Agents of Change
Brick by brick: Aforza’s road to software solution success
with Dominic Dinardo, CEO of Aforza
Our Agents of Change series with business leaders and pioneers talks of how to drive sustainable success in a changed world.
Join Agent3’s Chief Revenue Officer Paul Mackender and CEO and Co-Founder of Aforza, Dominic Dinardo, to hear about the challenges of building a software company during the pandemic, the relationship between digital e-commerce and social interaction, and how the move from fast-moving consumer goods to the rise of sustainable distribution is affecting businesses.
Paul Mackender (00:06):
So, hi. I’m Paul Mackender, the Chief Revenue Officer here at Agent3, and it’s the latest in our Agents Of Change conversation series. And today I’m delighted to be joined by Dominic Dinardo, talking about how to build a software business in the pandemic. Before Dominic speaks, I’ll just give him a bit of an introduction. So Dominic’s kicked off his career working at Shell. Then moved on and spent 10 very successful years at Salesforce, where I think your last role Dom was global SVP of sales engineering, before moving on to also global sales and SVP role at Veeva. And then, before founding Aforza, was EVP and MD at Vlocity, an industry cloud-based business, which again actually became part of Salesforce. So there’s obviously a link there. But, first of all Dom, thanks for making time to chat. It’s great to see you, as always.
Dominic Dinardo (00:54):
Oh, very nice to see you as well. Thanks for giving me the chance to do this interview.
Paul Mackender (00:58):
So before we get into any detail, maybe could you just give us a precis about Aforza. I suppose, what the very purpose of the business is? And, why you set it up?
Dominic Dinardo (01:06):
So Aforza is an industry cloud company. We’re completely dedicated to consumer goods, food, beverages. And we help these companies sell more and grow faster. These companies typically spend a lot of money on promotions and they have a lot of wastage. And we help them target their sales to be more efficient and more effective. And we work with companies like Distell, and Photos and WOW Tech, and many others all around the world, from Europe to Africa, the Americas, everywhere.
Paul Mackender (01:36):
Yeah. Wonderful. Sounds very spot – I look forward to digging into that. So, all of these conversations we’ve kicked off to basically say, how has the last be last year been? How have you experienced it? And I think out all the conversations I’ve done when we were talking other day, your story is probably the most unique in that respects. Do you want to talk about, I suppose, where Aforza was at the start of the pandemic and some of the challenges you faced?
Dominic Dinardo (01:59):
Well, you made me feel a little bit old at the start of the interview when you read out my career history and I was thinking, “Oh, my Goodness me! I’ve spent a lot of time … ” Obviously, I was in a lot of early stage companies. At least they were early stage at the beginning. Right? With Salesforce, Veeva, Vlocity and so forth. And myself and my co-founders always had an ambition to do it ourselves. So with Aforza, we understood the cloud model, we understood how to build industry specific software. We needed a deep knowledge of consumer goods. We had all the ingredients, we had the team. No one tells you how to prepare for when something completely out of left field is thrown at you, like a global pandemic.
Dominic Dinardo (02:41):
Actually, I did an interview with a journalist and he said, “Yeah, well, lots of companies have had to survive the pandemic.” And I pointed out to him, “But, look, we were brand new. We started with only a little bit of money, our brains, contacts and talents. But, we had no customers, no software. We had nothing.” We couldn’t even leave our house. Right? At some points. So it’s a crazy situation. And we’ve persevered and succeeded. We successfully completed our Series A, earlier this year. We have a significant amount of funding. We actually raised more than $22 million. We now actually have lost count. We’re now approaching, I think, 20 customers, worldwide. And, we did all of this, achieved all this in really what is, I guess … There’s been a lot of hyperbole, hasn’t there about how to describe the pandemic? But unprecedented times.
Paul Mackender (03:30):
Yeah. And, going back to the talent, the budget, having to work from home, how did you manage that change? Because, as you say, starting a business, there’s always change and you’ve got to be scrappy at times. But, you don’t want to lose sight of your vision.
Dominic Dinardo (03:43):
When things first started to lock down, I think we did things that were very similar to many other companies. We had the hold-hands calls and the nice chats. But what I think that people don’t talk about quite so much is, what happens after a few months of that? And, the honest answer was, there’s a couple of things we did. First of all, I did some things like, I can’t believe I’m admitting this on camera, but we had a thing called “Dr. Dom Day,” where I would call everybody in the company. You would get your Dr. Dom consultation. And I did this funny thing, where I just had this script, “Hey, how are you? What are you working on? What are you doing?” And I’d make a lot of notes. And the next week I would just make it a continuous conversation.
