It was in 2004 when BlackLine founder Therese Tucker nearly reached the end of the road with her company.
After founding the wealth management software startup in 2001 in California, Tucker struggled to find paying customers. After three years, she had only landed one.
She had put everything on the line, spending all her savings, liquifying her retirement account, maxing out credit cards and taking out a new mortgage on her house.
Then she decided to take another risk. The only paying customer had asked if they could instead help with making the reconciliation process easier and quicker.
“The only question for the customer was whether they would pay me to build something to help them, and they said yes,” Tucker said. “They needed something to solve a business problem and were willing to pay us a small amount to do so.”
“I believe that most start-ups, the ones that are successful are because they actually address business problems that people have.”
And the pivot paid off – the new product offering was eventually highly popular in BlackLine’s target market, and a further shift to being a fully SaaS, cloud-based business model in 2008 rocketed the company to global success.
BlackLine is now a world-leading company listed on the NASDAQ with a market cap of $US2.9 billion, with users in about 150 countries and 850 employees globally. At least 25 of its customers are in the Fortune 500, while 100 of the Fortune 500 use its services.
BlackLine now offers cloud-based services that “transform finance and accounting by automating, centralising and streamlining financial close operations, intercompany accounting processes for large and mid-sized organisations”.
Tucker served as chief technology officer at SunGard Treasury Systems until 2000, when she took a one-year sabbatical where she “did a large amount of yoga and got into great shape”.
But she soon got bored, and after discussions with her wealth manager found a gap in the market, launched BlackLine in 2001.
The company was bootstrapped for more than a decade, with Tucker not taking any outside funding until 2013 when private equity firm Silver Lake Partners invested more than $US200 million in the business.
At first, Tucker had planned to sell the entire company.
“I started this process thinking I would sell the whole company and take another year off,” she said. “But I really started to get excited about the potential of the future of the company, and I’m so glad I stayed on.”
The private equity funding set the tech company on the path towards a public listing, and BlackLine successful completed an IPO on the NASDAQ in 2016.
“It’s been quite a privilege to go through this entire thing and get to ring the bell and watch your stick – it really has been an amazing journey,” Tucker said.
Tucker has spent her whole career working in business-to-business software, after studying computer programming in the 80s.
“I took one of the first classes that the college I was at offered on an Apple computer, on programming Apple basics,” she said. “The first app I ever wrote was to make a Christmas tree from asterixis and then turn them on and off – it was fun.
“There was a feeling of tremendous power that you would write instructions that this machine would actually execute. As soon as I took that first class I really fell in love with it. I was amazed that anyone would pay you to have that much fun.”
From studying computer programming in the 80s to taking a tech company public in 2016, Tucker has always been in the minority, and now she’s trying to make things better for women in tech.
“I have worked in less-than-friendly environments throughout the years, you just learn how to deal with it,” she said.
“One of the things we’re doing at BlackLine is internships for minorities and diverse groups of people that have not worked in technology before. I have a belief that I just don’t think they teach it well in universities in ways that are appealing to women.”
She said it’s important to show young girls and women the opportunities on offer for them in the tech world.
“These are very good jobs, very high paying jobs and it’s crazy that there’s not enough women in them,” she said. “I believe that if you get young girls and women really thinking about this at a much earlier age, that will help overall and over time.
“I think the discussion is moving in the right direction but I don’t think we’ve seen the results yet. More needs to be done – I still don’t think it’s encouraged enough young women.”
For aspiring founders looking to take a similar risk that Tucker did more than 15 years ago, she has one recommendation above all else: find good mentors.
“I had some really tremendous mentors, people that have done really well in business and software themselves,” she said. “They were so helpful in the early days in keeping me from completely self-destructing.
“Find mentors that can really help you and really look at what you’re doing and say, ‘don’t do that, pay attention to this area because that’s where you are really going to have trouble in six months’. Those bits of wisdom, you cannot replace.”
Looking to the future, Tucker wants her company to get on the front foot and lead the way in the burgeoning market niche it has carved out for itself.
“We’re in a market that we created,” she said. “We’ve got more than 2,700 customers and I’d like to see us do a better job this year of really leading our customers in areas of best practice. I think we’ve been almost too modest about how much we know about how some of these accounting processes should be done.
“I’d like to flex our leadership muscle better than in the past.”