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Both Sides Of User-Centric Design, Ruthless Decisions & Closing Virgin Trains As First Sale

Iain Griffin - Seatfrog

Iain Griffin is the Founder & CEO of Seatfrog

Seatfrog is the world's first technology to make upgrading a trip effortless for passengers and highly intelligent for airlines and rail providers.

Full Podcast Transcript

Sidney: Welcome to the "SalesNative" podcast, where tech founders share their most valuable sales lessons. I'm Sidney from Sydney, founder of SalesNative, and today's guest is Iain Griffin, founder and CEO of Seatfrog based in Sydney and London. Iain, welcome to the show.

Iain: Thanks, Sidney. It's always a pleasure to be with you.

Sidney: Good to have you here, mate. So Seatfrog is the world's first technology to make upgrading a trip effortless for passengers and highly intelligent for airlines and rail providers. I'd love to learn about the business but first I wanna know why did you start this company?

Iain: I get asked this question all the time actually...Journalists, lots of different scenarios. Everyone wants to know where we originally came from and where the idea sparked. I guess, the line we always have is that myself and my two co-founders, our combined height is 18 foot nine inches so upgrades have always been a topic of conversation and our background in service design and user experience kinda taught us that you need to think customer first, customer centricity in the way you build your platforms but also your business processes and technology and when you think about upgrading, it's just a nightmare. It's a different process based on whatever airline or rail provider you're using. There may be three or four different processes, it's massively fragmented and with fragmentation and friction in customer experience means low conversion and that means that 480 million first class seats travel empty in the top 7 European countries every year and about 37 million business class seats travel empty on the top 20 carriers, so there's a huge problem there and someone needs to get in and sort it out and we're there to do that.

Sidney: Amazing. What a good story. So tell me about Seatfrog. What do you do, who do you do it for and how are you moving the needle for your target customer?

Iain: We've got two customers really. Our main customer obviously is an airline heavy-commercial or a rail heavy-commercial. You know, they are super focused on how can they maximize profitability, drive new revenue streams that they can open up within existing audiences. And on the other side of the fence, our ultimate end customer is making sure that getting an upgrade really seamless and friction-less for passengers. So if we're moving the needle for those two audiences, I guess let's focus on the customer first in terms of as the end user.

Seatfrog is incredibly easy to use. Put your booking reference in anytime before you travel and we tell you if there's an upgrade available on the day all automated through the app. We have a real-time view on all the availability and we've integrated in all the complex systems that manage seats availability for airlines and rail, which means that we can make that passenger experience amazing for passengers.

And so if there is an upgrade available on the day, it's a simple auction mechanic. So three hours before travel we notify everybody that's registered and we run an E-bay style auction for whatever inventory is left over. And the reason why we do that is because for rail and airlines, this taps into real-time last minute availability and uses thousands of data points to optimize everything in real-time instead of thinking about forecasting or historical performance. It's all done in that second. So we can work out...Okay, there's guaranteed to be two seats empty instead of putting our finger in the air and figuring out there might be something available on the day. Pricing is consistent so it's nice and transparent.

And for, you know, for clients like Virgin, we're looking at increasing yield performance for them over 100%. Well over 100%. We're talking about a conversion rate of...with our passengers, and this ties back to how good our service design is and our platform, of 56% all the way through the funnel. So on one side, we're making an amazing experience and passengers want to use it and we're proving that if you make a great experience, everything else comes off the back of that and that comes back to driving a significant revenue stream for a client.

Sidney: What I wanna call out for our listeners is the way you answered the question. So in terms of what do you do, who do you do it for, I think the clarity in which Iain described the two clear personas that you're serving and sort of understanding that they've got different needs and different behaviors. So one is people who look after revenue inside the airlines or the rail organisations and understanding what they need to address in terms of how they will measure success. And, of course, the second one was talking about the physical end users, the passengers, that need to upgrade. And the other bit I wanna call out is how intersection of various technologies has enabled this app, this service, this platform to exist today when you're thinking about your product or an industry, you know, we have to look at all the things that can impact it. So you guys are leveraging mobility.

