Rapidly Scaling Software Companies: Vena CEO Hunter Madeley
07.28.20
Interviews

In this episode, we chat with Hunter Madeley, the CEO of Vena, which is the leading enterprise software company for corporate financial planning and budgeting.  More than 800 companies globally choose Vena to streamline their finance processes. The company is backed by JMI Equity and Centana Growth Partners.

Hunter shares with us his key insights into rapidly scaling an organization, leadership lessons from ADP, Salesforce and Hubspot, and his vision for Vena in the years to come.

We hope you enjoy the show.

(Hear the full conversation on iTunes or Listen Notes.)

RJ: Hunter, thanks so much for taking the time with us.  Maybe we could jump right in and kick off with some background on Vena as well as yourself.

Hunter: So I spent most of my career in SaaS, actually probably before SaaS, considered SaaS, early part of my career, just over 10 years in go to market at ADP.  So payroll, HR, time and labor management.  And the cool thing about that learning early is that, you know, ADP was one of the very first companies to basically offer, you know, remote access to compute power, in a recurring revenue model.  So kind of early days of what we now call SaaS.  And had the fun of, you know, a really nice run there, I think we moved from about three billion to six billion while I was there.  And also rolled out our first internet kind of web based product really creatively on the internet at the time, so saw that move to the internet.  And then I actually took about six years off to raise kids, and when I came back to work I joined salesforce.com and did about four years in go to market there.  And really enjoyed my time there, a great culture, a great product, obviously a behemoth in SaaS and did some great things to elevate the Office of Sales and Marketing and eventually Service, and built a really great platform ecosystem which was all great learning for me.

And then I chose to join HubSpot, HubSpot now a publicly traded company, but was a relatively small, about a 70 million dollar marketing automation company when we joined.  And we knew that we were going to try to move HubSpot from marketing automation to CRM.  And so helped take the, you know, I was fortunate enough to help take the company public.  And we did a nice little run from about 70 million to 600 million before I left to become CEO here at Vena.  I got pulled by a really cool story, I think Vena’s got a really great story of customer value and success.  And I think the market we serve and the opportunity we have ahead of us is pretty exciting.  And there was a bit of a pull for me to try my hand at CEO to see what I have learned from some pretty great CEOs in my past, is pretty great people that I’ve had a chance to work with across all functions.  So obviously a chance for me to learn and see if I could help a company in kind of the role of CEO, but also a bit of a chance for me to help a Canadian founded company.  So I’m Canadian born and raised in Toronto, and I’ve lived in a few places.  But primarily I’ve helped build great US based companies in my career, and this was a chance for me to focus back on kind of my home town and see if I could, you know, help Vena do something really special, so that’s kind of how I ended up here.

At HubSpot you helped grow revenue almost 10x in five years.  What do you think was key to enabling you to accomplish such a feat?

I just think it’s something we’re going to try to emulate a little bit here at Vena, and something that has actually done, I think, pretty well.  It’s this really interesting mix of, I call it like three really core elements.  There is having a point of view and a methodology that you care about.  So it’s not about the product or the technology, but what’s your point of view in the market, and how you can help the market you’re serving, do something better.  And at HubSpot that started off with this methodology of inbound marketing.  So how can companies think about marketing and engaging with their customers in a much more effective way than the traditional outbound blast messaging modality that mostly in advertising and marketing, it worked for years.

So pairing this really interesting methodology about how you create engagement, then with technology, so that’s kind of the second lever, is how do you build great technology that supports that point of view and that methodology?  And you might not be able to build a technology deep enough to serve all parts of your methodology.  But you’d have to have a point of view on how technology can play a role in that and where you don’t already operating, what is your opportunity to partner and show kind of a shared technology vision to execute against this kind of methodology.  But I think especially has shone through in HubSpot, was this idea of building a really, really adaptable culture, that is kind of centered around a bunch of core values, but that actually understands the need to evolve and grow.  The culture moves with the company as it scales and continues to lead its core values.  But also understand that the culture of a 600 million dollar company is actually fundamentally different than the culture of a 20 million dollar startup.  How do you make sure you get that right throughout your entire journey?  So kind of matching culture, technology and methodology, pulling up that all together, I think created the opportunity for us to do something at HubSpot.  And again, I think that’s a recipe for success here as well.

One of the key differences between HubSpot and Vena is the solution it provides and maybe the market it serves.  But do you think the same type of growth is possible at Vena?

Yeah, you see, I’m kind of addicted to growth, and I think a healthy way and the best possible way.  And I do think we’ve got a really interesting platform, we can kind of drive the same type of impact.  I do think the TAM is there, like the Total Adjustable Market across kind of what people are calling, you know, corporate performance management or FP&A cloud, or operational planning.  That’s a big multibillion dollar TAM growing really fast.  By all accounts it’s kind of, you know, it’s got somewhere in the 10-20%, depending on who you read over the next number of years.  So I think it’s a big TAM, we’re a small company and a big TAM, so we’ve got lots of opportunity and lots of runway.  And I would say, although we’re a different product set obviously, than HubSpot, HubSpot’s more of kind of the frontend, the front brand of your company, and how you engage with customers.  And Vena tends to be a little more backend.  But what I would say, there is a really nice overlap is this commitment to growth.

