How to build a commercial culture to scale your SaaS business

Lasse Sten, SaaS Business leader

House of Control (HoC) has had a successful journey, growing from a small business with just three employees to a company with 225 million NOK in ARR. In this interview, Lasse Sten, the CEO of HoC, reflects on the company’s journey and how they achieved this growth. Lasse attributes the success to a strong commercial culture and a focus on customer-driven innovation. Despite facing challenges such as liquidity in the early years, the company has managed to overcome them and continue to grow. In this interview, you can learn more about HoC’s journey as a SaaS business and the strategies that led to their success.

How did your journey with House of Control begin?

– My journey with House of Control began when I recognized with an opportunity and an obvious need in the market. We started out as a small project with tree employees and a goal of reaching a turnover of five million NOK. However, we quickly gained momentum and HoC became a successful Norwegian company. We’ve been working on this idea for many years and have seen strong organic growth. Our organic development has been an important factor in our success, going from 0 to 225 million NOK in ARR from our founding days until now.

How has House of Control developed in recent years?

– Since 2015, we have scaled from a team of 14 employees, where one person, me, was involved a lot in all departments, to 177 employees at the most. Viking Venture has been central in our organizational build-up. Together we have created a structure and recruited a management team that has managed to scale over time, both on the product and people side.

What has been decisive for the successes you have had as a company?

– We have a strong commercial culture in HoC with this flair, a combination of joy and madness. It has been an essential part of our culture for years and still is. We have also been good at customer-driven innovation, seeing opportunities, and doing things together with our customers. IFRS 16 is an example of a customer-driven innovation which is an essential part of our offer today with 16% of our revenue. We’ve also been good at saying no to things and trying to stay as sharp and focused as possible is essential.

Interview with Lasse Sten

How do you work with customer-driven innovation?

– In dialogue with a customer, we talk about, “What else do you spend much time on?” “Where does the shoe pinch?” “Is there anything else you need help with?” Simply asking open-ended questions to customers. You can get strange answers that have nothing to do with your business, but now and then, you come across something you can drill more into and explore. After that, you can test the idea with other customers to see if more people latch on to that concept. Creating something for a single customer or something you think is vital to the customers is effortless. We have also done a lot of that. You feel you’re going to save the world with this product, but in reality, you are not. Therefore, saying no to things and trying to avoid doing certain things has become more critical as the company grows.

– So many ideas come in and handling these ideas in a good way is essential. Before developing a product, you must get it tested well enough across the width of different customers. Here we have a culture where we set up ten PowerPoint slides, run out, and try to sell them. Our latest product now, which gives control over purchasing and suppliers, we did precisely this, and we have managed to sell loads of it. We should do even more of this all over the business. There is much to be learned from this.

How do you work with sales and generate leads in your SaaS business?

– We are a very commercial business. We have set up a large department which books meetings with prospective customers and have had salespeople for all the years, with quite tough outreach sales.

– The last years we have gradually got some volume of inbound leads through digital marketing. We are now at 16-18% of new sales created from inbound leads. This year, we’re putting more resources on inbound marketing. Then we act much more purposefully; we hit a much larger area, geographically and in general. Customers pay more, and they shop faster. So, it’s interesting to meet them warm in the door and not do cardiac compression first to get them to sign.

What have been the most significant challenges?

– Until 2015, the biggest challenge was liquidity. It was almost impossible to get financing, and you do not get any government support or loans when you are located just outside the capital, Oslo. So, we depended on raising money and providing personal guarantees for overdrafts. If we had gained access to capital or loans more quickly, we could have grown much faster.

How have you managed to say no and hold back on expenses?

– Jostein Vik, Partner at Viking Venture and longtime chairman of House of Control made a strong comment last year, when we had to cut some costs. I remember him saying; “Lasse has managed to maintain the ability to act as an entrepreneur even if he has 4% ownership and lead a company with 400 shareholders. He treats costs as if it was his own expenses.”

– You have to refrain where necessary, and to be able to get things done quickly. It doesn’t get better if you don’t carry out the plans you have laid out. Doing these two things in combination makes things happen without going in the wrong direction or incurring too many costs.

How has having brought in an investor affected the employees at House of Control?

– Having an investor has made it possible to grow and to hire more employees. We put some frameworks in place that allowed us to make the necessary investments. It has enabled us to build up HoC faster with people and products. In addition, to professionalize the business a lot. It has been a fantastic journey that everyone here has been a part of it. After all, Viking and the board set the guidelines. Then it has become my job to bring it out in the organization. It has made it possible to grow and build the company faster than we could without.

House of Control employees (SaaS business)
The employees at House of Control

What has surprised you the most about having Viking Venture as an owner?

– I remember back in 2015 when I wanted to bring in a new part owner who could help build the company further. Of the people we met, it was obvious that it was Viking with whom we had the best chemistry. We made the deal in the spring of 2015. I was a bit anxious since I´d been running this shop as my own practice all the way. At the same time, I was very excited about how it would be to bring in an investor like Viking on the board, and wondered how will my everyday life?

– I have to say that the Viking Venture system has been delivering. There are so many talented people who share experiences across all portfolio companies. We entered the extended family very quickly. We learned a lot, so we could avoid making the same mistakes that others have made. To a certain extent, you can learn from what has happened.

– That effect was significant, and Viking’s typical engagement and involvement are also essential. Both in terms of their availability and their courage to test everything such as price increases. In general, they challenge truths and run tests. This is an integral part of their culture. They are passionately interested in their portfolio companies and work proactively with them, which is unique in my view.

What advice would you give to other leaders or founders of SaaS businesses considering raising capital?

– I have one piece of advice for an entrepreneur with a turnover of around NOK 30 million who want to take the company further—picturing having worked on this project of mine for many years. If you want to scale your SaaS business, and maybe reduce your private level of risk by taking something off the table, I will strongly recommend having a chat with Viking Venture.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned as an entrepreneur, and what would you do differently retrospectively?

– How to scale a SaaS company, it was something we really learned from Viking Venture from their entrance in 2015. In hindsight, I would have done it earlier and faster. For a period, we employed many hunters to increase turnover. But we started at the wrong end and should have started with bookers. If I were to do this all over again, it could be done much faster in this round.

– We have made some unsuccessful hires and invested in things we should not have done. We have made some acquisitions that we would not do today because the frameworks and conditions change constantly.

What are your reflections on your further journey with Visma?

– Now we look forward to building the HoC-business further under the direction of Visma. I have realized that there are plenty of synergies, and the possibilities are just enormous. We look forward to picking up the opportunities across the system to build HoC further to a proper level of turnover. Hopefully, we will achieve it sooner than we think.

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