Iain: Yeah.

Sidney: You're leveraging data. You're leveraging real time, but then you're also learning at what causes gamification, if you like. So that whole auctioning experience from E-bay and people sort of being on standby and so on and everyone wanting a discount to get something at a better price. So, sort of there's a lot of smarts that has gone into the design of this business.

Iain: Yeah. And I think you can think about user-centric design and from two sides. Everybody always thinks about user-interface design or user-experience and that's the be-all and end-all of everything, but ultimately if your technology platform doesn't deliver that in a really effective way as an example issuing a ticket, right? Everybody wants to issue a ticket straight to your mobile device but if you haven't connected into the platform that the guards on a train use to scan that ticket, then actually that becomes a pain in the ass for the guard and also the customer. Then the technology is not delivering on that and user-experience can't control that. So we make sure that user-centricity is across the entire business. Technology and customer design.

Sidney: So, I now wanna turn our attention to sales at Seatfrog. Tell me about your most interesting sale.

Iain: Interesting sale? Well, they're all interesting for different reasons.

Sidney: Some are more interesting than others.

Iain: First client...Yeah, that's true. No. All clients are equal. First client, definitely. We were highly focused on airlines. We were building a product where we had a big global partnership with Amadeus, and it was going incredibly well, some great conversations with airlines and pretty advanced stuff, and then Virgin Rail in the U.K. came along from nowhere, which was inbound lead through our website. And rail for us was definitely on the radar and our business strategy as a whole, I should probably point out, is way bigger than what we are doing right now. We'll get into that today not just from a product perspective but also verticals that we'd like to expand into. And we've had a lot of contact across multiple industries because our model and the way it works is effective across everything. Rail came along and kinda was one of those moments outta the blue where we had to make a pretty tough decision.

Number one, we've got a small team. We're early stage. We have a great product. We're focused on airlines and now we've potentially gotta shift our focus because there's a client whose hot on it and just wants to make a decision right now.

And number two, you gotta think about, okay, well, that sounds great and we have a product which naturally fits, but then you've gotta think about all the technology changes that you've gotta make, the systems you gotta integrate into, the user flow and passenger experience, the operational elements that are associated with that. The internal operations of Seatfrog were to be based in Sydney and they are based in the U.K., 24 hour time difference, how do you service that client with a 2-hour window?

As all these things are popping into your mind and you're trying to think, "Okay, I really want this deal, but I've gotta be ruthless in whether we actually take it or not.' And so our position was we will work with them and we will flip this focus of airlines slightly to the side and keep our conversations going, but we will focus on rail, If they pay for our team to be focused on that one side. We kinda sat down as a team and made a decision on, "Okay, these are all the 10 things that we're gonna have to change in terms of a high level of focus. This is how much impact we think it'll give to our business. This is the cost to us, not just financially but also the cost of potentially delaying some sales and maybe losing out on some airline stuff because we are saying that we can't work with you now because we've gotta focus. And then we make the decision on whether we are gonna move forward."

Sidney: Brilliant. Virgin Trains. Not a bad first little client to have though?

Iain: Yeah. True. And as soon as we got into it, then we started realizing, "Wow. How did we miss this market? Why didn't we go into this one first?"

Sidney: Right.

Iain: Trains compared to airlines, even hotels, car hire, they're just haven't tapped into the ancillary revenue side of their business. Ancillary revenue is defined, just so that everybody is clear, is anything after the core sell of a ticket. Excess baggage, an upgrade, maybe food and adding something to your trip at the last minute. And you know Trains is a relatively underdeveloped sleeping giant, I feel. And since we've launched with Virgin things have gone incredibly well. We got a really great felling for the client wanting to push innovation. We were super ruthless on, "Okay. We'll work with you but these five things need to be met in terms of: You need to make a decision by this day, there needs to be this much allocation in terms of integration fee and we need too agree on these time frames." And once we agreed to that they were pretty quick to turn around on things and we fired ahead and were integrated and live in the market within five weeks.