So, my view is that you have to engage with your market and your customers to really help in an effective way, and you need a technology and a methodology to do that.  And I think HubSpot has a great point of view on that.  But I also think that at its core, the best run companies, the highest growth companies, the ones that have made the most impact in markets, also have been the best at planning and running their business, at marrying strategic operational and financial planning and actually executing at a world class level.  And iterating and paying attention along the way, and so having really interesting systems to report against progress.  And those companies that lean in and really commit to that planning process and how you assess progress against your plans, I think have historically done best.  And so when I think about how companies plan to grow, that’s where Vena fits in, I think we can help companies plan to grow and assess how they’re doing.  And then of course we do all of the normal kind of regulatory stuff where you’re taking out financial reports and helping with consolidations.  We do that for sure, and do it really well.  But I think the exciting part is to help companies at the front end of that planning, budgeting, forecasting process, and like I say, kind of marrying strategy, operations and financial plans and getting the best possible result.  And that’s a journey we’re on.

And then switching back to kind of what are the core three elements you mentioned, let’s talk a little bit about culture, and how it enabled you to scale at HubSpot and is presumably helping you to scale at Vena.  What do you think, what about culture is it that’s so critical to get right?

Yeah, for me it’s this idea of kind of alignment, transparency and accountability.  So as you think about aligning on culture, it’s less about saying, “This is who we are and you must fit to participate here.”  It’s a bit broader, saying, “Here is the value obviously that we hold dear, here is the mission and the journey we think we’re on.”  And we want a culture that holds us accountable to doing right by our values, doing right by our customers, and doing right by our mission.  And we want to be super transparent about our progress against that.  And we want to create a world where every individual contributor, every manager, every senior leader, has the same kind of perspective and ability to contribute around culture.  And the same would be to hold us accountable.  So kind of my view is that whether you are a, you know, a business developer three months in, or a new software developer that’s been here for 10 years, you have the same right to hold us accountable and to contribute to our culture.  And so that, you know, through that cultural lens you get this really nice, you know, compass and set of guardrails that keeps you, you know, pointed in the right direction, keeps your values intact.  Have a conversation about those shared values, at Vena, we had a set of values when I joined that were developed about four or five years before I joined.

There were six core values and we actually had a really open conversation with our company because what we were seeing in our semiannual survey of all of our employees was that the values didn’t resonate anymore.  The people weren’t actually even necessarily aware of all of them or how they were woven into our operational model, a comprehensive exercise of resetting our core values, and skinny it down to four core values that all of the company had a chance to contribute to.  And then we started thinking about how do we weave those core values and accountability into our operating system, and weren’t recognized and build those core values through all of your performance reviews and how you think about the quality of the work you’re doing.  And so we went through this really interesting exercise over about a three month period.  And I think we’ve come to a point now where we have, like I say, really great alignment, we’ve got tons of transparency about how we got here and what our mission is, culture plays a role in that.  And then we created this expectation that not just you as an individual have an opportunity to hold us accountable, but we actually extend that to share our values with our customers.  And say, “Hey, you have the right also to hold us accountable and here’s what we believe in, here’s who we are.”  And so that’s how I think how you have to have to weave that in and be in that alignment, create transparency, and really use it to help each other, hold each other accountable.

And you mentioned earlier that some of the CEOs that you had worked with in the past were in part an inspiration to taking this step, you know, from HubSpot to Vena.  What are some of the key things you learned by working for some great CEOs?

I’ll pull just a little bit away from me, so Josh, when I was at ADP, early years of ADP, Josh Weston was the CEO.  And he kind of set this really interesting tone of a version of equality and responsibility.  And it showed up in a couple of ways, and I know these are just minor things but like early in my career they set a tone for me.  Number one was the head office in New Jersey.  And you know, the front of the head office, there’s the parking spots that are really close.  And at that time, you know, when I started at ADP, would have been early 90s, it was pretty typical that parking spots were assigned by title and role and name and the close parking spots were given to the leaders.  And Josh basically said, “No, the close parking spots are for those who show up earliest and, you know, they’re not assigned.”  And so through that lens he was saying, “No, this is about applying yourself and the opportunity to have to park close, which is a small thing, is everyone’s right, depending on, you know, how you want to apply yourself.”  And so that was kind of an interesting lesson from him that I took.  And what about responsibility, Josh was also really well known for, you know, always flying coach.  And he obviously had enough money personally, that he could have just upgraded and always bought his own tickets and flown.  But he’d do coach anyway, to send a message to everyone that there’s a fiscal responsibility we have here, even though the company is growing fast and making lots of money, we still have this fiscal responsibility.  So that was really meaningful.

