The Six Five In the Booth at Smartsheet ENGAGE 23 with Ben Canning, SVP, Product Experiences

By Patrick Moorhead - September 19, 2023

On this episode of The Six Five – In the Booth, hosts Daniel Newman and Patrick Moorhead welcome Ben Canning, SVP of Product Experiences at Smartsheet for a conversation on how Smartsheet is helping customers solve work management problems faster, easier, and more efficiently during their ENGAGE 2023 event.

Their discussion covers:

  • The pain points that Smartsheet is helping their customers to solve
  • The latest updates and announcements from Smartsheet ENGAGE 2023
  • How Smartsheet is approaching AI in their product features and what principles they’ve incorporated in their AI adoption
  • A look ahead at what’s next for Smartsheet

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Patrick Moorhead: Hi, this is Pat Moorhead and The Six Five is virtually on the road at Smartsheet ENGAGE 2023. It’s exciting. We are talking generative AI. I’m here with my incredible co-host, Daniel Newman. Dan, how are you doing?

Daniel Newman: Pat, it is great to be on the road, albeit virtually. We’re kind of hybriding this one, right? We’re on the road. We’re in the booth. We’re at the event, but yet we’re sitting in our houses. You’re in the office.

Patrick Moorhead: That’s right. That’s why I called it a virtual one. Come on, we’re here.

Daniel Newman: By the way, can you give me a room rating right now? I feel like I need that to know how I’m doing. But no, it’s going well, Pat. In the middle of the busy travel technology conference season and in a year that has been absolutely excited around AI, all things. Pat, it is always interesting to bring a new voice, new company to join us here on The Six Five.

Patrick Moorhead: Yeah, with that, Ben, welcome to the program. Really appreciate you coming on for the first time.

Ben Canning: Thanks for having me.

Patrick Moorhead: Yeah. Congratulations on the big announcements and you run product experiences at the company. Maybe you can just talk real quick, what does running product experiences mean? What do you do for a living, Ben?

Ben Canning: I take care of all of the Smartsheet product portfolio. I meet with a lot of customers, understand what kind of problems they’re trying to solve, and then I bring that back to our team and help build the capabilities to meet those needs. I love what I do. I love solving problems. I love the kinds of things that our customers are trying to do, whether it’s putting a rover on Mars or managing giant wind farms or healthcare. It’s a blast. So I love what I do.

Patrick Moorhead: That’s awesome. Passion comes across. I love what I do too. We’re going to have to compare notes maybe after this in the green room.

Daniel Newman: For the first timers, as I mentioned before, Ben, this is the first time joining us on The Six Five. And I know Smartsheet, I’ve been following the company for some time. Pat, you know Smartsheet. But for everyone out there, we do have a big audience, lots of IT and executives and of course, users of all kinds of software and technology. It’s always good to get those first timers on there that are doing cool and innovative things. So just do the quick. When you get that elevator pitch and when someone’s like, “Hey, okay, Smartsheet, I’ve heard the name, but what do you guys do?” How do you kind of tell that story really quickly?

Ben Canning: Yeah, sure. So Smartsheet is the enterprise work management platform. We help businesses of any size solve work management problems. Anything you’re trying to do, whether it’s manage a portfolio of thousands of projects, drive remodels, any kind of project program or process, we help make that faster, easier, and more efficient.

Patrick Moorhead: Gosh, I need help like Smartsheet. I mean, if I look at everything that we do, I’ve been really impressed with a lot of the integrations that you brought in. We’re at other shows. We see how you work with a lot of the other players. So let’s start broad. Let’s talk about your customers. What are you hearing about pain points? What are the biggest challenges that they’re having now? I know that’s a hugely broad question, but I think it’s a good place to start.

Ben Canning: Yeah. I mean, obviously we’re in this fairly uncertain macroeconomic environment and what we hear from our customers is a lot of pressure to do more with less. The demands on businesses have not gone down, but the microclimate is pretty tough. They’re really looking for ways that they can move with agility and can scale what they’re doing without scaling their spend. And that’s something that we are really focused on. How do we both enable the business end user who has a problem that they need to go and solve to understand how to go and tackle that problem, build something that addresses that need? And to do it with unparalleled scale, do it fast, drive consistency and efficiency in the way that’s being done within the business. That’s really crucial and that’s what we’ve focused on.

Daniel Newman: Yeah. What’s interesting, Ben, is companies of so many sizes and scales and industries and you just find that instead of running Smartsheet, they have been doing so many things in spreadsheets.

Ben Canning: Spreadsheets.

Daniel Newman: I mean, it is really-

Patrick Moorhead: Guilty.

Daniel Newman: Does it have anything to do with the name? Was someone along the line like, “This spreadsheet is dumb. Let’s create a smarter one.”

Ben Canning: Yeah. For sure. I mean, spreadsheets are great. There’s a reason why everybody uses that sort of simple spreadsheet metaphor. I mean, what we find is that business needs are highly diverse. So you can try to build a one size fits all system that says, “Okay, well if everybody will work this way, then it’ll all work.” But that’s just not how humans work. They have wildly different needs. So the spreadsheet metaphor works pretty well, but it’s very limited in terms of how you can collaborate with your team in actually tracking work. It’s not designed to do that.