Sidney: Wonderful. I wanna call out three things out of that story. The first one is how important your brand and positioning is. Even as an early stage company, as a start-up, it's so important to put out a bold vision and to inspire people with what you wanna do. So those who've heard from me before I'll talk about pitch everyone and sell to a select few. And the fact that this lead came in by the website out of nowhere, so it wasn't something that you went and targeted but they heard about you clearly because you made the right marketing PR brand noises in whatever way you did.

The second point here is around agility. So as a start up, we think, you know, we think we know but we actually don't know. We're making stuff up as we go and part of it is to listen to the market and jump where there's real hair on fire and chequebook out as I say, right? Real demand, real interest, real excitement, real appetite for an adoption or change of what we are doing.

And the third one was through, Iain's example, it wasn't that they were flippant, it created a strategic decision point that he sat down with his team, considered all the impacts, waited out but then had the...I guess both agility and the courage to create a second stream of activity to go and close this deal and chase it down. And I know you guys are operational and its successful already, so great story to share in terms of the most interesting sale and a good one for us to learn from.

Iain: I'd add just two things to that. Say that the second point that you made around obviously where kind of running like the wind and moving as we go. I think often start-ups maybe forget that you know, the quality of your team is often better than your client's team. Alright? And the team that we've built here is exceptional. And they've come from world class organizations, amazing talent but as soon as you put staff up on it, people almost have this hesitancy of working with you. But what they often forget is actually this team is all star.

So, as soon as we started working with Virgin they quickly realized the capability of our team. They've worked with the likes of Mckinsey and BCG and big technology companies and the head of Commercial and the head of IT said that were the best in the last five years, which is amazing considering we're a small team of 10. So I think often startups have this lens of, you know, they're the bigger business, we're the smaller one. But actually you need to be as confident as they are and say that it's a privilege for you to be able to work with us because we've got an amazing piece of technology that will make you a lot of money and great passenger experience and be confident on that.

And the second thing is that we're ruthless on how innovative are Virgin. Are we gonna get caught in a business that they may pay upfront and agree to certain timings but how much do hey really want to push it and be our first to market client. And you gotta push that hard on a client and you gotta talk that through with them and be detailed about it because, you know, if that isn't the case then... This is your first launch partner. It's critical to your business so you gotta make that ruthless decision if they are right or not for you despite if there's money or not on the table. And it turned out to be the right decision by Virgin.

Sidney: Brilliant. So two topics there again. It's the optics around the team and how you're building credibility. So have the courage to position the right way. Yes we are a start-up, that doesn't mean we're, you know, a bunch of 19-year-old coders you know, guys or girls that are just thinking about this. There are people that like yourself have started their ventures after they had multiple successful careers already and are now doing this. So position for what you are with guts and credibility.

And the second point being around making sure the partner you're picking is gonna be the right champion for the broader cause and the broader innovation and the change that you want. Not all money is good money. Not all customers are good customers. So, again, have the courage to be selective and to say no to the wrong ones. So love it. Love it. Love it. Love it. Thank you. Well, I think that nicely tailgates into the next question, which is what should first time tech founders know when it comes to sales? Or, in other words, Iain, if you were starting over what advice would you be giving yourself?

Iain: I think number one comes back to that point I just raised about being ruthless on deciding whether you invest time into a particular lead or potential client. And, yeah, we were ruthless on Virgin and lots of other clients but we probably wasted our time a little bit on the first few that we started talking to. I wouldn't name who they are but one of them is a large airline based in this region and you kind of, you know, there's a lot of interest there. You go through multiple stages of decision making and if its your first one or two deals at that stage you're trying to understand well...How does this organization make a decision based on my product, and that is super hard when it comes to airlines, more so than rail. Because there's a lot of different job titles as the really basic one. Some of them are very similar but they seem to not do the same role and it's kind of figuring out what is that decision making tree, who's the actual decision maker out of all these people and who influences that sale.

