This 17-year old company just posted its first profitable quarter ever. Here's what changed

Andreas Rekdal

Running a startup is a lot like managing a sports team: if things aren’t going your way for a few seasons in a row, it might be time for a cultural shake-up.

That was Jason Liu’s conclusion when he arrived at SAVO Group about 18 months ago. Founded in 1999, the sales productivity software firm had been building up a technology base for nearly two decades, but it had yet to put a single profitable quarter on the board.

“The company had a lot of success, but in recent years it had started having some challenges that were caused because it got de-focused and started trying to do too many things,” Liu said.

Headquartered in the Loop, SAVO makes software to aid sales productivity. Much like the marketing industry has embraced advanced metrics over the past few years, Liu said the sales industry reinvented itself to become more science-driven. SAVO’s solutions helps teams discover and adopt best practices and make data-guided decisions throughout the sales process.

After 17 years in existence, the company reported its first profitable quarter ever earlier this month.

Liu’s core strategy for turning the company around was to take a page out of the startup playbook: re-invest in research and development, and cut projects that didn’t align with the company’s core expertise. That — along with an intensive effort to change the company’s culture to be more entrepreneurial — boosted employee morale, said Liu.

“We use the analogy of the Chicago Cubs,” said Liu. “Culture wins out every time, even if you have the strategy. So how do you change the culture?”

Part of the answer, he said, was to get strategic about hiring new employees who were enthusiastic about the company and its mission. He also introduced agile-inspired processes in every facet of the business from engineering to sales to make the culture more dynamic and ensure that teams don’t get stuck in a rut.

A familiar concept to many developers, the agile methodology breaks development projects into smaller chunks, allowing teams to take them on piece by piece and evaluate the project’s overall direction on a regular basis, making adjustments to the plans if necessary. Liu rebuilt SAVO’s sales and marketing processes on the same principles, encouraging team members to conceive of new approaches, see what works and iterate.

“People go too quickly from idea to production in sales and marketing, rather than going through agile steps like rapid prototyping before rolling it into production,” Liu said. “And they oftentimes don’t involve the seller or the customer in the decisions along the way.”

Last but not least, Liu wanted his employees to have more fun together.

“We did a scavenger hunt where we took a day off work and ran around Chicago,” Liu said. “We also did a mini golf contest internally where we had people build individual holes around the office. It was very engineering-focused and creative.”

Now that SAVO is back in its groove, Liu expects to grow the Chicago team, which consisted of 140 employees at the end of September this year, at a pace of about 20 to 30 percent annually.

“We’re actually going to extend four offers today,” Liu said when he spoke with us last week.

Image via Savo.

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