Main content

DocuSign CEO Dan Springer on building the Agreement Cloud and the future of e-signature

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 21, 2022
An interview with DocuSign CEO Dan Springer about building up the company's role in the enterprise Agreement Cloud and the future of digital signature.

Mobile phone resting on papers with with post-it on screen saying 'sign' - Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
(Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)

Over a billion individuals around the world have used DocuSign, and most of them have loved the convenience of signing digitally rather than having to wrestle with paper documents. The company likes to call this feeling #DocuLove, but in its heart it knows that it has no monopoly on the convenience of e-signature. Its challenge is to convert those fleeting encounters into long-term relationships. The answer is to tie DocuSign into the business processes that surround those signatures, or as its CEO Dan Springer puts it, to build an Agreement Cloud around them:

Signature's what brought us to the dance. Signature's what built this company. Increasingly, we see our more advanced customers saying, 'It's not about signatures, it's about my processes — agreement processes. It's about that end-to-end managing of what we call the Agreement Cloud.

The metaphor we have for our customers is, what is the next big cloud opportunity? You've got your HR Cloud, you've got your Customer Cloud. You need to have an Agreement Cloud for all the ways you interact with your suppliers, your customers, your employees.

Like many vendors in the digital teamwork space, DocuSign saw a huge adoption spike as offices around the world went into lockdown and businesses scrambled to introduce digital equivalents for in-person activities, including physical signatures. In the past two years, the business more than doubled its revenues to $2.1 billion. But that growth has cooled more recently, in part because some customers are still digesting the extra licenses they took on in the early days of the pandemic, but also because adoption is reverting to the historic trend, although still on an upward path. "Nobody's going back to paper," says Springer.

Going digital

The benefits of going digital remain compelling. The company says that large organizations can see a return on investment of 30-35 times the cost of digitizing a transaction, taking into account the savings on both the cost of moving paper documents around and the time spent on handling them. Cycle times improve dramatically, which in a sales context reduces time-to-revenue. Springer cites the example of a financial services customer that saw a 98% cut in the time it took to open a new account, from two days to less than an hour. That's a case where the impact on customer experience is perhaps even more valuable than the time saving. As he points out:

It's just something that used to take days that now gets done in less than an hour. You don't feel like you've gone through a different process. You feel like, 'The company I'm working with, they're a modern company. That's someone that I want to have a relationship with and I respect them' ...

People in a large enterprise, they are primarily thinking about cost savings, I would say for a lot of them. But the thing that really wows people is the CX effect.

Yet the landing point when DocuSign enters an account is almost always the signature — and most often, new customers simply sign up online to start using the service. The company then has the task of identifying those accounts with the potential to expand from that starting point into more extensive applications. Springer says:

Most of our new customer adds are done when people go to the Web and sign up for DocuSign. And then they get in and they start thinking, they're using this first very straightforward use case, and then they start saying there's more places that could use it. Or we graduate them ... Based on the verticals, we tend to know what the most common use cases are.

It's about the process

The workflow around digital signatures starts with generating the document, often through several iterations and with multiple parties contributing. Once the finished agreement has been signed, the workflow continues into storing it, making it searchable, and retrieving it for future use. There can also be a broader analysis of how the business is using signatures and where there's room for improvement. All of this is fair game for the Agreement Cloud, although often there are elements of the workflow that make sense in a different system — Salesforce is a common example — in which case, DocuSign offers APIs to plug its e-signature service directly into the process in that other system. Once embedded in this way, DocuSign's role is typically secure. Springer says: "From a stickiness standpoint, those are incredibly sticky, because it's built into their actual flow." He elaborates:

Once we get people thinking that it's not just about signature, but it's about the generation of those agreements, being able to edit the agreements, all in DocuSign, then the workflows and everything that people know us well for. Then again, you get the manage phase. Once those agreements have been signed, whole sets of processes start. You kick off APIs, you can integrate with other software products.

Once people start doing that with DocuSign, it's not about the signature anymore, it's really about whatever that other process was.

