Stepping Up to Scale, From the Fika Fireside Series

A few weeks after joining the Fika team, I sat in on my first Fika Fireside Chat, “Stepping Up to Scale” — a conversation with Tien Tzuo, Founder and CEO, Zuora and one of the “Salesforce originals” that was moderated by TX Zhuo, General Partner, Fika Ventures. Since the event, I’ve been mulling over what I learned from the discussion and wanted to share some thoughts…

For founders, especially first-time founders, starting a company is an incredible leadership journey — one filled with twists and turns, and peaks and valleys. Each founder’s sojourn is unique given the nuances of their company vision, team, industry, customers, and/or business model. Nevertheless, there are often helpful insights that can be learned from fellow founders — both from those who are at the same stage in their entrepreneurial voyage and those who are farther along.

One part of the journey that can catch many founders off guard is rapid growth. As a record high number of new businesses launched in 2020 — likely a result of an increase in unemployment and the shift to work-from-home during the COVID-19 pandemic — many new founders will need to prepare and craft a plan that enables them and their teams to embrace high velocity. In Fika’s most recent Fireside Chat, “Stepping Up to Scale,” TX Zhuo (General Partner, Fika Ventures) dug into this topic with Tien Tzuo (Founder and CEO, Zuora).

Having ‘stepped up to scale’ twice in his career — first as a C-Level executive at Salesforce and secondly taking his own company, Zuora, public — Tzuo shared honest answers and learnings from his leadership journey as a founder. One framework that stuck with me was the VMCL structure, which Tzuo learned from Dr. Derek Cabrera, a graduate professor at Cornell University:

  1. V is for Vision: The singular vision or desired future state that a company is founded on and that motivates the founder and their team in perpetuity.
  2. M is for Mission: The mission statement(s) or action(s) that a company takes repeatedly to accomplish its vision.
  3. C is for Capacity: The measurable systems that are put in place to enable a company’s people to execute the mission and vision.
  4. L is for Learning: The continuous feedback loop or set of metrics that keeps everyone on track.

As Zuora grew in revenues, customers, and headcount, and as the external environment changed, the company had to remain agile and rely on feedback to inform how it should adjust its systems. However, even during periods of transition, Zuora’s vision and mission remained consistent: to power the subscription economy by building tools that will enable customers to succeed in that subscription economy.

Other salient points about preparing for and embracing scale that I, and hopefully others, took away from Tien’s candid responses included:

  • Early hiring should be strategic but fluid. Your first 25 hires should be people who have the potential to eventually run a team/department. However, fluidity in job roles and responsibilities will allow for stronger shared experiences and the natural development of team leaders.
  • Build brand and loyalty by telling the story of your customers. Storytelling is a very authentic form of marketing that can also engage your customers to become advocates. Providing them with a platform to share their story of transformation with the world will also share yours.
  • Match your “human support infrastructure” to your changing needs. It’s rare to have one singular advisor or mentor who will know how to help you at all stages of your founder journey. In fact, as your company grows, it’s better to seek out new advisors, mentors, VCs, board members, and team members who are the right fit at that time.
  • Always be willing to ask yourself if you should be at the helm. The role of the CEO may change at different phases of the company. Do you need the CEO to be a storyteller, or an operator, or a visionary, or an evangelist? Having the discipline to constantly evaluate if you are the right person for the job at that phase in the company’s lifecycle is challenging but important to ensure the vision and mission the company was founded on can continue to be accomplished.

Even with all of this advice in mind, Tien reminded us all that the founder journey is full of the unexpected that even the most rigorous systems and processes can’t control for. So, as a founder who is ‘stepping up to scale,’ it’ll be important to get comfortable with uncharted waters and stay agile, while always using your company’s vision and mission as your deep-water anchor. 🌊😉

Seed investing @ Fika Ventures, Founder @ Mi Casa de Angeles | Previously @ WndrCo, Parthenon