Scaling from 30-1,500 in SaaS: Lessons From the Frontlines

Scaling from 30-1,500 in SaaS: Lessons From the Frontlines

Kirsten Helvey is the COO of Cornerstone On-Demand. She joined the company as its 30th employee, and helped it grow explosively. In this Q&A with Jason Lemkin, she talks about how the company has changed, how to make sure your contributions are recognized, and the importance of customer success.

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In a nutshell:

  • Management is about people: you need to understand your team members and work to help them succeed.
  • It’s not enough to do good work and hope it’ll be recognized. You have to articulate your contributions.
  • Customer success should be the business development team for account management – while helping a client achieve their goals, you learn about their needs, which helps the upsell process.
Q: You joined Cornerstone as its 30th employee. What’s changed?

A: She had no idea what she was getting into at first. As a startup, you’re always building; the fallacy is that you stop building new things when you scale. If she’s not learning something new every day, she’s doing something wrong.

Q: What’s your advice on scaling a team?

A: Have a vision and stick to it – and be sure it’s clearly communicated. You can’t think three years out from a goal standpoint. Instead, she has six-month goals that she communicates to her team, and structures feedback and activities around those goals.

“Forget about the MBA. Get a psychology degree. Management is about people – helping them achieve, communicating with them, and understanding them.”
People will tell you if you’re being successful or not if you ask for their feedback – which you should do.

Q: What do you do if you’re unsure about a hire?

A: She’ll hire people into new projects, and recommends offering mobility to talented hires.

“I don’t know what your path is, but trust me - if you’re working well, I’ll create a path for you.”
Q: What’s the cutting edge in customer success?

A: She was hired to save a big customer, and went on from there. Cornerstone is at a 95% retention rate; she maintains that number by making sure every client knows they’re valued.

"If you don't have customers, you don't have a business."
Q: How do you handle upsells versus renewals?

A: It’s a bit of a dance. Customer success is basically the business development team for account management. The CS team should help the customer reach their goals, and in the process, discover their needs.

Q: You went from employee #30 to COO. How do you promote yourself in order to be successful?

A: She previously focused on doing a good job and assumed she’d be recognized for the work she did. But she quickly learned that this wasn’t the case. She realized that to be valued, you need to articulate your contributions and build trust in the organization.

She also noted that self-awareness is key, and that you should always be on the lookout for introductions and new connections.

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