Post Founder: Donna Novitsky and Clarify

Entry IV in Post Founder series — Q&A with early employees of companies which later became tremendous successes.

Donna Novitsky and I met in 1999 when she was my mentor on the Board of Directors for the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. After holding executive posts at Sun and Clarify, Donna entered venture capital with Mohr Davidow, where as a venture partner she also worked closely with several of their portfolio companies on marketing strategies. More recently she’s been teaching at Stanford and has taken a leadership role at bigtent, a startup building web community tools. Below I ask Donna some questions about her time at Clarify, a CRM software success which today exists as part of Amdocs.

Donna Novitsky

>> Who did you know at Clarify or how did you otherwise get connected with the team?
I was introduced to the CEO by one of the VCs on the board. I was introduced to the VC by a friend who went to business school with her.

>> What stage was the company at when you signed on?
It had just closed series A funding. Product was in development. No demo yet. No customers. Just the CEO, 9 engineers, an office manager and me!

>> Was CRM well understood yet by the industry?
No. The industry didn’t exist. We had the opportunity to name it and lay its foundation. I was coming from Sun Microsystems and it was clear that businesses needed a way to build relationships with customers beyond price/performance – and there was real pain in tracking customer cases. People were starting to build solutions themselves, which didn’t seem like a good idea.

>> You led marketing at Clarify – how did you position against larger established software companies
The larger software companies didn’t have a solution like ours, so we partnered with them. We used the databases from Oracle and Sybase and delivered turnkey but tailorable applications. We sold a lot of database seats for them. At the time, no one thought we could build an off-the-shelf application that could be tailored to the unique processes of a businesses without writing code. That was the big ahah. Every customer could implement their own workflow for customer care, so no customer issues fell through the cracks.

>> When did you know it was going to be incredibly successful and/or did you ever have significant doubts about the company’s prospects?
I never had doubts, but it wasn’t easy. We could tell from the positive feedback we got from our customers, and the way the pipeline grew that we were on to something. However, we had 2 head-to-head competitors, so we were constantly striving to beat them. That made us all better so the market grew and the customers benefited.

>> Clarify went public in 1995 – did you do anything internally to commemorate the IPO?
Of course! We had a great culture at Clarify. We always shared all the news with all the employees – the good and the bad – as we were building the company. So we were all on the journey together. A significant milestone like that was cause for celebration. Everyone got into that party!

>> Did you have any traditions or rituals that helped define the company’s culture?
Yes. Probably the most important one was the weekly all hands meeting friday afternoons. This is where we shared updates on what was going on in all the departments and it usually evolved into a beer bust. We did this from when we could all fit in one small conference room, up until we had to go to a local hotel to fit everyone in. I guess at that point it was more like once/month – but the culture of communication continued.

>> When did you know it was time to leave?
We had grown to 500 employees and $100M in revenue in about 7 yrs. We were well-established and a recognized leader in our industry. The challenges of growth from there are quite different from the 0-$100M stage. Personally, I had a new baby at home, which changes the whole equation. So it was time to move on to something where I could have more flexibility in my schedule than needing to be in the office 10 hrs/day. I loved my time at Clarify and am quite proud of what we accomplished there. I hope to build an equally successful company with many of the same cultural aspects at my new venture, Big Tent.