BlackLine CEO Therese Tucker talks to Women 2.0 about her experiences as a woman in male-dominated fields, and why she thinks women have distinct advantages in tech.
By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)
When it comes to being a rare woman in a male-dominated industry, BlackLine Systems founder and CEO Therese Tucker faces a double whammy. As the founder of a firm that makes accounting software, she travels in both technology and financial circles — both of which are seriously short of women.
So how did she manage to build BlackLine into a rapidly growing company that serves more than 75 Fortune 500 companies with 165 employees? Tucker talked to Women 2.0 about being the only woman in the room, female programmers’ unique approach to software and how she managed to start up with two school-age kids (and no venture capital).
What was your mindset about being a woman in a male-dominated industry when you were starting out?
I’ve been in both finance and technology for my entire career, and I’ve always been a minority. I do believe that it can be an advantage as opposed to a disadvantage because you always stand out, so if you’re really good at your job, you stand out in a good way. If you’re not so good, you also stand out. If you’re the only woman in a room with 25 men, you’re noticeable in ways that the other 25 men are not. I’ve actually always liked that.
Do women in tech have any other advantages they should leverage?
They’re never encouraged to be, but women could be much better at technology than men. They tend to think about things in more useable ways than men do. I’ve always found that with women programmers, they put themselves in the shoes of the end user. They tend to be better at thinking about how something might be used in the future, so if more women were in technology, I think we’d have a lot better software.
When you first started BlackLine you had two small kids. How did you manage the work/life juggle?
Kids are full-time and a new company is full-time. Basically, everything else was stripped out of my life. I didn’t have outside friends. I didn’t have any outside social engagements. Either I was with my kids or I was working, and that was true for a lot of years.
It’s interesting because one of the things that having a company offers is flexibility, so I could get up and walk out of the office at 2:30 to go pick up my kids from school and then I could spend a couple hours with them and then, when they went to bed at 9:30 at night, I could work for six hours straight. If you are in a regular job you probably don’t have the flexibility to get up, grab your keys and walk out the door. I always had that — I didn’t have a social life, I didn’t get manicures, but I had tremendous flexibility to spend time with my kids.
Did you expect that going in or was it a shock?
It just takes over your life because you go in expecting that within a year you’ll be the next Bill Gates. You keep working harder and harder and harder and everything goes slower and needs more work, and it’s a gradual thing. I think if you had any idea going into it how much hard work you’d actually have to put in, nobody would ever do it.
Even being ignorant, starting up must have been pretty nerve-wracking. How did you decide to take the plunge?
It’s interesting because I was just working with someone last week who is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met — I mean this woman can keep entire spreadsheets in her head and access cells and tell you all the numbers that went into it — and a lovely person. I asked her if she’d thought about doing a business and what I realized is that she is so smart that she can analyze all the different things and arrive at the fact that every single business idea will fail. She’s so smart that she can see so far out that she logically realizes that she should never do it. Going into business is really illogical at the beginning because your chances of surviving are pretty small.
I understand you were offered venture funding but declined it. Why?
When I desperately needed money there was no way I could have gotten it. When we started getting offers is when we didn’t need it. At the point where we were doing just fine then you get all kinds of offers of capital, but you’re giving up something. If somebody puts, $10, 15, 30 million into your company, they want to have a say in how it’s run and rightly so, but that’s going to change the culture, the end goals.
For example, sometimes we have what I would call difficult customers. They are just pains in the butt. They are not profitable for like the first year because they sap all of your resources and it really can be very hard. We have had a number of those that have gone from being not profitable to being to our biggest advocates, talking to everybody, recommending us to other big companies. We’ve been able to take a long-term view on customer satisfaction because we have not been driven by an outsider investor into doing things that are more short-term oriented.
If you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Find good advisors. I have had the most amazing advisors that have given me key pieces of advice every step of the way that if I did not have, we would not be here. I’ll give you an example: Tom Unterman of Rustic Canyon; he’s on my board of directors. There was one quarter when we had not great sales, and I went to lunch with him and I said, ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to fire my entire sales team. We did so badly this quarter.’ And he said: ‘Don’t do that because every single company is our portfolio took a dive this quarter. It’s the market. It’s not you.’ Can you imagine if I hadn’t had that information?
People love to be asked for advice. That’s why so many successful businesss people like to go teach at colleges because they want to be in those mentor situations. Look for the people you admire, reach out to them and ask them if they will help you.
Are people, and perhaps women in particular, too shy about making those connections in your experience?
Yup, absolutely they are. The first time I asked Tom if he would be on my board of directors, he told me absolutely not. He was so offended. It took me asking him probably five or six more times. If I had given up the first time, there are so many mistakes that I would have made along the way that he kept me from making.
Women 2.0 readers: Do you agree with Tucker than women’s tendency to be more empathetic is an advantage as a developer?
Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.