SaaStr fan-favorite speaker, Therese Tucker, CEO and Founder of Blackline, recently sat down with SaaStr CEO and Founder, Jason Lemkin, to share her tips for how she has helped her company survive more than one black swan event, and her 20-year journey with Blackline. (ps – if you missed her session from Saastr Annual 2018, catch up on that here.)
Below, we outline some of her advice for going long in SaaS.
When to Move on from CEO
The first step she did was take an honest self-assessment that let herself say “I’m a little tired. I’ve been going full bore, working at 200% for a long time, and I’m a little tired.” She also evaluated her skillset within the company and realized she didn’t have the necessary skills to keep moving the company forward. The most important consideration when you come to this realization is finding the right person who has the right values, and the right skills that will not change the cultural DNA of the company.
When BlackLine first started, it was very small, which allowed for a very personable approach to the customers, and allowed Therese to take incredible care of her customers such as being able to personally pick up the phone with any of them. However, as the company has scaled, and that exceedingly high level of customer service was no longer sustainable, she hired someone who had a skill set that is completely different from hers, and who could actually scale the high level of customer service that customers came to expect.
The Importance of Having Reliable Mentors
It’s important not only to have someone you can rely on to help prevent burnout, but also to have mentors who have the wisdom of having done it, and can provide guidance. Mentors are different than advisors. The key to breaking through the wall is having different types of mentors; different people that will answer your questions.
There are not a lot of women in tech, so Therese’s mentors were all older gentlemen who had been very successful in a business of their own. They were wise and honest; and one board member is still her mentor to this day. It is very important to have a wise view because so often one can get stuck in the weeds. Another pitfall Therese sees Founders fall into is getting emotionally attached to a certain outcome or approach. At those times it’s important to have someone that can say, “It’s time to set the emotions aside for the benefit of the company”, and having that person be someone you trust is phenomenal. Mentors’ aid can keep you grounded, which in turn helps you as a CEO become more successful.
Therese added that private equity groups also helped her scale, helped her grow, and helped the company grow. They are very nuts, bolts, and spreadsheet oriented. There is a very high value to having a mentor providing stabilization as more stakeholders join the company.
Preparing Teams for a Black Swan Event
BlackLine was started in 2001 during a black swan event when the internet seemingly ended and we’re currently in the midst of another black swan event with the global coronavirus pandemic.
The key to surviving, Therese says, is nimbleness. It’s necessary to have the ability to change directions on the fly, address the customer’s needs, and cutting costs, to ensure your company doesn’t sit there paralyzed.
Therese advises companies to stay open to opportunities; any opportunity to build goodwill with customers, and the opportunity to invest in R&D. There can be silver linings and openings, even during black swan events.
BlackLine took the opportunity to build goodwill with customers during the pandemic through customer relief, additional customer training, free product giveaways, and more. The BlackLine CFO Partner was able to complete all the modeling for different options for customer relief and affordability for customers ahead of time, and it’s impact on the business, which made this a lot easier for Blackline to implement.
Therese and her team already knew ahead of time what they could offer, and what they couldn’t offer. 25% of their customers work in impacted industries such as travel and hospitality. And while their impacted customers have faced real difficulties, Blackline was already able to help them with relief efforts in order to keep their customers for the long-term, when these impacted industries come back stronger.
Recruiting and Evangelizing Employees
A “bandaid” hire won’t be there when things get tough i.e. they won’t work on a weekend to help solve a problem because they’re not invested in the overall company. Therese’s key to long-term stability was to avoid bandaid hires and instead looked to hiring and fostering young talent who grew into their roles. These employees were able to scale their careers while Blackline scaled in size and have given Blackline the upper hand because of their vast tribal knowledge.
Final Words of Advice from Therese:
- Trust your gut instinct
- Stay focused on your ultimate goals and desired outcomes
- If possible, wait to fundraise because it will provide greater control of the company
- Balance your advice from trusted mentors with your gut instincts; you’re doing something no one else is
- To build something out of nothing and to scale it into a vibrant enterprise that has happy employees and to happy customers is the most important thing you can do as a founder