Steven Benson – Founder and CEO of Badger Maps

Having focused quiet time every day and spending it on the most important things that I need to accomplish that day helps me be more productive.

Steven Benson is the Founder and CEO of Badger Maps. A native of Chicago, Steve quickly left the frigid temperatures of the Midwest and relocated to San Francisco. After receiving his MBA from Stanford, Steve worked in Sales at IBM and HP. He was an Outside Sales Rep at IBM and responsible for selling across all IBM products. At HP, Steve was a District Sales Manager and managed contract negotiations, pipeline development from cold prospecting to closure and partner relations. Steve next went to Google where he was a Regional Sales Manager and worked in the enterprise sales group. He was Google Enterprise’s Top Sales Executive in 2009.

In 2012 Steve founded Badger Maps, the #1 Sales App in the Apple App Store, which helps Field Salespeople be more successful. Badger shows salespeople their customers and leads on a map and connects to their calendar to build a daily route.

When not at work or giving speeches on topics like “cloud computing,” you can find Steve participating in triathlons, practicing yoga, or backpacking in the Sierras. Steve’s main hobby is to be a life and career coach – he believes his main job leading a company is to empower the people on his team to find their best career path and thrive in their role.

Where did the idea for building Badger Maps, a solution for field salespeople, come from?

My career has been spent in field sales, and so I understood the challenges faced by field sales people first hand. When I was working on the Google Maps team, I got to know first hand how powerful mobile mapping was, and what mobile was capable of doing. Because of this background, I was well positioned to launch a company to solve the problems of field sales based on a mobile mapping platform.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I live about a mile to work, so my dog and I walk to the office in the morning (Badger has a dog friendly office). I think that driving to work for 30 minutes in the morning is a lot more stressful and detrimental to productivity, so I eliminated that commute.

During the day, I try to block out distractions to work more efficiently. I turn off notifications, put my phone on silent, stay off Facebook, IM, etc. – of course only when I don’t have scheduled calls. We think that we can multi-task, but we cannot. By turning off everything you will accomplish way more in life.

One of my productivity hacks is sorting all my tasks by importance and due date. That way in the busy times, I don’t forget to get back to important customers or investors. There are a lot of great productivity apps out there, but I’ve always been a fan of the personalization and simplicity of a spreadsheet. I put my to do list into a spreadsheet and regularly sort by what’s important, what’s due and highlight things that are important but not urgent. This helps me stay organized and on top of my tasks throughout the day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

The key to developing ideas for a small business is to focus on solving problems that users are willing to pay for. If you are a large or very well funded organization like Google, you can solve problems with the hope that you will figure out later who will pay for it or how you will monetize it. As a small business however, you don’t have the resources to make product investments that you aren’t sure are focused on a problem for a specific user group that thinks the problem is big enough to pay for.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The most exciting trend for me is what I call the ‘Small Business-izing of Technology’. Cloud based technology is bringing enterprise class business software to small businesses, which 10 years ago was only available to large companies with big technology budgets.

In the past, the big tech companies like IBM, Oracle, and SAP focused on high quality and high expense solutions to Fortune 500 companies. Today, even a small business with just a handful of people can get fantastic software to run their business. You can use Gusto for your payroll, Base CRM for your Sales Team, Hubspot for your Marketing, and Google Apps for your collaboration and email. You don’t need to buy a data center, you can run your technology assets in Amazon Web Services, and consume a ton of services via the many APIs available today.

This lowers the barriers to entry of starting a company, because it takes so much of the complexity and cost off the table, and clears the way for small businesses to innovate. Because of this technology, we were enabled to start Badger on our savings and a shoestring budget, and over just 5 years grow into the #1 Sales App in the App Store.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Having focused quiet time every day and spending it on the most important things that I need to accomplish that day helps me be more productive. Every day, I go home from work around 8:30 pm and have dinner and hang out with my wife till around 10:30 pm, when she goes to sleep. Then I go back to work till around 3 am, then I go to bed. This quiet time is absolutely critical to my productivity. Of course, this focused quiet time can be during the day as well.

Also, coffee is my secret weapon (cold brew is my latest passion). Without coffee, tea and chocolate, I truly believe I would have accomplished less than 50% of what I have in life.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I’ve had a lot of jobs that put dirt under my fingernails – I had a small business doing odd jobs for people when I was in high school. They were almost always manual, often hard, a frequently dirty but I don’t regret them. The worst real job I’ve had was a couple years stint in the insurance industry. It is a pretty stagnant and low margin industry in the part that I was in – auto. I learned a lot from it – especially in the area of how you can build a business to be really efficient at massive scale. You are really focused on one area of a business in an entry level job at a large company, so a lot of what you learn is very specific to that industry. I think that makes big companies not the best choice for people starting out their careers.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

There are some mistakes I committed when starting Badger that I would handle differently today and not make again:

When I started Badger, I didn’t understand how far you could take the concepts of testing, experimenting, and Wizard of Oz-ing. This is really important to keep a company from burning too much capital and to be able to move quickly. Know when something is good enough to get the job done. Know what needs to be Great. Good is the enemy of Great, but a lot of things don’t have to be Great, they have to be fast, cheap, or done – so know what to 80/20.

I’ve also learned that you can’t communicate with enough prospective customers. We felt like we were talking with way more people than most companies would have, and it still wasn’t enough. You can’t know your prospect, their pains, and the processes that you want to improve (the job that they are hiring your product for) too well.

