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How Attio is Reinventing CRM for the Modern Era

Nicolas Sharp’s Ambitious Quest to Disrupt One of the Most Important Categories in B2B SaaS

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Sponsored by: Attio

Today’s post is sponsored by Attio, the powerful, flexible, and data-driven CRM for startups.

This is part of my sponsorship program where I speak with founders of extraordinary companies - Attio is certainly one of them.

They raised a $23.5 million Series A in March led by Redpoint Ventures to reinvent CRM for the modern era and I interviewed Nicolas Sharp, Co-Founder and CEO of Attio, to share how he’s built the company.

Nicolas and his team have taken an ambitious approach to creating a brand-new CRM platform and guess what?

It’s paid off.

In December 2022, while in beta, Attio already passed $1 million in annual recurring revenue and has only continued its growth since.

However, the company originally was born out of a pivot. Before Attio, Nicolas and his co-founder Alex had started a vertical CRM called Fundstack in 2017. Even though the business was successful, they decided they wanted to build something even more ambitious. They envisioned a CRM that works for any industry, where users could quickly build the exact CRM they need with no compromises. And that’s how Attio was born. They founded Attio in 2019 and haven’t looked back since.

I’ve been playing around with the platform recently and it’s magical how Attio syncs your email, calendar, and other data sources to create an insightful view of all your relationships.

I’m excited to bring you today’s piece on Nicolas Sharp and Attio!

Let’s get to it.

Nicolas Sharp, Co-Founder & CEO, Attio

Nicolas Sharp - Attio

On July 29, 2013, Nicolas Sharp embarked on a journey with his dad from London, England to Lamu, Kenya.

The two of them would make the 5,000-mile trip in a small, single-engine airplane over the course of a week.

Nicolas described the experience as “one of the best trips of my life.”

Less than four years later, he left his investment job at Passion Capital to start a different kind of journey, that of a startup founder.

After working on the deal flow process at Passion Capital, going through the terrible experience of trying to find CRM software and integrate it with the firm, he became dissatisfied with the options available.

Why wasn’t there something better?

Like many other entrepreneurs I’ve covered, he decided to take it upon himself to create a better option.

Fundstack was born.

The Precursor to Attio

For Nicolas’s first attempt at solving the CRM problem, he took a narrow approach, building a vertical CRM platform called Fundstack specifically for VCs and private equity investors.

The business officially started in April 2017 and shortly after, Alexander Christie joined him as the Head of Engineering.

Nicolas and the team made good progress with Fundstack, but it wasn’t ambitious enough:

Fundstack had lots of happy customers. Revenue was growing fast. By all measures, it was going well, but we felt it wasn’t ambitious enough. No matter what you’re building as a startup, you work damn hard.

We basically had this moment of realization: if we're gonna put all of this work into something knowing that this isn't the best version of what it could be, what’s the point?

So me and Alex sat down in a cafe and thought: hypothetically, if we were to pivot and really build something that we think would ultimately be much better and more ambitious than this, what would it look like?

And then we drew out what then became Attio. We couldn't help but go for it.

Nicolas Sharp

So the pair made a decision. In October 2019, two years after its founding, Fundstack was no more.

Enter Attio.

Starting Attio

In November 2019, Nicolas and his now co-founder, Alex, started Attio.

Most importantly, in Alex, Nicolas found a co-founder that complemented him well:

I was so lucky with Alex. He actually joined Fundstack as the first engineer and was just brilliant. He’s an incredible engineer and also incredibly resilient. He strikes that balance of being very upbeat and positive, but also a realist. It’s the perfect combination when you’re doing something as crazy hard as building a full-fledged CRM.

He had all of the right personality traits and most importantly, we worked really well together. We’re very different people, but we compement each other really well.

When we shut down Fundstack and started Attio, I had zero doubt that he was the right person to do that with.

Nicolas Sharp

This time, they approached building the product a bit differently:

We started Attio from the perspective of a blank canvas approach. We wanted to build something extremely flexible – much more similar to Notion or Airtable. We asked ourselves: what would the foundational architecture of that look like?

We realized that it would take intense engineering. If we wanted to build a powerful, flexible CRM, we wouldn’t be able to take the typical MVP approach, where you build a quick prototype and iterate as you hear from customers.

We accepted that we'd have to put a lot of groundwork into getting the foundations of the product right.

Of course, the foundations were much larger than we expected. That was okay with us – we got comfortable with the idea that that would take a while because in the end that’s how we were going to support our product vision.

In the end, it took us three years to build.

Nicolas Sharp

Nicolas knew a simple CRM couldn’t be molded to any complex business needs and the incumbents like Salesforce and Hubspot, while powerful, would not only cost a lot of money, they were complex and, in the words of Nicolas, “Might cost you your sanity.”

And at this point, they hadn’t raised much money, which actually ended up benefiting them:

[When we first started building Attio] we'd raised so little money, so no investors were losing sleep at night over our big ambitions.

That actually was fortunate. Had we raised more money, I think that potentially we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did.

