An Interview with Colin Earl, CEO and Founder, Agiloft
Agiloft was born out of the frustration of its founder with the time it took to get changes made to enterprise software. What started as a framework that allowed for changes to be made quickly – but still required coding - evolved into a platform that allowed for “no-code” application development before that was even a recognized term and concept.
Colin Earl discusses the benefits of such an approach as well as to why he never wanted to accept venture capital (VC) investments for his company. He also shares some interesting methods that he uses to incentivize employees and align their values with the company’s values.
HostAdvice: What were you doing before you founded Agiloft?
I spent fifteen (15) years in the software industry before founding Agiloft. I started my career as a software developer and moved on to be a product manager and then a CIO (Chief Information Officer), mainly in the field of CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design and Computer Aided Manufacturing).
What prompted me to start Agiloft was the fact that my greatest pain point as a CIO was the cost and the time it took for developers to make changes to our software. Custom code means:
- Custom bugs
- Maintenance nightmare
- Long time to make changes
With the availability of Java and commodity hardware, it became possible for the first time to eliminate custom coding.
I realized that we were really on to something when I happened to take a call from someone at Lockheed Martin and I was shocked to find out that they were using our software to track satellite error data! When I asked him why he didn’t just use existing in-house tracking software, he told me that in order to make any required modifications he had to beg and call in political favors just to get it done in 3 months – instead of the usual 6-12 months.
HostAdvice: What exactly is the Agiloft software? Your site says “Agile Business Software” but I am still not 100% clear.
Agiloft allows you to configure enterprise class applications without custom coding. It is a no-code development platform as well as a suite of business process automation software built on that platform. The platform – a full set of configurable services - is included with the software so that anyone can easily configure and customize the applications for their specific needs.
The result is that you can easily design and deploy complex systems in weeks rather than months. This enterprise software can then be rapidly adapted to new requirements and therefore always be in step with the changing business needs.
We speak to many business leaders and managers and they tell us that in today’s fast-changing environment, they want a maximum of 2-week turnaround time for business requirements changes to their company’s software. Changes that take leading CRM (Customer Relationship Management) providers 3 months to deploy, we can make in a matter of days.
HostAdvice: Since your company has been around for almost 25 years, it sounds like you were a big believer in no-code (or low-code) software development, before the term even existed?
Indeed, that is true - due to my own experience and frustrations as a CIO. The vision of Agiloft has always been to enable the creation of custom, enterprise-class business applications without custom programming.
HostAdvice: While there are a lot of obvious advantages to low-code development and users modifying their own applications, there must be some disadvantages or tradeoffs. What are they?
The primary tradeoff is the time it takes to deliver the platform. Building a flexible and reliable no-code platform for the enterprise is very hard and challenging. You must build an extraordinary amount of core functionality into the base product and also ensure that it can scale to support thousands of concurrent users. We invested 7 years of development to go from the initial product design to the first demo!
HostAdvice: Your suite offers several main modules for managing a business, including:
Customer Service and Support
ITIL Service Management
I understand most of those functions – but could you please elaborate on the last two – Change Management and ITIL Service Management?
Those two are very closely related and deal with managing an IT (Information Technology) department. ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) is a framework of practices for IT Service Management (ITSM) that focuses on how IT organizations should manage their resources and align themselves with the organization’s business needs. It is a massively complex specification (5 huge volumes) originally produced by the UK government, but subsequently adopted by many UK and US businesses who decided they wanted to follow it.
The Change Management module is a subset of ITIL focusing only on IT change management. It is really enough for small and medium sized organizations, while the full ITIL module is more suited for large corporations, especially in regulated industries.
HostAdvice: Who do you define as your target market? Is there a specific target audience within that market?
Our audience is typically the IT department of a medium or large size organization – either public or private. We do actually have some very small organizations running on our software, e.g. a 20-person company that delivers organic lunches.
In addition to these direct sales, we also have a lot of partners such as ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) and VARs (Value Added Resellers) who also sell Agiloft to customers in their niche markets. These partners bring a lot of value to the table, since they have a far greater understanding of their customers’ specific needs than we do.
Our current sales breakdown is approximately:
IT / Direct Sales - 80%
Partner Sales - 20%
but that ratio is changing rapidly. We are hoping that by the end of next year the ratio will look more like:
IT / Direct Sales - 40%
Partner Sales - 60%
HostAdvice: Are there some scenarios where Agiloft is not an appropriate solution?
