Every year, the Northwest Entrepreneur Network (NWEN) hosts their annual 2013 Entrepreneur University, a full day conference designed to help guide aspiring Seattle-based entrepreneurs. To kick off the day, NWEN invited Liz Pearce, to interview Steve Singh, co-founder and CEO of Concur, the leading provider of expense management solutions and one of the world’s very first Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies, about what lessons he learned over the course of building Concur over the last 20 years that could be applied to LiquidPlanner and other early-stage start-ups.
Concur was founded 20 years ago and is now one of the largest enterprise software companies in the Northwest. The company employs thousands of people around the globe and is valued at more than $6 billion. Back in the mid 1990’s, Concur decided to pivot its licensed software model to the Web. Of course, back then the nascent SaaS market was not quite as promising as it is today. The Internet was still referred to as the Super Information Highway and the word “cloud” referred only to those vapor filled puffs in the sky. Enterprise organizations were more than a bit wary about using a web-based application to manage this important operational function.
In fact, long before working for LiquidPlanner, I had the opportunity to manage PR for Concur for several years starting back in the year 2000. So it was great fun to see two of my favorite executives on stage discussing their respective journeys and hearing their distinct perspective on what it takes to not just make a start-up succeed over the short term, but how to build one that stands the test of time.
So what lessons can a (relatively) young SaaS upstart like LiquidPlanner draw from a veteran CEO who has by every measure built a legacy of success? Here are some of the key takeaways gleaned from this morning’s interview with Steve:
On where to invest your first dollars: I would tell a young start-up to invest first and foremost in product development. Despite all of my other obligations, I still spend a huge chunk of my time focused on the product. I would also caution early-stage companies to not outsource those aspects of their business that are customer-facing as you lose the opportunity to integrate their feedback into your product roadmap.
On creating an enduring culture: You’re success is driven entirely by your culture. And your company’s culture is a reflection of you. The great thing about human beings is that we always have an opportunity to change. The story of Concur starts with us but goes forward with everyone else.
On investing in other start-ups: You and your team don’t have the market cornered on intelligence. There are so many amazing companies here and around the world that are re-inventing entire supply chains. By investing in these companies, we benefit and the community benefits as well.
On scaling a start-up: The single biggest weakness that I, along with everyone in this room likely has, is that your eyes are bigger than your stomach. If I could go back and do one thing different, I would try not to do so many things. I would really ask myself: what’s the one thing that we should do well and focus on solving that problem.
On fundraising from early days to IPO: We put all of our own money into Concur. Try to capitalize yourself as much as possible and be “all in” on your commitment. Not all money is equal. Take it from the person you like the most because I guarantee you will have a very personal relationship. And take the minimal amount possible. It forces you to be disciplined and won’t let money mask potential problems.
When asked about the one piece of advice they would give to other entrepreneurs just starting out, Liz urged aspiring entrepreneurs to be persistent and ignore the naysayers. As for Steve, he encouraged the audience to “have fun – if you don’t love it, why the heck are you doing it?”