So you gotta work out who are those key influencers and who the decision maker is. Make that tree and then get all of those guys over the line and with this one particular example we'd missed one guy, who we didn't realize was the case and you know, we met 30, 40 people by this stage you know, at different stages. Massive interest in the business. We'd already started technology integration. We were looking at contract, and then one guy came in and just said look, "We are not gonna do this because we've got something that we're kinda doing already and it's just not right for us but let's come back to the table in 12 months." And we'd wasted three or four months on that.

So if I look over that lens again now, and I think what would I have done differently? I'd have been more ruthless on questioning the guys we were meeting and saying who is the decision maker to sign on this actual product? How quickly do you wanna move? What's the deadline that you're gonna put on this? And let's all put that in the case and if we haven't got to our first decision making point by that time, we're gonna have to move on because we got a lot of stuff going on, and I just would have left it. And since then, we are mega ruthless on how we do it. And I think you know even myself coming from a strategy sales background, I'd missed that. And so I imagine it's a lot harder for a tech founder or someone that doesn't have that ability, you know. You get excited by the potential brand that you could work with and the size of the deal in that and you maybe get caught up in that a little bit. And so it's having that ruthless lens over...Is this really right for us? And remember that there's many more fish in the sea.

I think I would have probably defined our pipeline stages more effectively. We are very honest with ourselves in terms of what stage of the pipeline it's in. But I think, you know, the initial stage is understanding, should I have 20 stages to my pipeline, should I have three stages? For us we have eight and we're really ruthless on how we move those through. We have key KPIs and criteria for someone to actually move to the next stage.

I think the final one is kinda linked to the first one in terms of being ruthless with your time because time is the most valuable commodity to anyone in the world no matter what you're talking about. But time no matter what job you're doing which is why I think it's relevant to tech founders, you know, a CEO, whatever the role is. You gotta be ruthless in terms of how you give your time. Because the more time you waste on deals that aren't going to eventuate in anything quickly, the less time you have to focus on the deals, or getting new deals in that will actually convert.

And so understanding your time and how you allocate that and being ruthless on it means that, you know, you're not spread across 50 things. You're focusing on 10 or 5 and you'll have more success with them. And then just knowing based on that time factor when the right time to hire is. So, I've just recruited a head of sales but up until this point it's just been me. We've built a pipeline. We've got our first client over the line. We've got more clients coming in now, we're doing more deals, things are rapidly expanding and now is the right time to get ahead of sales and start building it our sales team. But you've got to do the hard yards before you start hiring your sales guy. You gotta prove your worth before that and I believe and, you know, now we're gonna have a great sales team to back up what we are already delivering.

Sidney: Lots and lots of good advice here. So number one be ruthless on the lead to understand is it real, is it now and are they the right one. Second one is understanding the customer makeup so that influences the decision makers and having the courage to ask for clarity of who's who in the zoo, what their interest is what their timeline is, what their budget is, are they going to be any surprises along the way. Number three is getting clarity around the stages of your pipeline. Number four is valuing your own time which was linked back to the first one and number five is when to hire the sales person.

And often I talk about as the founder you need to own sales and it doesn't mean you have to do sales all the time or forever but you need to architect how sales will happen because it has to reflect your brand, your values, your mission and you're the closest to the problem statement, so really good advice there. I just wanna circle back to about being ruthless and being clear on who's who.

A lot of people often, you know, feel like they have to act in a needy way when they turn up to a prospect. You know, "Thank you for making time for me. Thank you for blah blah blah, "Right? You don't need to do that. Like your time is as valuable as their time. We're all just human and if you go in with the mindset that am adding value to you both in this meeting and every touch point thereafter which is one of the value propositions of all the sales native mantra, you know, add value at every stage regardless if they are paying money or not, then you've got nothing to be apologetic for. But by the same token, it gives you the right to then ask for their participation, for their cooperation, for their clarity, for their communication. So ask for this clarity early on. Don't wait to find out later on that there's all these, you know, different people that have to get involved in the decision and you just got excited about your product or your feature and you didn't bother to ask these questions.

Iain: I will agree with that whole-heartedly.