Agiloft is focused on business process automation, which means that there are certain types of modules or applications that you can’t really build with it.
HostAdvice: How many active customers do you have today? Where are they mainly located?
We don’t disclose financial-related information, but I can tell you that we currently have several hundred customers, many of whom you can see listed on our web site. They are primarily located in the US, although some of our customers are large US-based corporations, who also deploy our software to their offices around the world.
As mentioned above, our software is also sold and deployed in a lot of other places, via our partner resellers.
HostAdvice: Who are some of your biggest customers?
In terms of very large customers, I would mention the following:
- US Air Force
- San Mateo County
You can see a more extensive list of customers and many customer case studies on our website.
HostAdvice: Who do you see as your main competitors?
Oracle, NetSuite, and Salesforce.com compete with us for the platform and then there are other companies that compete with us on specific modules.
HostAdvice: How do you see your tools as different and/or better than theirs?
Agility and ease of adaptability. Removing the need for custom coding is really the big differentiator, because changes become much faster to implement, significantly less expensive, and much, much easier to maintain long term. Making changes in Agiloft is orders of magnitude easier – rather than being stuck with a system that is inflexible.
It is great to be in a meeting discussing ideas and changes and to then see them deployed within hours! We often use this as a great pre-sales tactic – it is very convincing.
HostAdvice: How do you see the world of corporate software development changing in the next few years?
It really depends on the industry. Some industries - say shipping for example - change, very, very slowly, so big implementations are fine. However, companies in fast-moving industries must be much more agile and able to meet changing requirements. In such environments, no-code platforms come to the foreground.
HostAdvice: What are your future plans for Agiloft?
In term of technology, we are always rolling out new features. For the company, we are focusing on growing our reseller network that I mentioned earlier. Those revenues have grown 40-60% annually for each of the past three (3) years and we expect that it will drive our growth for the next 3-4 years. Beyond that, I really can’t predict.
HostAdvice: I understand that you believe strongly in not taking on outside funding or outside investors. Why is that? Has that decision limited your growth at times?
Yes, that is true and yes, it has at times limited our growth. But it has also limited our risk.
The real problem is that VCs (Venture Capitalists) and investors only look at the short term. They want to see returns in 1-2 years. That doesn’t really match up with enterprise software which has a very long sales cycle, but will be in place generating revenues for 10+ years.
It is very risky to try and grow so quickly in such an environment, because it can easily lead to software that is not absolutely rock solid. That is why we spent seven years developing and testing our software before we even demoed it. This risk of rapid growth applies to customers and employees as well, who will also suffer greatly if the software foundation is not absolutely stable.
HostAdvice: Given that you are in the heart of Silicon Valley how do you compete for – and hold on to – great employees? How do you compete in this area against all of the latest startups?
We place a tremendous emphasis on the ongoing happiness as well as the longevity of our employees. Low turnover of employees is very important for the stability of our system – both the software itself and knowledge of how to use it. Bugs in systems like ours are a very big deal.
That is why we always emphasize growth that is slow and steady.
Our work environment is very informal and unlike the crazy hours worked by employees at VC-backed startups, we want our employees to work only 40-45 hours a week. We don’t want them to get burned out – we want them to stay with us for the long term. That is one reason the average age of our employees is closer to 30-something than to 20-something.
Let me say that in addition to many other advantages of working at Agiloft, the chances of an employee getting rich here is just as great as at any startup. All employees at Agiloft, including developers, get sales bonuses. We offer customers a 90-day unconditional guarantee - if they are not absolutely delighted with the results for any reason, they can just cancel the sale and pay nothing. The combination of these two policies ensures that:
- Developers actually care about customer satisfaction.
- Sales people won’t exaggerate or make promises we can’t keep.
These policies and incentives work to align employee values with company values and with what is best for the customer. This is one of the keys to our success, because we now have a stellar reputation and sales are being driven by very satisfied customers.
HostAdvice: Do you also get to work only 40-45 hours a week? What do you like to do when you are not working?
[Laughs] No, I generally work closer to 50 hours a week – but that is still a lot less than the average executive in Silicon Valley.
When I am not working, I enjoy hiking, kayaking, and meditating. I try to get as far away from Silicon Valley as I can.