Also, I didn’t truly understand what type of investor is interested in what type of company and what stage (how far along you have to be). I didn’t understand the relationship between different sizes of VC funds or what their economic drivers were. You can waste a ton of time talking with VC’s that aren’t the right fit for where you are at when you’re raising money.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I recommend that entrepreneurs hire interns, because interns and startups are a natural fit. There are a million things to get done at a Startup, and it’s a great place for interns to try out doing something, since no one else is doing it anyway. For example, you don’t have an HR program, so why not hire an HR intern and have them work on it. If you want to launch a career in HR, what could be better than building out an HR program from the bottom up. It’s a ton of great experience, and so it’s a great opportunity for the intern. From the company’s perspective, they didn’t have an HR program, so even if there are a bunch of holes or it’s done in not the most effective way, or it’s lacking in some way, it’s still way better than having no program at all. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what a great job people can do.

I hired many interns at Badger that I mentor and help start off a successful career. Then the key to getting them really productive is to help them figure out what direction they should go in their careers. Schools give them surprisingly little direction.

In the first conversation that I have with someone that I mentor who is thinking about their career direction, I tell them that they should make a Venn diagram with 3 circles. The circles should overlap at one area, and should be labeled:

1) What activities you enjoy doing
2) What activities you are truly good at
3) What there are jobs in.

Most people end up doing what they are good at that there are jobs in. People with the best careers are able to find the nexus of all 3 circles.

This is a unique lens to use when evaluating the fit of a job for you – the activities that you do on the job, rather than the concept or identity or prestige of the job. For example, many people go to law school because they want to be lawyers. However, they end up unhappy in their career because they don’t enjoy the activity of being a lawyer – quietly sitting alone in a room reading and writing very complex things. On the other hand, that same person might not like the idea of being a salesperson, but they would enjoy the act of speaking with people and teaching them about the benefits and details of a new product or service – which is the main activity of salespeople.

Also, it’s great for young people to see how a company really works, and a startup is small enough that they can wrap their head around the organization. I have found that startups are a really great fit for interns and people starting their careers. Here is a pro-tip: we use a company called Vocate to manage a lot of the processes of the program like finding great candidates, so that it doesn’t waste founder time to source the interns.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

The most important growth strategies for us are the referral and the ‘land and expand’ strategy. We work closely with our customers to make them really successful and happy with our product and because of that they tell their friends, colleagues, ex-co-workers, new co-workers, etc. about our solution. That is how our current customers became our best salespeople and help us grow our business.

The ‘land and expand strategy’ is when one person at a company uses our product, and because we make them successful, their coworkers and management finds out about us and it spreads around the organization. Some of our biggest customers have been acquired this way, where one person started using Badger, then their manager sees their success and wants it for the rest of his or her team, then the regional manager sees that one manager’s team is doing well, so then all the regions get it, then the division, etc.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I feel like my biggest failure as an entrepreneur has been that everything has taken longer than I wanted. This is probably a common experience, but even today, I swear that every time I give something my best guess on how long something will take, it takes twice as long. This might be a personal weakness, or it might be that these things are just hard, or some combination of both.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I don’t know of any company that does a good job at data enrichment. For example, I tell them the name and email of a customer that I have, and they tell me their company and their phone number. Stuff like that. I think that there are some companies that have gone after this space, but I don’t know of anyone that has really dialed it in.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently bought over ear bluetooth headphones to block out noise while I’m trying to focus, to listen to music podcasts etc. I use the Jabra Move which was about 60 bucks. It came in Badger Red which made it a slam dunk for me.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I use Linkedin for leads, to get background on customers and prospects, and to source new job candidates. I stay away from other social media because I think it makes people unhappy and wastes time. I practically live in Google Apps – Google Docs change the world of productivity. Google Hangouts is fantastic too. I use a company called Stride Travel as a shortcut to great travel packages – super helpful. I use Vocate for recruiting interns and it saves me a ton of time on sourcing great candidates (5 of my last 5 hires at Badger Headquarters in San Francisco have been from our intern program – and we’re 5 for 5 on successful hires there). I use Ring Central for our soft phones (really useful for when our employees travel internationally). I use Pandora over Spotify because I like their playlists better, and I don’t have time to build a playlist. Maybe someday. I use Apple’s Podcast software almost everyday – because podcasts are such a fantastic way to hear what people think about key topics. I use Lyft Line and Uber pool to get around town – great stuff as long as it’s subsidized. We use the Cash App around the Badger offices. I like Priceline for renting cars. Google Translate is really useful for communicating with people around the world. Liftopia is a cool app if you ski and snowboard, I use it to get discounted tickets.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I would recommend the book “Smart People Should Build Things” by Andrew Yang. The premise of the book is that instead of going on the traditional path that successful students take – management consulting, finance, big companies, medicine, law, graduate school, etc, top students should start or join small businesses. I agree, and I don’t just believe that students coming out of college should start businesses, but I also believe that they will develop fastest and learn the most if they join businesses that have less than 50 people at them. I have hired many people fresh out of college​ ​into the small company that I run, Badger Maps,​ ​over the years, and I’ve been able to watch them develop so much faster​ ​than people who work in more traditional paths. They are able to take on so much more responsibility and get experiences that are far broader than they are able to take being a small cog in a big wheel. ​The traditional paths tend to make a bit more money the first few years out of school, but the investment in learning and leadership at this stage in a career, in my opinion, ends up being worth far more over time. ​

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I’m in a SaaS business and Jason Lemkin is probably the most important influencer with his website / blog and podcast that he does with Harry Stebbings. Thomas Friedman is probably the most influential thinker about the world and the direction we’re headed – I read the Lexus and the Olive Tree in college and it really shaped my thinking going forward. I had a ton of amazing professors in B-School that influenced me very heavily.


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Steven Benson on Twitter: @SteveBenson
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