Dominic Dinardo (04:23):
So I had something like 30 continuous conversations going that I somehow roughly tracked. And, it’s quite funny, because I actually start to flip it with people. “Listen, I’m tired of being Dr. Dom today. Can you be Dr. Fred? Why don’t you ask me how I’m doing?” And trying to make it a little bit light. So, we did stuff like that. But in the end, I think really what it spoke to was, even though we were doing it virtually, the kind of people we hired, the kind of people we recruited were mission-orientated people, Paul. They were on a mission, and in their characters, there was a lot of strength and fortune. I don’t really want to speak about it too much. Some of these people went through some significant tragedies through this period, which is very difficult. But I think we prevailed, I guess, is the right way of putting it.
Paul Mackender (05:11):
Yeah. It sounds fantastic. It sounds like you’ve obviously built a culture from day one, which is now standing you in really good stead. So, flipping the model a bit. Obviously, you’ve got a certain number of backers behind the business. We’ll talk about the recent funding round. How were they? How did you find working with them? Again, obviously, you and your founders have got strong reputations and a great track record. But, again, they’ve never gone through this. So, how did you find working with your backers?
Dominic Dinardo (05:38):
The first thing to say, of course, everybody wants to help. But, everybody is learning and processing at the same time as you. So, the great thing about our backers, our investors is, of course, is they’re talking to many companies in our portfolio. I’ll tell you some of the good, happy things and some of the, perhaps, tougher things that I was told during the period. One of our backers is Salesforce Ventures. They leaned in very quickly, inside their portfolio companies, to strengthen where they thought people might need help, fiscally. And that was actually pretty impressive. The Salesforce culture ecosystem and value set is actually really strong. But my other investors also helped. We actually did, if I remember correctly, actually, a small raise in the middle of it all, actually, which they … All of them stepped up, which was really good.
Dominic Dinardo (06:28):
One of my investors actually said to me, “We stack-ranked all our companies, which ones we’re going to try to support, which ones we’ll allow to die, if it comes to that. You’ll be pleased to hear you are in the “survive list.” That was a revelation, actually. I hadn’t really faced something like that before.
Paul Mackender (06:44):
Dominic Dinardo (06:44):
That was interesting, yeah. But, I think more than anything, it was probably getting the anecdotes and feedback from around the ecosystem. Initially we’d get stuff like a lot of messages like, “Hunker down, preserve the cash,” all this kind of stuff. But the truth is, actually, apart from our internal things that I already discussed, about how we would try to stay sane and just keep focused and stay on the mission, the truth is, we didn’t change any of our patterns really throughout the pandemic. What was different probably was the whole method of execution.
Paul Mackender (07:20):
Interesting. So, you mentioned about you raising, I think, it was $22 million Series A funding. That’s off the back of … Managed to get, as you say, bring a software product to market, getting customers in. Look, at UK, Kenya, Portugal, Africa, UAE, all over. How do you approach that? Because, again, it’s not something that you can pull an experience to say, “Oh, we’ve done this before. Let’s put this model in place or try these methodologies.”
Dominic Dinardo (07:46):
No. Actually it’s a great point, Paul, because myself, my team, we’ve done this early stage thing before. But, typically, the way you built trust in 2010 was, you went to see the customer and you sat in his office and you relentlessly talked, presented and demoed and built up that relationship face to face. One of your earlier interview guests, Lindsey Armstrong, talked a lot about a couple of themes, where she’s talked about helping people buy things. And she talked about how today a single Zoom meeting becomes very important, because that’s your 30, 45-minute window to actually communicate with a group of people that are customer. So I think that there’s probably a lot of lessons still being learned. This is not the end of the journey, where we suddenly understand how business works in the 21st century. I think we’re seeing an evolution.
Dominic Dinardo (08:36):
And I think that what we had to discover pretty quickly in this was exactly that. When you’ve got zero customers and a brand new product, how do you convince, number one, when you can’t go there? Right? And what we had done was, we’ve built a lot of the Aforza’s culture’s anchored on a killer product, basically. We’re really very proud of what it is. And I know we’ll talk a bit about it later on. We talk about how easy it’s to use, with “so easy a kid could do it.” Right? But we did a killer product and we built killer demonstrations. And in that sense, if you’re doing it from your own home or an office and you can’t go anywhere, the opposite is true. You can go anywhere.