Daniel Newman: Yeah. No, I totally get it. I was just having a little fun with that because I think what I’ve found in talking to many companies that are in the process of trying to digitally transform, there’s another one for you, that you find that there’s so many things that are not done in intelligent systems. So let’s talk about intelligence right now. Let’s talk about intelligent and let’s talk about artificially intelligent, but you guys are working very hard as a company to build a tool that enables a more cohesive, fluid and accountable work style. What are you announcing right now? And then of course, how are you attaching that to this really killer AI trend that everybody wants to hear about?

Ben Canning: Yeah. I am super excited about what we announced this week. This is the biggest evolution in Smartsheet in the last decade. We are delivering a next generation platform that drives great scale, unparalleled scale, and an amazing user experience. Let me tell you about a few of the things we’re really excited about. Our customers are driving big projects at massive scale. This week we announced that our portfolio management capability is growing to support 20,000 simultaneous projects under management within a single portfolio. That’s a 20x increase year over year and really puts us well far ahead in the entire category in terms of things that scale problems that customers can tackle.

At the same time, we’re announcing really revolutionary new user experiences. We launched a new timeline view in early access that gives customers a great way to view lots of information across a wide timescale. So really, if you’re managing marketing campaigns, you can easily see where everything is landing and plan all of the work. We also announced brand new Grid and Card Views that are designed for speed and scale and delightful experiences. Very, very excited about those.

The other things that we’ve talked about, managing the work is important, but communicating with your team and with your stakeholders is incredibly important. So we’ve made some huge investments in our dashboarding capability. Dashboards are now beautiful with our new themes capabilities. So all of your dashboards look beautiful. They look uniform. They can apply your brand. So when you’re showing that dashboard off to your VP, you’re going to feel proud about the work that you’ve done and you’re going to gain that credibility and you’re going to really be able to show off where things are in the system.

The other key thing that I’m super excited about is resource management. The people that do the work are incredibly important to the work. Do you have the right people? Do you have them prioritized on the right things? Are you going to burn them out? We’re all working virtually now. So understanding that employee experience and managing the people that are doing the work is very important. So this week we introduced a new workload Heatmap and democratize resource management so that you can manage all of the people that are doing the work and understand where there are bottlenecks right within the software

Patrick Moorhead: No, I love it. Gosh, so more projects, increasing the speed and scale, new views, not only when you’re in the work, but also new dashboards to get a macro. And as more people are involved with the work, better tools to manage what they do. And by the way, I’m always amazed at anybody who has a customer like NASA. You think, wait a second, these are some of the smartest people. Can’t they figure this out on their own? But then I think of all the teams and the sub-teams that a team like this would need to put the Mars Rover out there. It all comes to bear. What are you doing specifically in generative AI to enhance the experience here?

Ben Canning: Yeah, generative AI, we see as a really transformative technology. We announced several things this week. We’re taking a very pragmatic approach to AI, figuring out not just ways that we can sort of pass through to the language model, but ways we can really drive improvement in what the customer is able to do. A couple of great examples. We’ve got a new Insights skill. So whenever you’re looking at that big sheet of data and trying to figure out, “Okay, which projects are on track or off track, or how many things are assigned to different people on my team? Which ones are out of date?” You can now just ask the AI. Type that question in the panel. The AI will look at all of your data and come back with the answer to your question. And not only will it give you the answer to that question, but it’ll give you the chart so that you can see exactly how it’s laid out.

You can interact with it and say, “No, I don’t like that chart. I want it as a pie chart.” You can take that chart and put it right on a dashboard so that it’s now constantly up to date. We’re using AI to really make it easy for non-technical users to just talk to their data, get the answer back that they want instead of focusing on clicking a bunch of buttons.

We’re doing the same thing with formulas and content generation. We have an incredibly powerful formula capability in Smartsheet, but formulas can be hard to learn and you’re trying to do your job and get the answer. We now will let the AI do that for you. Tell us what you want to know, we’ll generate the formula for you. Huge complex formulas. We’ll generate that formula, put it in the sheet, boom, done. You’ve got the answer to your question and can automate that. Those are two that we’re really excited about.

We’ve got a new capability for building solutions. We talked earlier about how work can be wildly diverse, different kinds of processes, different kinds of projects. We want to make it very easy for you to come in and say, “Hey, this is the kind of problem I’m trying to solve. Help me build the solution that addresses that need.” Well, we know a lot about how to build an effective solution to a wide variety of needs. So now we’re leveraging the AI to say, “Good. Talk to the AI. Tell us what kind of project you want to create.” And we’ll put the pieces together and say, “Here’s a solution to your problem. It’s got a form already prebuilt. It’s got the sheet with all of the right tasks in it. We’ve got the right columns. You’re ready to go, and it’s tailored for your use.”
We really see this huge opportunity for generative AI, yes, to generate content, and we’ve got some great things with content generation as well, but to really help drive better insight, better analysis, better creation of solutions.

