Building Cross-functional teams in an Enterprise SaaS Startup

Vineetha Vijayakumar
4 min readFeb 11, 2021

Few months ago, I spoke at a conference about building cross-functional teams in an Enterprise SaaS startup. During my journey at Esper, it has been increasingly clear to me that enabling collaboration is the key to building successful teams. Teams working together at various stages of the customer lifecycle understand the nuances associated with each function and stay customer-obsessed. There is also a huge premium placed on open communication and clarity. Information in this article is a product of my research on this subject and my work so far at Esper.

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Why is Enterprise SaaS different?

There are a spectrum of users for each enterprise customer with different perspectives and technical knowledge levels. We need to be cognizant of that while establishing product principles and designing the product. For instance, when we provide software for Android devices, we are aware of usability of our features (the micro-picture) as well as the impact of product updates on our customer’s business (the macro-picture). Understanding the business is as crucial as understanding the user.

The turnaround time for on-boarding customers could vary depending on their specific requirements. Not all of them require all features and some of them might require features that we don’t have. While our own roadmaps are tightly tied to our customer roadmaps, there is also a strong need to keep it flexible.

Deep customer empathy should be the driving factor for all teams. Customers could belong to various business domains. As we get into a product fitment evaluation and subsequently the roadmap phase, it’s important to understand the domain and evaluate our product accordingly.

Enterprise SaaS SLAs are always tightly integrated with that of the customers. This means an aligned commitment to provide support hours and an emergency response process. Well-communicated and properly orchestrated product-feature and engineering-releases schedules enable us to keep up with the availability and commitments.

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How do we do it?

The differences mentioned above shape our strategy in building a workflow that always has more than one team working in tandem with a good balance of strategy and execution.

I am touching on a few key aspects here.

An important part of the Sales process is the involvement of Technical Pre-sales engineers and Customer Success advocates with the Account Executives. When there are several opportunities for the customer to walk away, these three teams play evangelist, educator and mentor roles to the customer while evaluating how our product can fit into their business.

Features that we don’t have, typically becomes a collaboration point between the Customer Success and Product teams. How we go about the prioritization process and bake it into the roadmap is important there.

Regular discussions among all teams help with the following:

  1. Product knowledge remains constantly updated.
  2. Product team gets a sense of the kind of customer/prospect conversations happening, direct information on customer experience and common pain points. This goes into driving continuous user experience improvements and better features.
  3. Sales/Marketing teams are always in sync about roadmap delivery, upcoming features and what’s changing in the product.

This results in a strong balance of strategy and execution.

What are the key Enablers?

Teams inclined to continuous learning, end-to-end ownership and a shared vision.

It all starts with hiring. Our people make all the difference. The laser-sharp focus on people and role of evaluating culture fitment in our hiring process helps us grow quickly and in the right manner. Inculcating a habit of working outside your comfort zone from the start takes it to the next level.

When a startup begins to scale, there’s a focus on product depth and quality. Process starts to actually matter and we need to own it all the way through.

There should be a strong emphasis on team dynamics as well. Enabling a no-silo, continuous-feedback approach leads to higher confidence levels among the team with increased sense of collaboration.

It’s important to identify success metrics and relentlessly measure our product against them. Additionally, evaluation of these metrics help us identify leverage points that can help drive critical inflection points in our customer experience. For instance, data around low leads or missed conversion opportunities could be attributed to the lack of a feature. Building that feature then becomes a leverage point.

Key Takeaways

  1. Growth is relatively easier than sustaining that growth. It’s critical to build the systems and processes that sustain the momentum.
  2. In a situation where everyone is remote, it’s important to share best practices and communicate. It could be in the form of easy to understand documentation, enabling cross-team chats, or encouraging people to share their experiences of successes and failures.
  3. As teams grow, biases and agendas can seep in to cross-functional teams. It’s important to measure the progress, periodically re-align priorities and nip potential issues early.
  4. Identifying the right talent, interviewing and on-boarding takes time. We need to apply the same principles of identifying our customers, to potential employees. Figure out what makes them tick and provide them with the best opportunity to grow.