, MetLife, Toshiba, DHL, Hilton, Publicis, Kohler, NASA, United Way.
What do you wish you’d have known ten years ago that you know now?
That my jokes are not really that funny.
Has Smartsheet got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?
The first four years were a lot of figuring out how the product should work. Once we nailed that, it’s been “hold on tight” ever since.
An active sportsman and father to four children (all under the age of five), how do you balance work/life commitments?
I slipped a 5th kid in while you weren’t looking. Balance is pretty easy really. Just make every minute count with things that matter. Most people have a ton of wasted time in every day (TV, tabloids, commuting, etc.). I have very little waste, and I don’t sleep. :-)
Ernst and Young named you a 1997 ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’. What would you say are your proudest accomplishments to date?
This is an easy one. Personally, it’s my family and friends – I’m blessed to have the best of both.
On the work front, I’m most proud of the growth and accomplishments of the people I’ve worked with – they’ve gone on from our time together to do amazing things. At Smartsheet, it’s how our software has been instrumental in making so many very bright customers heroes in their organizations.
In 2001, you were recognized by the Smithsonian Institute as a ‘Pioneer in Technology’ and awarded Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering Fletcher Award for lifetime achievement. What key goal have you yet to achieve?
Father of the Decade.
Have you passed up any opportunities which you now regret?
Do you ever get sick of spreadsheets?!
Absolutely not. Spreadsheets are an amazing ‘crescent wrench’ of software. You can use them in so many ways which makes creative problem solving with them endless as well.
Who helped you get to where you are today?
My folks. I owe my strong values, empathy, and work ethic to their rock solid example. They’ve been a consistent source of strength and security.
With substantial experience in starting up and building businesses, what piece of advice would you give to someone starting-up?
Start-up success is 99% determination. There will be 20 valid reasons why you should quit for every 1 encouraging sign you shouldn’t. 99% of the people will accept one or more of the 20 reasons and quit. Be the 1% that makes it happen.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
The viral spread of Smartsheet within organizations. It’s fun to see a handful of users in a company sign up independently of each other, and then the teams begin to share work in Smartsheet, and soon, the whole organization is using it.
Can you convince the reader to start using Smartsheet in under 50 words?
You can set up a sheet in minutes, and be a hero inside your company within a week. Then, become employee of the year like this guy. How about that?
Finished reading? Check out Smartsheet!