Graeme Thickins on Tech

Reflections & analysis about innovation, technology & startups, with a focus on Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes

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Former MN Serial Entrepreneur Lief Larson Has Yet Another New Venture

Many of my readers remember Lief Larson. He was known and respected widely in the startup community here in our state as a longtime entrepreneur. He had a successful exit with an interactive kiosk company before going whole hog into a software startup. A few years ago, he moved to Seattle after handing over the CEO reins at that VC-backed software company, Workface Inc. I miss him, and I’m sure others do, too. Not only was he a ball of energy, a smart developer and product guy, and a helluva salesman, but a really fun guy, too. He began life in Seattle living on a boat with his wife in the trendy Fremont section. And he’s definitely loving life out there in the Pacific Northwest.

But his entrepreneurial endeavors hardly stopped. Soon, he’d launched Engage.co, and not long after a sideline called Sportzy, a leisure sports and activity site. Always one to spot a new opportunity, Lief recently told me he and a colleague launched a new site called Planning to Retire.

“My buddy and I both have parents entering retirement and they keep asking us all these questions, so we decided to build a site to help them,” said Lief.  “We’re trying to capture 1,000 members in 30 days.”  So, friends, tell all your parents and relatives who are approaching that magical age about this great new site. It’s a really helpful resource for them!

Gettin’ old? Sign up now!

My Background With Lief

A little history: I was lucky enough to do some consulting work for Lief back in his Workface days — including traveling with him twice to big events in California. I really enjoyed the experience and found myself writing about him several times on this blog. Those posts go back more than five years, covering his journey with Workface (which he founded in 2006), his ties to Marissa Mayer (they grew up together in Wisconsin), and how he took on an educational effort for entrepreneurs all by himself here in Minneapolis called “SaaS Camp,” which I attended. Here are all those posts.

In one of them, I told the following story, which still makes me laugh today every time I think of it. Not only is Lief an amazing, hard-working entrepreneur, but the man knows how to have some fun!

Lief and I traveled to Palo Alto a couple years ago for a conference where Lief was pitching to the Silicon Valley VC community, along with a bunch of other hot startups, and sharing the stage with speakers like the founders of Salesforce and SuccessFactors. We stayed in a funky old, ’60s-vintage Travelodge motel — about as low-priced as we could find in Palo Alto. After we checked in to our respective rooms, we both went online to work. First thing I see is an email from Lief with a photo attached of this gorgeous, expansive hotel room, saying, “Wow, I hope your room is as nice as mine.” I never laughed so hard, because I could hardly turn around in my dinky little room, and I knew he couldn’t either… :-).

I haven’t had an opportunity to get out to Seattle since Lief moved there, but you can bet I’ll be meeting up with him the next time I do. Go, Lief!

Minnesota: A Great Place to Be for SaaS Companies

SaaSCamp2012_250w(Note: this post first appeared at Minnov8.com.) 

I had the pleasure of attending a workshop event held this past Saturday at the awesome CoCo coworking space at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. It was called SaaSCamp 2012. Note the year is part of that title, because it fully intends to be a recurring event. If you’re part of an early-stage software-as-a-service business, or planning one, and you missed this workshop — well, you missed a great one, and I would make sure you get to the next one when it happens!

The event was conceived and conducted completely by Lief Larson, CEO and founder of Workface Inc., with assistance from a couple of his team members. Workface is a growing LiefLarsonstartup in Minneapolis that itself developed a SaaS offering it now markets widely, which it calls a “customer engagement platform.” I was extremely impressed with the breadth and depth of the content Lief pulled together for this event. It included a extensive look at market data for SaaS in the U.S. and globally, monetization strategies and practices, selling to the enterprise, negotiating contracts, increasing adoption and retention of your app, marketing your app, creating a channel to sell your app, financing and funding a SaaS business, training your SaaS customer, and ongoing monitoring of your SaaS business. On top of all this, Lief related some really excellent stories throughout the workshop about his journey in funding and building Workface.

I had a chance to follow up with Lief afterwards to get some further perspective on the story behind SaaSCamp…

Q: Lief, why did you decide to do the event?

Lief I’ve had a great group of mentors who have helped me during my entrepreneurial journey and I try to pay it forward by helping other young businesses and entrepreneurs to find success.  A few of my “mentees” are building applications that are software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings and asked that I consider putting on an event.  That’s why I created SaaSCamp 2012 — to bring together like-minded people working on SaaS.  I think the event is already bigger than me, and I’m hoping the community will take it and run with it. SaaSCamp-scene

Q: In saying you’d like to turn SaaSCamp into a regular event, how often do you mean?

Lief I think meeting up once a quarter or some greater level of frequency is important to stay current with new ideas and best practices in SaaS, but a larger annual event is a must.

Q: Why did you do it as a small, paid event, rather than use the barcamp or unconference model (sponsor-supported, with free attendance), like CloudCamp and so many others?

