“I just love building inside sales teams”
Family: Two children: Thomas, 16, and Sophie, 13
Position: Vice President of Global Inside Sales at Cloudera Inc., overseeing three sales teams and two operations teams.
Home: Alameda, Calif.
Education: Business Economics degree at UC Santa Barbara
Career: Started at Xerox and later came to Silicon Valley where he worked at various companies including Portal Software, Riverbed Technology and ArcSight. Also ran his own consulting firm called SalesSource before joining Cloudera.
Favorite movies: “The Shawshank Redemption”
Influential book: “The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation”
Interests: Traveling, sports. “I’m a big baseball fan and have adopted the Giants. But I grew up in LA, so I root for the Dodgers when they come up here. And yes, everybody says: ‘Really?’ But otherwise, I’m a Giants fan.”
Fun Fact: Three times has swam the grueling, one-and-a-half-mile distance from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park Cove in the San Francisco Bay.
PALO ALTO, Calif. – When Lars Nilsson started college, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. But a family friend who was a successful businessman pulled Nilsson aside with a suggestion:
Learn how to sell.
“I remember him telling me that no matter what I ended up doing, that would help because so much of life is about selling something, including yourself,” Nilsson said. “I took that advice to heart.”
He’s not kidding. Nilsson’s sales career has included two decades at a series of Silicon Valley companies – with some notable successes.
He has helped three companies go public with his brand of sales operations and inside sales strategies. And it soon could become four considering the rapid growth of data analysis software powerhouse Cloudera Inc., where Nilsson currently is the vice president of global inside sales.
Along the way, he has gained a reputation for his ability to build strong sales development teams that combine technology acumen and a human touch to create an efficient process of growing pipeline and closing deals.
“Sometimes people will think that sales is all about steak dinners, golf and fast-talking,” Nilsson said. “It’s nothing like that at all. It’s really similar to putting together an engine. The cool thing for me is getting a bunch of smart people into a room and noodling through how we can improve our system. What I enjoy most is that tinkering process to fine-tune that engine.”
Silicon Valley is the ultimate melting pot – drawing innovators from all around the globe like a magnet. Nilsson, who split time between Sweden and Southern California while growing up, fits that profile.
The son of an entrepreneur mother and father who worked for Scandinavian Airlines, Nilsson moved with his family from Europe to Manhattan Beach as a young child. During the school year, he was a typical California kid as he surfed and played beach volleyball. But he also spent summers in Stockholm and traveled extensively.
“It was a great way to grow up because I got a unique view of the world,” Nilsson said. “I was exposed to a lot of different cultures, countries and languages at an early age.”
When he graduated from UC Santa Barbara, Nilsson followed through on that advice from the family friend by going to work for Xerox, which was renowned for its sales training program. Nilsson made his mark selling copy machines – a famously competitive business where not much separated the products in a crowded marketplace, and a good salesperson could be the deciding factor.
After five years of proving himself in that field, Nilsson took an extended break to travel the world again – this time by himself with a backpack. Upon returning to California, he listened to friends who encouraged him to test his sales skills in a different market: Silicon Valley.
“I’ve never been a technologist,” Nilsson said. “But I am a fast-follower. I’ve always followed smart people.”
His stops along the way have included Portal Software, Riverbed Technology and ArcSight – growth companies that all went public. When ArcSight later was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2010, Nilsson played a key role in overhauling the iconic company’s antiquated sales systems.
He was running his own consulting firm, SalesSource, when former ArcSight CEO Tom Reilly lured him to Cloudera. The company is at the forefront of helping large businesses leverage the big data revolution to their advantage by using analytics to solve complicated problems. Last year, Reilly told The Wall Street Journal that he expects Cloudera to someday “be a $20 billion revenue business, or bigger.”
Meanwhile, Nilsson once again began work on growing an insides sales team by following the playbook that he had helped write. He eagerly adopted technology advances that could help make his front-line Sales Development Reps (SDRs) more efficient as they triaged and qualified leads.
But he ran into a problem unlike any in his career. His SDRs were being inundated with too many leads. At Cloudera, Nilsson said, there can be 15,000 inbound inquiries in a single quarter. He worried that his salespeople were losing valuable time sorting through that deluge and expending too much effort on leads that ultimately wouldn’t end up being sales-ready.
Part of his solution was turning to LeanData, which has developed technology that allows businesses to automatically route leads to matched account owners, and also can convert leads to contacts and attach them to their target accounts. Nilsson said he was surprised that nobody else had created a tool capable of bridging the leads-and-accounts gap on the Salesforce.com platform.
“I had been waiting for something like this – even though I didn’t know I was waiting for it,” he said. “I’ve given hours in the day back to my SDRs by using LeanData and automatically converting leads into the accounts. It’s made my SDR teams so much more productive. In my opinion, LeanData is part of the Holy Grail for an SDR to go out and add to the pipeline.”
Nilsson said that when he looks back on his Valley career, he feels likes “I’ve been hit with a lucky stick every step along the way.”
Working with good people has made all the difference, he added. But at the same time, it has never really felt like work.
“I just love building inside sales teams,” Nilsson said. “And if I can give my people automated tools to make the process faster, then that’s a beautiful thing.”
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