Thomas Heath
Reporter February 26, 2011

Some companies are worth writing about just because they do cool stuff.

Take Eloqua, a Tysons Corner-based software company that helps its users — which include the Washington Capitals and the Republican National Committee — close deals with customers or donors.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Eloqua is the online equivalent of measuring whether the person nosing around your auto showroom is waiting for a car to be repaired or is intent on buying that sparkling Chevy Volt.

Think of it as replacing the vibe that many salespeople look for when they offer a customer help or an outstretched hand.

“Every person who comes to your Web site isn’t a good person for the salespeople to follow up on,” said Joe Payne, Eloqua’s chief executive. “What we do is filter down by tracking their behavior, by gathering information from them, and we filter down to the ones most likely to buy and then push those to the client’s sales force.

“We read Internet body language.”

And I thought no one was paying attention when I was noodling around online.

Eloqua, founded 10 years ago in Toronto and backed by Baltimore and Silicon Valley investors, employs 260 people worldwide. It grossed more than $50 million last year and has branches in Toronto (still home to more than half its staff), London, Singapore and Germany.

Payne said the company plans to go public in 2013. He won’t say how much the net profit margin is; Eloqua rolls its profits back into growth.

“The Internet has fundamentally changed how businesses buy products,” said Payne, a Washington native who has worked for Coca-Cola and MicroStrategy. “Nobody talks to salespeople anymore. People educate themselves online instead.”

Eloqua’s clients include 10 National Basketball Association teams, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat, as well as cable giant Comcast and Boston-based Fidelity Investments. Among its local clients are the American Bankers Association, Cisco-owned Tandberg, FrontPoint Security and Vocus, a Lanham-based company that makes software for the public relations industry.

Eloqua helps the Capitals separate the casual viewer from the serious ticket buyer. Its software, made in Virginia and Toronto, tells the Caps sales team if someone has visited the team’s ticket site five times in the past week — which means it’s worth having a salesperson contact them.

“We separate the real buyers from the tire kickers and job seekers,” Payne said. “If you’ve come to my Web site 10 times in the past week and looked at job opportunities, I don’t want to send a salesperson to talk to you. But if you’ve looked at our implementation services, it tells me you are at the end of a sales cycle.”

The company’s secret sauce is a software product that it sells to businesses and nonprofits. The software is delivered to the company’s 900-plus clients over the Web, without any packaging. Clients can turn it on the day they pay for it.

Monthly subscriptions range from $1,500 to $80,000, depending on the number of people the client has on its marketing list.

The company is rolling nearly half its revenues back into sales and marketing, which has brought it 25 percent revenue growth in each of the past two years.

“Our investors want us to spend every cent to grow the company,” Payne said. “We could turn a profit tomorrow if we wanted to.”

Payne isn’t a techie. The Bethesda native and Duke graduate (1987 and 1991) started off in consumer marketing at Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble.

In 1994 he left Coke, where he worked as a marketing officer, when he decided the opportunities in technologies were better than in beverages.

“Soft drinks grew at 6 percent in a great year, and technology grew 100 percent in a good year,” he said.

He worked at several start-ups in Northern Virginia, beginning with a mobile finance company called Intelidata, which was launched in the early days of the Internet and became, he said, “a complete and utter failure.”

He then went to MicroStrategy, where he was chief marketing officer for two years. In 2001 he became chief executive of eGrail, a content-management company that helps people and businesses build Web sites. The company was sold 13 months later to Filenet for two times its annual revenue.

A headhunter recruited him to work at eSecurity (where he earned a top-secret clearance, which took 10 months of background checks) and iDefense, which was sold to Verisign.

Eloqua, then an $11 million company with 150 employees, called in late 2006. By then, Payne had built a reputation as someone who could take a successful start-up to the next level, positioning it in the marketplace and managing and hiring a staff.

“I’m more of a management guy than an entrepreneur,” he said. “What I specialize in is finding the right fit and the right customers for the product, and building out a management team.”

A search for a chief financial officer led him to Washington. He moved the company’s headquarters and some of its support staff to Tysons Corner, where 40 employees handle finance and software engineers.

Payne said business was good even during the downturn because people needed as much help as they could get to recruit customers. Eloqua reports that the company has $60 million in revenue committed from subscribers so far this year. Payne said that number will be close to $70 million by the end of the year.

About 90 percent of revenue comes from existing customers needing more services, said Payne, “so I spend more time growing and satisfying my current customer base instead of worrying about the new guy.”

Nevertheless, Payne said he expects to add 300 new customers this year, mostly by turning visitors to Eloqua’s Web site into customers — just as the company does for its clients.

Eloqua uses word of mouth, seminars, business-to-business marketing groups and social media to reach potential customers. It tweets, blogs and buys Google ad words.

Payne said the company plans to file documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 18 months, followed by an initial public offering in 2013.

Stay tuned.

heatht@washpost.com

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