Sidney: Cool. So in sales aside, as a tech founder, what's your biggest struggle and how are you overcoming it?

Iain: That's a great question. I think every tech founder will have a list of things that they'll wanna solve and I think as you scale a business there's really three...The three most important things is obviously sales and getting the deals in and driving that acquisition growth. And then the two most important things are people and process. And people and process are the hardest things because...And I'm not talking about recruiting people or finding people or great people or that sorta stuff. I'm talking about once they are in, making sure there's a process backed up to scale with those people and make sure they are as focused as you are. So I think that comes back to two things.

So the way we focus our team across the whole board is we have one simple KPI metric that we measure everything against and interest prioritization. So it's like the three pillars. A, is this thing that we're doing from a product perspective or technology or initiative, can it win us more deals, can it grow atop of our funnel in terms of acquisition or general create more revenue? If it's not doing any of those, we're not gonna do it. Because at the moment we are highly focused on scale. And so then we have a 90-day plan which our management team agree on. Every 90 days we have a clear focus of what we are gonna execute strategically and that changes every 90 days or it's updated and that filters down into our whole team okay us that they have measurability and that ensures that everybody's super focused.

And then the second thing is culture. Like, people talk about culture all the time and how important it is but I don't think people really understand what culture is. I certainly didn't when I first started. I kinda did, but it's kinda something that comes naturally and a new culture is kind of one of those things you gotta kinda foster, but how do you foster it? And I think culture is not having beers with the team every Friday or having a wellness allowance or team yoga whatever. Culture is not just putting a set of values on the wall and just saying, "Hey, we have integrity or we're innovative." Culture, which is a really great quote I read from Ben Horowitz about two weeks ago. So this is very relevant that we're talking about this now. "Culture is what your staff do when you're not around." And that was a perfect line because like how do your staff act with customers? Are they highly respective of time? Do... Are we... Facebook have got a really great one which is about move fast and break things.

And so it's about having great culture to deliver on your focus, too. And I think culture is one of those things you struggle with a little bit in the early stages because you're doing ridiculous hours and everybody's working through the hard yards. But ultimately culture... There's that famous quote of, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." You can have the best culture in the world and no sales and you wont do anything. But same on the other side, you can have the best sales in the world and a rubbish culture and it won't deliver on what you wanna do. So I think it's something that we're constantly working on but it's definitely a challenge.

Sidney: Got it. So processes that can help your people win, right? So not just the hiring process but once they're in how do you set them up to win. Your approach has been to focus on the 90-day plans with clarity around the KPIs, around is this going to open the funnel, get us more sales, make us win more in terms of revenue because that's your inner scale position or growth stage at the moment and underpinning all this is culture. And you're right. It's hard and it's a constant moving beast because people change as well. And you're not just dealing with what's inside your business. People have lives outside that naturally, we're human, we bring to work just like we take our work home. We bring our other joys and pains and sadnesses and excitements and other things that are outside of work into work as well.

Iain: And I think if you're saying understand your clients and what they want, you should do the same with your staff.

Sidney: Correct.

Iain: So you should understand that...Okay. Put yourself in their shoes. Understand what they want and try and get in behind that so you can build an amazing culture that people love coming to work everyday. And then you get a win.

Sidney: This has been awesome, Iain. Thanks for being on the show. I wish you and Seatfrog all the best and I look forward to hearing more of your progress.

Iain: Thank you very much, Sidney. I will be on your ear regularly.

Sidney: Perfect. See you ,buddy.

Iain: Thanks.

Sidney: There you have it folks. Valuable insights from a fellow founder. Remember, as a tech founder, to succeed you need to sell. And sales is not a dirty word. It's a valuation, meaning you need to create and capture value. Here at SalesNative, our calling is to provide sales inspiration and training and coaching to tech founders wherever you may be in the world enabling you to reach your potential to make your impact and to leave your legacy. If this is you, then I invite you to head over to and sign up for my free talk, "The 10 Sales Essentials for First Time Tech Founders." From one founder to another, I wish you success. And, remember, you're just one sale away.


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