LiefWhether you’re doing a sponsor-supported or attendee-supported model, the reality is that there are costs for hosting an event.  CoCo Minneapolis gave us a great deal, but they too needed to bring in people and security.  When you do a day-long event, people need to eat and drink.  Having a sponsored model takes some of the objectivity away, plus we don’t have a big list of providers who are focused on sponsoring the SaaS community (yet).  I think this will change over time. In any case, we analyzed the anticipated costs of the event, and used that to be the guide for what to charge for tickets.  Plus, having a cost/value relationship, in my humble opinion, ensures that you keep the event focused on the right type of attendees and preserve a focused and more intimate experience.  We’ve all been to those conferences that are a free-for-all and you often get a heavier mix of vendors that are simply coming to spend a day trying to sell to the attendees.  We had zero selling going on at our event, but rather a 100% focus on how to grow and improve your SaaS business.  SaaSCamp had a 100% money-back guarantee to ensure that the $200 ticket price was a non-consideration in the value received.  If/when the event has more attendees, I anticipate the ticket price will drop through economies of scale.

Q: You mentioned to me that you believe “we have the best place in the world to build a SaaS company here in Minnesota.”  Can’t it be done anywhere?

Lief Technically, a SaaS business can be built from anywhere. But I think for highly successful SaaS businesses to get off the ground, it is better positioned in a market where the cost of doing business is relatively low, and the technical talent base to execute against the opportunity is high.  Silicon Valley is well-positioned in terms of financing, but it’s also a very expensive place to build a business and the most competitive technology talent market in the world.  There’s no place in the world I’d rather be building my SaaS company than right here in Minneapolis.  We’ve found highly qualified engineers and programmers, incredible business support, affordable living and reasonable business overhead costs, and we’re well situated for travel to the east or west coasts.  Plus, we have more Fortune 500 companies per capita here than anywhere else in the U.S.  We’re well represented in terms of small, medium, and large companies to sell into.

Q: What’s the latest regarding the growth of Workface, and what can you tell us about your upcoming plans?

LiefLike many SaaS companies, we’ve found a way to scale the business without dramatic headcount additions to the company.  That’s why SaaS businesses can become highly profitable when they scale.  Workface has only 7 full-time employees, 2 part-time, and the rest of our business is accomplished through our contingent force, which includes 16 contractors.  We currently service more than 110,000 users and count companies like Intuit and AAA as customers.  Though our revenues are scaling and we’ve seen double-digit month over month growth, we’re continuing to bring private and institutional capital into Workface for growing our market penetration.  The visibility to ROI with SaaS is usually spread out over a longer time horizon (incremental monthly recurring revenue vs. selling on premise all in one big chunk).  As such, we anticipate taking on outside capital for some time to come.

——–

Disclosure:  Lief Larson is a former client and, I fully admit, one of my favorite serial tech entrepreneurs in this town.

Funny story:  Lief and I traveled to Palo Alto a couple years ago for a conference where Lief was pitching to the Silicon Valley VC community, along with a bunch of other hot startups, and sharing the stage with speakers like the founders of Salesforce and SuccessFactors. We stayed in a funky old, ’60s-vintage Travelodge motel — about as low-priced as we could find in Palo Alto. After we checked in to our respective rooms, we both went online to work. First thing I see is an email from Lief with a photo attached of this gorgeous, expansive hotel room, saying, “Wow, I hope your room is as nice as mine.” I never laughed so hard, because I could hardly turn around in my dinky little room.

Marissa Mayer’s Minnesota Connections

MarissaMayerUnless you were totally off the grid in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for the past few days, you surely know by now that Yahoo! has named former Google exec Marissa Mayer as its new CEO.
 
But what you may not know is that two of our fellow MInnesota techies have ties to her, going back years — they're both friends of mine, and both have been startup clients of my consulting business.

One is Lief Larson (right), founder of Workface Inc., a venture-backed firm doing cool LiefLarson things to humanize business on the web.
 The other is Joe Sriver, who in 2008 founded the highly successful mobile app development firm DoApp Inc. (where, in addition to serving as an advisor, I was interim VP of marketing for a time). 

Lief went all through school with Marissa in Wausau, Wisconsin, where both of them showed an early interest in programming. He gave me this reaction to the news: 

"Yahoo! is ripe for reinvention, and I think Marissa is just the woman for the job. The one piece of news that came as a bit of a surprise is that she's pregnant and will be taking maternity leave in October, just three months after taking the helm.  I look forward to seeing what the next several months will hold for Yahoo!"

Joe's connection to Marissa came later — he was hired by her in 2001 as Google employee #198. (She was Google employee #20, its first female engineer.)  Joe was Google's first UI designer and worked for Marissa for some years, directly involved in such early products as AdSense and AdWords.  Here's what Joe had to say when I asked for his reaction to Marissa's new role: 

JoeSriver

"I was surprised by the announcement, as it sounds many others were. A pleasant surprise, that is. I feel she's the best person in the Valley to bring Yahoo back — the best pick Yahoo could make. She has a great technical background, superb at driving products, and has a great marketing sense. She's not an outsider, she knows the space well…exactly what Yahoo needs at the top. She will create a buzz around Yahoo. The analysts will be watching her moves closely, but she's prepared."

Of course, the tech community is almost universally supportive of this decision by the Yahoo! board — why wouldn't they like the choice of a technology exec to lead the turnaround?  Anything but an exec from the screwed-up media industry, huh?

I'm with Lief and Joe — I think Marissa is bound to bring some mojo back to $YHOO!

 

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