Scaling Intercom into a $1bn sales machine

Podcast Ep 130: At the spearhead of Intercom’s ambitions to grow revenues to one day surpass $1bn is Sanj Bhayro who talks about building the sales organisation to accomplish this.

Established by Irish founders in San Francisco, Intercom is a unicorn tech player that has its sights on growing revenues to eventually surpass $1bn.

The company, whose sole mission is to help businesses provide better experiences to their customers, last year revealed annual recurring revenues of $200m.

It was at this stage that Sanj Bhayro joined Intercom as vice-president of Sales to lead out its next growth chapter. Bhayro has considerable pedigree when it comes to scaling businesses and developing talent.

“So I like to spend a lot of time focusing on understanding what the end goal is, the strategy, the north star. And then really working on the plan to get there”

Prior to joining Intercom he was VP Customer Growth and Ops, Google Cloud, and senior vice-president, chief operating officer for EMEA at Salesforce and spent 14 years in various sales and leadership roles in Salesforce. As a respected leader within the SaaS industry, Sanj has deep experience developing and growing teams of all sizes, from small-to-medium businesses, to mid-market and enterprise business units, and emerging markets in the EMEA region.

Blazing a trail for others to follow


Turning Intercom into a $1bn per annum software business will be one of Bhayro’s defining tasks for the years ahead. Perhaps the most visible manifestation of Intercom’s technology is the customer chat function that sits on the home page of many businesses, but its tools go much deeper than that, says Bhayro.

“Intercom was started by four guys who had a very simple problem to solve, which was, you how can you make internet business more personal, and that was 11 years ago. Creating personal experiences in what is more and more of a digitally-led business environment is kind of what we’ve been doing and what we continue to do. And since then, we’ve grown to have circa 1,000 employees, 25,000 customers in 140 countries, and we have somewhere like more than 600m active end users interacting with our service. So the products and the problem that they were solving with a product has been doing incredibly well.

“The problem that Intercom really solves is how you create really strong customer experiences that allow you to engage your customers in proactive personal and contextual ways through a messenger-first experience. And yeah, absolutely, we’re on that journey growing from $200m, hopefully to $1bn revenues in the next few years by taking this to new companies, new segments, new industries across new geographies as well. And certainly we’re in the midst of that growth in scale.”

Shifting sands

Getting to $1bn in sales won’t be easy without maintaining the present momentum but also banking on just how much more digital business as we know it will get.

Already the tech world is somewhat challenged by a changing funding environment exacerbated by wider economic issues. Intercom is no stranger to this, recently revealing plans to cut 49 roles in HR and marketing, almost half of these in Dublin. However, the company is continuing to hire for key roles in R&D, much of which takes place in Ireland.

The challenge of growing revenues from $200m to $1bn reminds Bhayro of his time at Salesforce where a similar challenge was underway around 2004. “Around the time of its IPO Salesforce was still a small company with under $500m in revenues and 1,000 employees. The simplicity of the problems are similar too in that Salesforce wondered why business applications can’t be as easy to use as Amazon? Salesforce did an incredible job solving those problems and then building that scale around the model as they continued to grow.

“And Intercom is somewhat similar; it’s solving a problem that many companies face; which is how do I engage my customers over the right channels with the right message at the right time? And that’s hard to do right now because so many systems are still sitting within silos. And it’s hard to create the customer experience that you want to create. Loyalty is so important and you can very quickly lose a customer if they have a bad experience.

“So I see a lot of similarities that make it an exciting time to be at Intercom where it is looking as a company to grow and scale and really be seen as the customer engagement platform for its core customers.

“And that’s certainly where we’re going and what we want to build out as company.”

If Intercom succeeds in its $1bn ambition, this very scaling journey that Bhayro is presiding over could become the defining template for other Irish and European tech companies to emulate.

While the goal is simplicity, the doing of it will be complex as Intercom targets larger enterprise customers. It’s not new to Bhayro but it will be a challenge for Intercom to orient itself to win in a market long dominated by large brands.

“There will be multiple buyers that have different expectations. There’s a technical landscape and stack that you need to integrate in with, you need to define value, there’s incumbency in the vendors, as well. So you have to either integrate or replace incumbent vendors, which again, is another layer of complexity. So there definitely is a shift in the motion. And certainly having industry relevance, having good benchmarking, and being able to help work with your buyers, your stakeholders, and understanding how they can realise value in the fastest way is really what makes the difference certainly in terms of dealing with mid-market enterprise customers versus SMB customers.”

The challenges will be spread across technology and product and especially in terms of talent.

“I think it’s more sort of deep rooted in the cultural shift that any company is going through as they scale. Because what got you here isn’t necessarily what’s going to get you there. What is the type of talent that I need to get me to where I want to get to, but I also want to bring that talent in without sort of disrupting all the things that got us to where we got to right now. And that’s going to be a constant challenge as you grow and scale. But I think the base is always going to be a talent in the people that you hire. They align values, they understand the mission. And they’re bought into that mission. There’s more opportunity now to be more discerning and thoughtful about the talent that you want to bring into the organisation. And certainly, I think for any company right now, it’s about making sure that you have the right talent, not just for what you need right now, but also for where you want to get to.”

This doesn’t just mean strong technical talent; that’s a given; but culturally, a seismic shift in how a scaling business approaches sales and of course, having the right salespeople.

“I think the commonality is always the fact that they really centre, and they’re passionate about, on providing the right outcomes for their for their customers. They have a passion for it, because it is what their reputation is built on; making their customer successful, and achieving the right outcomes for their customers. They also have like high levels of personal accountability, an expectation of what they want to deliver, and why. And then the how of how they’re going to get there. So having that personal purpose of what they want to achieve, and then being accountable for the plan to do that, I see in every successful salesperson that that I that I work with.

“And then the other piece is they have this really deep understanding of the company, the products and the propositions and they’re not afraid to go deep into the product. And they do a lot of work to ensure that they understand their customer issues. And they can articulate how to match their products with the customer issues. And then the final piece, as I said, is that they care, they care deeply about their customer’s success. And they really care deeply about building relationships that that last because I think great salespeople are always understanding that it goes beyond the transaction; that if they make their customer successful, their customers are probably going to want to do business with them.”

Achieving scale also boils down to planning, says Bharo, by understanding the end goal and breaking down the components you need to get there.

“So I like to spend a lot of time focusing on understanding what the end goal is, the strategy, the north star. And then really working on the plan to get there. It is then about simplifying that down for your sales team to say we need to close this many transactions, and therefore we need this much pipeline, we need to have these conversion rates, and we’ll need to increase our average deal size. And this is how we’re going to do it. And the more succinct you are in that planning and that messaging, the consistency around that, the greater a chance of success you can have.”

To sum up, Bhayro has outlined the template for a generation of scaling companies to emulate. Take note.

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.