Patrick Moorhead: So Ben, I love those generative AI features. Can’t wait to try those out. The first question typically that Dan and I get from enterprises after the, “Hey, what utility? How does it drive revenue? How does it reduce costs? How does it make us more efficient?” is typically around data privacy, data security, with a little bit of responsible AI thrown in here. But companies don’t want their data typically used unless they know it to train other models that other companies can get a benefit from. They also want to make sure that if they’re sharing their data that nobody else is going to get access to that. What type of thoughts, what type of process are you using with generative AI?

Ben Canning: Yeah, I’m really glad you asked that question. So yeah, we are taking a very principled approach to all of our AI features. This is new technology and we want to make sure we get it right. All of our capabilities are in private beta right now so that we can take the time to make sure that we’re getting them right. We are operating under a principled approach that focuses on, number one, we’re going to make sure that your data is never shared with anyone else and is never shared with any public AI model. You can be confident that your data is your data and it is not shared across the Smartsheet system with anyone else.

Number two, we’re taking hallucination very seriously. This is business information that you are making business decisions on. We need to make sure that you can be confident that the answers you’re getting back from the AI are not just wishful thinking, but are accurate. We’re putting in a lot of feedback systems and ways that we can validate that we feel confident that the answers we get back are accurate.

Then the third principle we have is around transparency. We want our customers to be informed when they are using particularly generative AI so that they can make an informed decision about, is this something that I want to trust or is there additional validation or scrutiny that I want to place on the information that’s coming back from this system? We think that is incredibly important, and so it underpins everything that we’re doing with AI.

Daniel Newman: I’m full of so many questions and unfortunately with this being in the booth, we’re going to have to have you back for a longer interview to talk more about this. But I do want to make a couple quick comments because you said some really important things.

I think one thing I really love that you’re doing is building that interactive natural language interface, first and foremost. It’s really like a project coordinator, assistant GenAI tool. Like all the questions that, Pat, you and I are constantly asking, “Where’s that research paper? Where’s it at? What stage is it in? Whose hand? What’s the last thing that needs to be done?” And the way we ask questions in that project meeting, and then what does that person do? They go into that not so smart sheet if they don’t have Smartsheet and they’re going to sort of, “Oh look, cell C36. Oh, it looks like it’s with Joe. And when’s it going to be done? Oh, I got to go down to this.” What I’m saying is this is going to pull it all, visualize it, make it simple. That’s what people want. So you’re on the road.

I love the idea too with the knowledge base with the builder because it sounds to me like you can start to anonymize, use the gross data set that you have, anonymize it and build killer apps where people can take great forms and things that have been built by your community and best of class. You’re not taking their data. Never using anyone else’s data. I’m not suggesting that you’re anonymizing best practices though and then creating a knowledge base where people can streamline the creation of important tools. So this is all really, really good stuff, Ben.

Ben Canning: Well, we think so too. The feedback we get from customers has been really strong. We’re pretty excited about where we’re going with this.

Daniel Newman: And Ben, I can bet you Pat in his head is thinking, “Dan says here we’re going to wrap up, and then he talks for five more minutes.”

All right, we’ve got to get going. But what I would like to end this conversation just say is, “Hey, what’s next? I mean, where does Smartsheet take it from here? Is it all about continuous improvement? Do you see yourself moving into a big platform and extending into other things?” Where does it go?

Ben Canning: Yeah, we’ve got a couple of things that we talked about this week that I think are some of the next big things. One that I’m particularly excited about is content. A lot of work is about approving content, reviewing content, creating things, whether that be digital assets for marketing campaigns or contracts or project proposals. We think GenAI plays an important role here.

But one of the things we’re working on is bringing the digital asset management capabilities we have in Brandfolder into the core of Smartsheet. So every project has a content library that can drive content-centric workflows around them. We think that’s one of the big next big things. We think GenAI is a huge unlock for us there. We’ll continue to push on the scale front. You mentioned the Mars Rover. Customers are pushing just massive mission critical things on our platform. Next year, our grids will grow to support 5 million cells. That’s a 250x increase in scale. So we’re really delivering unparalleled scale that allows large scale mission critical enterprise solutions to be built on our platform.

Patrick Moorhead: Ben, I want to thank you for coming on The Six Five here and really blessing us with your insights and the ability to go through your key announcements here at Smartsheet ENGAGE. Hopefully you’ll come on again to give us an update because what I know is that product improvement never ends. I’ve sat in the product management chair for many years in a prior life, and that’s the great thing about tech and the needs of customers is you move them along as you’re providing them improved work solutions. So thanks so much for coming on the show.

Ben Canning: Yeah, thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

Patrick Moorhead: Yeah, thanks. So this is Pat Moorhead and Daniel Newman signing off here for Smartsheet ENGAGE 2023. We appreciate you tuning in and if you like what you heard, hit that subscribe button and check out all the videos at The Six Five, including our annual Six Five Summit. Take care wherever you on the planet. Good morning, good afternoon, or goodnight. Take care.

Patrick Moorhead

Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.