But because we were a very small team, and we had real clarity about what we were trying to build, everyone bought into it and we set up a nice environment for the long haul.

All the pressure we put on ourselves was on making the right product decisions, building things quickly but sustainably, and just trying to methodically get through this backlog of things we needed to build.

Nicolas Sharp

Oh, and did Nicolas miss his days in VC?

Not exactly.

I asked Nicolas about making the switch from VC to founder and it was an obvious move he had to make:

For me personally, being a VC didn't capture my imagination in the same way that building a company or product does.

I think it's a fantastic career. It's interesting and an incredible education. You meet incredible people, and I was very fortunate to have that because it really gave me access to the inner workings of companies.

But the kind of context switching and changing, looking at different problems in different markets all day, it just wasn't for me. I really wanted to work on one thing and make improvements every day on it.

It became very obvious to me that I wouldn't continue as a VC.

The interesting thing is that when I became a founder, within about three months, I was mortified about some of the things that I said as a VC. I realized that actually a lot of the advice I gave was very different from the reality on the ground.

Nicolas Sharp

At Attio, there certainly was plenty of product building to do and, of course, they eventually had to actually go to market with their new solutions.

Attio’s Go-to-Market & Seed Round

By April 2020, Attio was a team of 12, and when I asked Nicolas about Attio’s early go-to-market strategy, he explained their early access program:

It was super early days. The surface area of the product was small at that point, but the things that it did do, it did well.

We started with an early access program and used the feedback from that to cover gaps in the product.

So if there was something that the product couldn't do, or if there was something where the onboarding or setup was super rough, we used human effort to bridge those gaps.

For our very first customers, we often spent multiple days trying to get their data in through super custom hacky ways, configuring the product for them, etc.

We took all those learnings and built the product more and more. That’s really how it started.

Nicolas Sharp

Of course, nobody knew who they were at first, so it was difficult to find customers.

Eventually, people started noticing how great the product was. Customers started referring other customers, people started talking about it through Twitter, and its popularity began to spread through word of mouth.

That waitlist would soon grow to thousands of teams by February 2021.

Not long after, in November 2021, still in private beta, they announced a $7.7 million seed round led by Point Nine Capital with Balderton Capital and Headline also participating.

The round also included Passion Capital and angels like Front co-founder and CEO Mathilde Collin, Loom co-founder and CTO Vinay Hiremath, Loom and Hyper co-founder Sahed Khan, and Indeed Co-founder Paul Foster.

At this time, Attio already had 120 paying customers including the likes of Coca-Cola, Supercell, and Upfront Ventures.

By the end of 2022, Attio began offering a 14-day free trial and multiple plans, including a free option and a self-serve model.

Nicolas gave a great breakdown as to why and what led them to take this approach:

When you’re in closed beta, your product is not being used by a ton of people. There is always this existential question: people are using it, but would they pay for it?

You have to ask yourself: are we providing enough value that people will pay for the product?

Early on, we thought: well, let's just have a really simple price, and let's test it.

At first we actually started with a very high price compared to the market. And people did pay for it! So that was great and that was a great point of validation.

However, we then very quickly learned that while people would pay that price, we were actually losing a lot of customers because it was too expensive.

CRM is a product that you want people to really get embedded into their company. You want as many people in the organization as possible to be using it. It's real value with the amount of people in the team that use it. You don't want it to be siloed data.

So we launched a new pricing plan, which was less than half the price. It was a really big success and made closing deals much easier.

So we got to the point where we basically had two plans. They were selling well. But what we really wanted to do was go exponential in our user growth.

We wanted to help startups as much as we can, get them in early, and grow with them. We should be there very early on, because implementing CRM later on in a company’s lifecycle is much more complicated.

With our free plan now, it means that our user base is growing at about 500% a year and because of freemium, we also have a really nice funnel and great opportunity for monetization later.

Nicolas Sharp

With such a broad market of potential customers, I was curious how Nicolas and his team reached them.

His approach?

Be very targeted:

Even though we're building a horizontal tool, we're very particular in our messaging and very particular about the kind of companies we try to reach.

This is an important thing for anyone building horizontal products. Your marketing needs to be very targeted.

So we've defined our ideal customer profile and even the ideal persona of the kind of person that we think is perfect for Attio, which is founders and builders at early-stage startups.

Nicolas Sharp

And it worked, with Attio hitting an important milestone a year after raising its seed round.

$1 Million ARR

Building on the foundation they started creating in late 2019, Attio continued to evolve its product.

In July 2022, that included a completely new feature in the CRM:

These product innovations also fueled customer adoption and revenue growth, with Attio hitting $1 million in ARR by December.

The same month, Attio announced they’re in live public beta, with those new pricing plans, including the free option, that was mentioned earlier in this post.

They also unveiled a new brand, something that isn’t always a focus of startups this early in the game.

Why did Attio focus on brand-building and communication earlier than many startups typically do?

Here’s why:

The way we think about it is that there are two types of products, and each one needs to be marketed differently. One is where you have a new market or a market that people aren't very familiar with. You need to convince them that they need whatever the new thing is that you’re building.