Dominic Dinardo (09:20):
You don’t have to do it, the way you normally would’ve done it. And I think also, and again, Lindsey alluded to this a little bit. I think the days of the sales guy who brings the cookies and is very affable and might buy your lunch or something, and then the solution engineer does a demonstration … I think those days may be fading or if not already gone. They’re gone, right? Everyone has to be a subject matter expert now, especially in the industry cloud company where you’re focusing one subject, one domain. And so trust is built up through knowledge and by demonstration.
Paul Mackender (09:54):
But you also hit on that point about usability. Again, when I was doing a bit of prep for this, I laughed at, I think, it’s Bethany, aged eight. So I think, if you could tell me a little bit about who Bethany is and creating a YouTube style, which again, is in all seriousness, is testament to not having software for software’s sake, but actually one, making it applicable and industry leading. But two, it’s got to be usable.
Dominic Dinardo (10:21):
If you go onto YouTube and search Aforza, you’ll find we’ve a nice YouTube channel with thousands of demonstrations and things. And one of the most played videos we’ve got is Bethany. Bethany is the wonderful daughter of our marketing leader. And the backstory to this is Andy, her dad, who works for us, unfortunately his wife was poorly at the weekend. So he’s got all the kids. He’s running around doing the football or touch rugby, or whatever it is. He’s trying to keep them all entertained. I’m sure all of us who have got children have all been there and can recognize these days. Right?
Dominic Dinardo (10:53):
And Bethany is bored. So Dad has given her his phone to play with, and she finds Aforza on his phone. And she says, “What’s this Dad? This is where you work at. Right?” So he’s like, “Okay, yeah. I’ll show you.” So he grabs the phone and does a very short Aforza demo. And this is where it gets interesting. She says, “Do it again, Dad.” So he does it again. And she says, “Okay.” And then she takes the phone and gives him the demo back and he can’t believe it. And he’s like, “Okay, when we go home, you do that again and this time I’ll film you.”
Dominic Dinardo (11:23):
So if you go on YouTube and watch Bethany, it’s only a few minutes long and she’s delightful, because she’s cute as a button. But she’s basically been given her second demonstration of Aforza is and Dad just films it. And it’s articulate, it’s funny. And I’ve actually sent it to customers quite a lot, because “Hey, look! An eight-year-old can do it. Anyone can do this.” Right? It’s simple. So it’s a fun story, but it’s also a testament to that product-led thing, that is probably why we broke free of the pandemic, why people bought it. Because, they probably saw that. You’re doing a very sophisticated, complicated thing, but it doesn’t look that way. It’s easy.
Paul Mackender (12:04):
Yeah. Which is the code to crack, in some respects. But to your point about the industry, I think to make some notes, you were talking about the roller coaster that the CPG industry went on. Again, I was doing some research. Apparently in 2020, there was more absolute growth in CPG than there had been in the previous four years. With that, we’ve all seen the rise of e-commerce. Probably to a certain extent, brand equity switching, as people have been having more choice and started to really look at online. Availability issues, this tension between bricks-and-mortar and online, obviously, various organizations and countries opening up depending on, unfortunately, where COVID is at. What’s your view based on what you’ve see in the CPG industry and what you see going forward? And, I suppose ultimately, how you are trying to maximize that opportunity?
Dominic Dinardo (12:54):
Well, Paul, let me start with this. Our vision as a company is to improve the lives of every consumer in the world. Right? So that’s where we start for our mindset, our value set. And from that thread, there’s a lot of big picture items to say. And you’ve touched on some of them. But I’m going to astound you now with even more figures and more disruption to this industry, because given that there’s so much of this going on … What was the statistic you said? It’s grown by how much in the last-
Paul Mackender (13:24):
Well, it was more absolute growth in 2020, which I appreciate is now almost a year off the previous four years compounded together.