As well as the new customer onboarding process, another example is employee onboarding. Here, a signature accepting a job offer can trigger any number of connected workflows. The old way would be to scan that signed agreement into an HR system as an attachment and simply leave it on the record there. A modern digital workflow takes the signature as a trigger for passing data from the document into other systems that go on to provision the employee's workspace, equipment and initial training. Instead of simply capturing signatures, DocuSign becomes a catalyst, says Springer, for "dramatically changing the way you run your business."

The future of signatures

This new way of looking at signature as part of a process also prompts a rethink of what a signature actually represents. A digital signature typically carries a much stronger validation of the signer's identity than a handwritten signature. At minimum, it's tied to an email account, which can be verified by the domain owner. The DocuSign process also records the IP address and other metadata, and can be configured to require two-factor authentication, such as via a mobile phone. All of this means that there are other functions that DocuSign can fulfil beyond validating agreement, such as confirming completion of a required certification, or providing an audit trail of approvals. Springer says:

You can go further than in-person with what we do. That's a much stronger authentication than, you look like that person or you're holding a piece of ID. Because of that, we think identity is critical to the future of what we do. And it's a big part of the investment we're making in the core signature platform ...

Our customers look at us as an identity company. And they will continue to see us — we'll do more, we'll build more, we might buy more in that area, we'll partner more. So we're going to be a one-stop shop for all your ways to authenticate an identity.

So where does that leave the traditional signature? It still has a powerful symbolic value as an expression of identity, but that can take new forms in a digital world. Springer elaborates:

Even my kids who are in their early twenties, they still understand the construct of a signature ... it still means something, the concept of appending their signature to a document or a process.

What's funny to me about it is, most people don't actually use their own signature, when they do an electronic signature. We computer generate. You can actually take a mouse and sign a thing if you want. They're very hard to draw nicely. [So] we have multiple versions — you can have that one, that one, that one.

What signature is really about electronically is the concept of identity. I can confirm it's you, and you're confirming it's me, and now we're coming to an agreement.

Physically sitting down to sign in person will gradually become an anachronism, reserved for highly ceremonial occasions, such as signing the register at a wedding, or sealing a big deal. Springer says:

Are we going to get to zero wet signatures? I don't know. I think the signature is going to become like an autograph. It won't be because I'm using it to verify anything. It won't be because it's an identity-based component anymore, or proof point. It will be ceremony.

My take

One of my mantras is that going digital provides an opportunity to completely rethink established processes that evolved in a paper-based world. Digital signature is perhaps the epitome of this. Despite the huge savings that businesses can make by replacing physical signatures on paper documents with digital equivalents, that in itself barely scratches the surface of what's possible once you rethink the processes surrounding those documents. Does the document itself do anything more than replicate a transaction in a database, in which case why not just replace the signature with an authenticated approval gesture as part of an application or messaging workflow? Perhaps the digital signature of the future will be an emoticon of a thumbs-up or a gavel, with an authenticated identity stamp attached to it.

The paradoxical challenge this presents for a company like DocuSign is that its future success depends on persuading its customers to make its initial proposition obsolete across many of their processes, while at the same time becoming the engine that drives those processes. It's a difficult jump to make, particularly as the natural starting point for reinventing those processes will be an existing workflow vendor or digital teamwork platform that the customer already has a relationship with — many of which are adding their own native e-signature capabilities. No wonder Springer is keen to change the perception of DocuSign from a provider of digital signatures to one of verified, authenticated identities within end-to-end enterprise workflows.

There are still large numbers of physical signature processes in the world that still need to be digitized, and as a byword for doing that, DocuSign is well placed to continue its growth for now. But holding onto and expanding its leadership position will depend on a more intense focus on helping enterprises take the next steps towards more extensive workflow automation, while changing perceptions of DocuSign's role in that workflow. It's well known as a vehicle for the virtual representations of someone's handwritten name that serve as digital signatures today. It needs to become equally well known for the digital agreement symbols of the future, whatever shape they take.

A grey colored placeholder image