For example, let’s say a new VR headset comes to market. The pitch would be helping the prospect understand why they need one in the first place. You’re trying to educate them on its value.

If you’re in a market where people know that they need your type of product, it’s your job to convince them why they need your product specifically. For example, if you build a television, you don’t need to convince people they need a television and that it will bring the wonders of cinema into their home. You need to convince them why they need your television.

CRM is a “why us” market rather than a “why one.” People know what a CRM is and know that they need one.

So our job is to answer the question convincingly as to how we’re different from other CRMs in the market.

A lot of that is done through brand and it's done through crafting a message, a look, and a feel that resonates with your target audience.

We knew early on that we're up against incumbents and we're trying to persuade people that we’re better than them. Brand plays an important role in that.

Nicolas Sharp

And how exactly is Attio different from the incumbents?

It’s a question Nicolas gets a lot, but here’s how he explains it:

The easiest way to understand the difference is that Attio is incredibly powerful and allows you to quickly build your CRM exactly like how your business works. There’s no compromise between flexibility and intuitiveness.

You don’t have to shoehorn your business into a product that’s rigid and opinionated.

You can mold the CRM around your business. We bring incredible flexibility into the CRM market.

The product seriously resonates with people who have a builder mindset. We’re always amazed by the things that our customers build in Attio.

Nicolas Sharp

This brand-building, product differentiation, and revenue growth didn’t go unnoticed.

The next year, Attio would take another big step, encouraged by one of their investors.

Giving Me 23.5 Million Reasons

On March 2, 2023, Attio announced a $23.5 million Series A round of funding led by Redpoint Ventures. The round’s main investor was led by former Salesforce executive Alex Bard.

Prior to this, they weren’t actively fundraising, having raised a good-sized seed round, but here’s why they went through with the round at this time:

We got a lot of inbound from VCs, but we mostly ignored it because we were so focused on building the product.

However, one of our main investors at the time reached out and basically said there's a partner at Redpoint named Alex Bard that you've got to meet. And I was like “we're not interested in fundraising right now, we’re super focused on building the product.”

He said, “I understand, but Alex knows CRM inside-out. He spent a ton of time at Salesforce. Just speak to him.”

I had a call with him and Alex was one of the few investors I spoke to who really understood what we were trying to do, and also didn't shy away from the ambition of the product. He really understood it.

Most people were like, “well, it's too complicated to build, why don't you start with something really small?”

But Alex really got it. We spent a bunch of time with him over the next few weeks. We had this really intense period of chatting all the time and it was very clear that this wasn't just about the money. He was super passionate about the product and our vision, and it was about having someone on board who could add a ton of value. It was a great decision.

Nicolas Sharp

By this time, Attio had more than 2,000 customers in 100+ countries and 25+ employees.

In a TechCrunch article about the raise, Nicolas shared more about the experience of using the product:

When you use Attio for the first time, it syncs with your email and calendar and creates a view of your customer relationships with profiles, timelines of interactions and conversations, access to emails and intelligence on the strength of each relationship.

You can also connect any other data source to Attio through our API. From there, you can sort through and filter these records and build workflows for different industries, use cases or scenarios.

Nicolas Sharp

The day after the funding announcement, Attio launched on Product Hunt, becoming the top product of the day.

It’s easy to see why the launch was successful.

Attio’s target audience definitely spends time on Product Hunt and doing the launch provided the Attio team with a clear launch date to work towards, uniting around the experience, and of course having some fun with it as well.

But Attio is just getting started and Nicolas has much bigger plans ahead.

What’s next for Attio?

It’s been more than 6 years since Nicolas first started trying to reinvent CRM for the modern era.

After a major pivot, constant product development, and raising more than $30 million in venture capital, Attio has become a real challenger in the competitive CRM space.

So, what’s next?

We've had incredible growth this year and we're very excited about the progress that we've been making. Next year is going to be an even bigger year for us on the product and business front.

We’ve got some really big product launches coming down the pike and we’ll also continue to massively expand our go-to-market efforts.

Ultimately the goal is to continue to build the best possible CRM for our customers and make it more and more powerful. That’s our focus.

Nicolas Sharp

And, finally, I asked Nicolas to explain, looking back 10 years from now, what the team at Attio would have to do to win the market and what his ultimate ambition was.

His response?

I think our philosophy about how Attio ultimately wins the market is to keep the focus on building the tools that customers need to solve their problems, rather than just building features.

From a product perspective, we want to be the engine for go-to-market teams.

And of course, the ultimate ambition is to IPO.

Nicolas Sharp

From all indications so far, Nicolas and his team are on the right path to getting there, and while a potential IPO is a number of years away, Attio has already taken flight.

The question is, will they complete the journey, just like Nicolas and his dad did with their 5,000-mile trip a decade ago?

Thanks for reading this sponsored deep dive on Nicolas Sharp and Attio! Learn more about Attio below:

Interested in having a deep dive written on your company and founder? Check out my sponsorship program.

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