Dominic Dinardo (13:32):
But Paul, just think about this. You’ve given me this statistic about how all these companies have sold so much more food and beverages and whatever other products. Yet 10% of the world, unfortunately, is still going hungry. And, at the same time as that, about a third of the world’s food and beverage production goes in the bin. It gets wasted. Right? Now, you take all that and you think then about all the challenges these companies are faced, with supply chains et cetera, through the pandemic. And some of it perhaps related to things like Brexit, which is a subjective argument. But, there’s disruption. So you’ve got supply chain, you’ve got wastage, you have issues with sustainability now, and you have this problem where much of the packaging … These companies, they’re full of people like us, trying to do their best, trying to work hard, trying to do the right thing. But it’s hard. Right? They’re trying to convert years and years of working and perhaps even centuries, right, of culture into having recyclable products, et cetera.
Dominic Dinardo (14:40):
And then you’ve got the governments of the world also leaning on you, trying to change how you make products. In the United Kingdom, we have HFSS, high fat sugars and salts. In America, it’s Better 4 You campaigns and things. So you’re in a regulatory environment where even how you put your products together, the ingredients they have, how you promote them, is all changing.
Dominic Dinardo (15:03):
So, put it this way. There are two things I can absolutely guarantee you for the future. Number one, you Paul, are going to eat and drink in the future. Right? You are going to consume these products. That’s a known fact. And number two, we know that the companies that have to get those products to you have to go through a significant change. And it’s my belief and Aforza’s belief that we can produce the products that give you the agility, the capabilities to handle these massive disruptive forces, that you can have the best possible outcomes for how you take the creation and distribution and promotion of your products out to your customers. And ultimately out to the field. Now, just before I finish my little monologue here, you mentioned about the growth in e-commerce, and I think tech companies love to talk about e-commerce. We in fact also do some e-commerce offerings. B2B support in particular.
Dominic Dinardo (16:01):
But, what’s also going on, I think, is a second thing that doesn’t really get talked about in tech quite so much, because it’s another facet of human beings. We’re inherently social animals. And, I like to go down to the pub to talk to my friends, or go and have a dinner party in a restaurant. And sometimes my wife and daughters will drag me shopping and I won’t complain too much. Right? But, this all happens in person, in the real world, not in the digital world. And especially after you’ve had a couple of years of being locked up, you’re going to see a lot of this.
Dominic Dinardo (16:32):
So I think you’re going to see some real seismic shifts coming forward. We already see it happening in Europe, interestingly enough, where e-commerce has actually declined. And you see suddenly the rise of going back to the high street. And I think it’s funny, while all the technology world is and many of the consumer goods companies worry about the prevalence of Amazon, Amazon spends a lot of time worrying about how to go onto the high street and doing experimental shops. Funny, right? So I see that we’ll see some return to that. I don’t know how far it will go, but we will see more social interaction, as I described. And I think that you’ll see a change. I think we’re going to move from the world of fast-moving consumer goods from FMCG, probably to something that … We’re coining a new phrase, “sustainably distributed consumer goods.” And so that, together with local supply chains and more of a local business centricity, I think is something that we will see increasingly in the future.
Paul Mackender (17:31):
Dominic Dinardo (17:31):
I gave you quite a lot there, but hopefully-
Paul Mackender (17:32):
Yeah. No, there’s a lot to go at. Obviously, it’s fascinating. And again, it’s fantastic, as you say, you’ve got to be the main expert. You’ve got to have a point of view on this, and an opinion. So, with the funding you’ve got, with this change and some seismic changes that you just explained, what does the next year look like for Aforza?
Dominic Dinardo (17:53):
We are continuing to recruit great talent everywhere. So, if you’re watching this interview, I’m going into a shameless plug, now. If you’re watching this interview and you like what I was talking about, think you might have a role to play here, please reach out. We’re hiring. And yeah, we will be doing the things you’d expect us to do. We’re doing a lot of investment in digital asset management, because we think that the production and promotion of these goods is going to be more and more coupled to digital assets and how that works. So we’ll be seeing a lot of that. Increasing investment in artificial intelligence and the predictions of orders and things.
Dominic Dinardo (18:28):
And, of course, we’ll be investing in our customer success and sales teams to bring all this to market. And, in some ways Paul, we’re on a mission to improve every consumer in the world’s life. But, in a funny way, it’s the same business model as many other software companies. We plan to double, double and double again.
Paul Mackender (18:46):
Dom, thanks as always, for making time to chat. It’s good to see you. And good luck with the ongoing journey.
Dominic Dinardo (18:52):
Thanks so much, Paul. Thanks for giving me the chance to tell it. Take care.