From entrepreneurship, to corporate and back again
If you’ve been in IT or B2B sales in Denmark in the past decades, it’s very likely that you´ve come across Poul Bærentsen, co-founder of Wisehouse and dmsave in the early 2000’s and until recently sales director at ATEA, Northern Europe’s market leader in IT infrastructure (Link).
I met him for the first time back in 2014 as a consultant, when ATEA was undergoing massive change and Poul, as Chief Sales Officer, was tasked with orienting the company’s famous “sales machine” towards value -and solution based selling (link). Judging by the results, the transformation was successful, growing revenue +17% during during the two years, 2014-2016 (link).
The word veteran comes to mind, but at only 46 maybe that’s a bit of a stretch.
After 10 years of service at ATEA, who bought his previous company “dmsave”, back in 2007, Poul has made a return to the more entrepreneurial side of business, recently founding Match Invest (link). Active investment, advisory and consulting for SMEs.
A logical next step for the man who started his career 20 years ago, as “hands-on” as it can possibly get, by selling unknown overpriced copiers to industrial clients in the late 90’s. But as he says, “at least everything has been relatively easy ever since”
We sat down with Poul for a talk about leadership in the commercial organisation, how to bridge the sales-marketing gap in practice and how to move between the world of corporate and entrepreneurship.
Back in the entrepreneurial game with Match Invest
Us: After around a decade, in a large company, you’re back in more entrepreneurial surroundings with Match Invest. Why the change?
Poul: To give you the short answers; It’s because that’s what feels right to do, right now.
I’ve been at a large company now for the past 10 years, and have enjoyed it immensely. But coming from entrepreneurial beginnings myself, before ATEA, I could also feel a need to get back and share what I’ve learned over the years, with smaller companies and entrepreneurs. So I started Match Invest, to help SMEs realize their growth ambition through a combination of capital and capabilities (active investment). Predominantly helping them structure their growth, as they move towards a more mature company stage.
Us: So how does it feel to be back?
Poul: Excellent! Helping B2B companies grow sales is what I’ve been doing my whole professional career, and I’ve enjoyed helping others grow their business, like I’ve enjoyed growing my own.
Us: Yes, you started back in the 90’s as a sales rep in the most classic B2B business of them all, selling copiers. How has that compared to the rest of the things you´ve done since then?
Poul: Right, fresh out of school, with a week of training, I was sent around to industrial areas knocking on doors, trying to sell overpriced copiers of a completely unknown brand. It was my sales baptism by fire.
It was the best first job I could have hoped for. Everything since then has seemed relatively easy compared to that.
I did sales like that for a few years and learned some valuable lessons about the importance of creating a space of intimacy with your clients, where you can freely discuss business issues and personal goals. About the importance of earning their trust and right to challenge them on their existing way of running their business.
There was a real energetic “wild-west” vibe around IT back then that I loved. So when the right opportunity came, I didn´t hesitate to leave job safety and have my salary cut in half to co-found Wisehouse (later dmsave). In exchange for safety and immediate salary, we got to build a business and develop a service in Denmark that hadn’t existed before.
I’m not saying it wasn´t hard, but it’s also rewarding in a very special way. I would encourage anyone with a entrepreneurial dream to take the leap. In my opinion it´s definitely worth it.
Being a big organisation doesn’t mean the end of entrepreneurship
Us: And in 2007, you join ATEA (then TopNordic). How was that transition into being an organisation within a larger organisation?
Poul: What you are of course afraid of in a situation like that, is that as the bigger organisation takes over the smaller one, it kills the entrepreneurial energy that made the company interesting in the first place.
That wasn’t the case at all with dmsave, where we took full advantage of the synergies between ATEA’s broad reach and our organisation’s entrepreneurial spirit.
We doubled the business while operating inside ATEA.
I’ve always thought there was a great entrepreneurial attitude in ATEA’s leadership, much room to manoeuvre and make decisions in the individual parts of the organisation. Of course there are different rules to play by when you become part of a large organisation, and I’ve fully accepted that, but I’ve always seen local autonomy to make decisions and an entrepreneurial culture as critical to our success at both dmsave and ATEA.
It is critical with authentic, visible and aligned commercial leadership, especially in times of transformation
US: You’ve been in sales leadership roles for almost two decades now. How have you ensured effective sales & marketing leadership throughout your career?
Poul: Looking back, especially during my years at ATEA where the organisation was bigger, I think 3 things were absolutely critical to our success.
- Strong collaboration with marketing: By that I mean, we made sure there was a good chemistry between us and that we constantly met to align on the commercial direction and how we were going to get there. There was no power struggle between our two departments, like you unfortunately see in some companies, and that made a huge difference.
- Authentic and visible leadership: By that I mean, our leadership group talked open, often and honest to each other and with the people working in our departments. Of course it isn’t free to get people together for internal gatherings, but it is important with constant communication and involvement. We made the investment in regular town-hall meetings, monthly team gatherings and shared strategy development days and think it was well worth the investment.
- Aligned leadership: By that I mean, we made sure to develop a shared language and direction in the commercial leadership group. It’s absolutely critical that people in the organisation don’t get conflicting or confusing answers from leadership, pointing in different directions. It can create not only inability to do the right thing, but anxiety around what to do at all. There has to be clarity in direction when leadership leads the way.
Us: Speaking of the need for authenticity, visibility and alignment. I remember when we met back in 2014, ATEA and your sales organisation were undergoing big changes (more here) and you allocated a great deal of resource to making sure these 3 things were in place. How does the need for authenticity, visibility and alignment change during times of great change?
Poul: Yes you’re right, it was a time of great change, especially in sales.
The market was moving away from IT departments buying IT equipment, towards decision makers being non technical people at different levels of the organisation. Not only did sales need to learn to talk to new stakeholders they needed to become much better sales people as customers increasingly educated themselves online. To say it bluntly, it wasn’t enough to be an IT order taker anymore.
Our transformation was exactly about that; equipping sales reps and managers with the skills and tools to succeed in the new buying environment.
Because change brings increased uncertainty, it is even more critical during these times that leadership communication is transparent, frequent and aligned.
The goal was to give our customers an excellent seamless buying experience, when working with ATEA, despite us having a large complex sales organisation, selling complex solutions.
To manage the complexity of our commercial organisation and buying environment, we focused on putting structure to our sales processes, with clear internal roles and responsibilities, so our customers were taken care of the right way at all times.
Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards
Us: On an ending note, If you could go back in time and give young entrepreneur Poul 3 lessons from your current standpoint, what would those be?
Poul: You know what, I don’t actually think I would want to do that. A lesson might be that things which seem like a mistake today, often turn out to be the exact thing that needed to happen. A curse today might be a blessing in disguise. So, I’d let young Poul make the mistakes that needed to be made and learn the lessons that had to be learned.
As Kierkegaard said;
“Life must be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”
I definitely think that saying applies to our professional lives too.
What’s important is that we dare to explore different paths and roles, from big corporate to small start-ups and everything in between To constantly challenge ourselves to move forward.
At least that’s what I’m trying to do.
A big thanks to Poul Bærentsen for sharing his perspectives on leadership and collaboration in the commercial organisation.