Then I had a chance to obviously work with Mark Benioff, got a chance to spend some time with him both, you know, in the audience of some of the senior leaders, but also a little bit of closer time with him.  And you know what, what really, you know, stands out there is just the grandness of vision, like that Mark really feels that the team that he is building, the team he is a part of has a chance to fundamentally change the world and how the world operates and how it engages and how it creates value.  And that there’s also a responsibility to give back, and so through the work of the foundation and various other things that Mark does to lead the charge, you really get the sense that, you know, that together you can do something really special.  And so he set a really grand vision.  So I pulled that from Mark which I think is really important for everyone, not just leadership, but for everyone to believe that if you’re part of a team, you can have a grand vision and it’s worth pulling out for something big.

And then when I shifted to HubSpot, there was a fully interesting kind of pull and I kind of put the CEO, Brian Halligan and his co-founder, Dharmesh Shah, together almost.  So, Brian and Dharmesh together taught me the value of kind of the rising tide and the value and impact you can have.  And so while HubSpot is a very competitive culture, it wants to do very well, fundamentally it was never a win loss proposition.  Is that our culture was designed to say, if everyone understands how to grow their business better, how to engage with customers better, whether they choose our technology or not, that is good for us.  That’s good that everyone knows how to be a better marketer, a better seller, a better servicer.  And so the idea that we can help the entire community that we serve be better at what they do, even if they don’t spend money with us, that’s our give.  That’s our give to the world, we can help them be better.  That rising tide of confidence and value that can be created is in the long run obviously going to be also really healthy for HubSpot and we’ll trust that if we do that well, folks will eventually start using our products.  And if our products are good, they’ll keep using our products.  So that idea of giving before getting, that there’s something you can share, and that your job is to help others grow and be better, regardless of whether or not they spend money with you, was a really important lesson from both Brian and Dharmesh.

Those are great insights across those three leaders.  You are backed by some fantastic investors, how have they helped you scale, besides providing capital?

Yeah, it’s great, actually I had a chance to listen to you, I think you did an interview recently with some folks from JMI, and they’re great.  So, JMI Equity is a great team there.  And, you know, what I’m finding, especially through like, you know, managing through the current, both health and economic crisis that we’re all managing through.  That where JMI really stepped up and is really doing some great work is they have a bunch of really confident advisors by function.  And then they have an opportunity through that lens to actually pull together these small group sessions where, you know, HR leaders, led by, you know, their HR practice, advisor, get together.  So all of their companies, or portfolio companies have an opportunity to get together and talk through the impact of work from home.  How are we going to move back into the office, what does that look like?  Then all the sales leaders getting together, talking about the dynamics of the markets and, you know, how different it is between companies, you know, are you serving a market that is actually growing because of this crisis?  Because, you know, whether it be collaboration technology, or software, that pull people together.  And there’s a bunch of industries thriving because of what we’re on, and so how are you serving that industry?

How do you think about customer retention?  And so you get these really interesting JMI facilitated discussions that are generating great ideas across the portfolio, so, JMI’s been super responsive and super thoughtful about the way they support all of the portfolio companies, so we love that.  And then Centana Growth was one of our earliest investors, and through the lens of the principles there, specifically Eric Byunn, he’s been, for me he’s an active participant in my growth as a CEO, and our company’s growth.  And I spend time with him biweekly since I started, and weekly now, now that we’re in this pretty turbulent time.  And the opportunity for me to get his insight and draw from all of the experience has been pretty invaluable at this point.  And again, it’s also not as big an organization, but still has access to all sorts of really great talent.  And so as I think about hiring new leaders, by layering in new senior talent, I’m also leveraging both Centana and JMI, not just through their network, but also through the interview process.  And engaging them to help me make good decisions about any senior leaders we bring on.  So, super, super helpful beyond obviously just capital.

We’re running a little bit short on time here, but maybe to close out, you could share with us your vision for Vena three years from now?

Yes, awesome.  So Vena, right now we are FP&A cloud specialists.  We basically help Office of Finance, plan their business assessment, business and drive reporting and analytics.  And our vision is that in three years we will be the default planning platform for the core mid market.  And we’re definitely going to continue to serve awesome enterprise companies, and I think even in the long run, there’s going to be a lot of small businesses that will leverage Vena to help run and plan their businesses.  But what we really want to do is make sure we’ve built the best possible company to serve the needs of kind of like the core mid market, the planning needs of the core mid market.  And I think if we can pull that off, and I’m confident we can, like I say, build a product and a community, will have a point of view on the methodology, and we’ll have built a really great culture.  So methodology, technology and culture to kind of really broadly serve the needs of that kind of core mid market, I think we’ll have, you know, we’ll have been serving our mission and I think doing great work, I’ll be super happy about that.

Excellent.  Well, Hunter, thank you so much for your time, you’ve been generous spending it with us and I know this will be a very impactful interview for our audience to listen to.

Thanks, RJ, it was great to spend some time with you.

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