Complete Firm Management: Brian Saunders, BigTime Software CEO, Talks with UpTech Report

December 5, 2019 BigTime Marketing

 

 

The following interview was transcribed from an interview with UpTech Report.

In this episode of UpTech Report, we speak with Brian Saunders, the founder and CEO of BigTime Software, a cloud-based software for professional services firms. They like to describe it as the operating system behind the greatest consulting firms on the planet. In our chat, Brian shares how he's grown the company to more than 2,000 customers in dozens of countries, a few hurdles he's had to overcome, and the ways he continues to innovate.

UpTech:
Alright, thank you, Brian, for joining! We're excited to learn more about BigTime, and also how you are innovating as an entrepreneur. First off, tell me, what year did you start the business and where are you located?

Saunders:
Sure, we’re a Midwestern company, so we've been in Chicago for a long time. I actually sold my last company that I started, and we were a software services company, so we basically did product consulting, and product marketing. And, I thought, we didn't really have anything to manage that firm. My partner always says, we learned every lesson we learned through experience, every mistake. So, partially we wanted to start BigTime because, you know, we wanted to “eat the dog food” so to speak, we got tired of consulting with people and telling them to do these four things, and they would do one and two, and skip 3, and then wonder why four didn't work. So that was part of it, and then part of it there was just no tool out there to help companies go from five to ten Consultants all the way up to 50 to 100, and it's a struggle. 

UpTech:
So, your industry is specifically Professional Services?

Saunders:
Yeah, we look at it like three legs of the stool. We serve a lot of what they call ACE (Architecture Engineering Construction), that’s one leg. Then the second leg is IT Services, so everyone who does a project. Mostly for our customers, everything they do has a snout and a tail, the snout is exciting, the tail’s terrifying, and they need to manage that whole beast. And then, we also do a fair amount of what you would consider management-consulting, they can be super specific, but ultimately they all do the same thing. They all have a project, they all have to manage, repeat it, and figure out how to get their people to be more leveraged, that type of thing.

UpTech:
Wow, and you said you have about 2,000 customers? 

Saunders:
Yeah, just over 2,000. Exactly. 

UpTech:
Each of them, you’re helping to track their time, but they could be doing this themselves with spreadsheets.  So, tell me more, what's the pain point you're helping to solve for them, and really how you provide a next-level solution?

Saunders:
Yeah, it's interesting because really a lot of them start out with spreadsheets, that's kind of the classic beginning. And then, you talk a lot about entrepreneurs and how people start, and honestly before when you’re 10 or 15 people, we don't really offer that much value to your firm. You got to just get out there and do the work you do, while being a great consultant. Be good for your clients, but as you grow, well that gets really hard to manage. Think about it - if I've got 10 guys on a spreadsheet, I don't know until they hand in the spreadsheet where we stand. I got to go backward to talk to customers, to figure out well wait a second, I know you told us you only wanted to spend 20 grand this month, but we did something really cool, and the positive you get all the benefit from that, and the negative is we got to come up with something. Either I have to eat that extra money, or you have to pay more, but either way, it's not a fun conversation. So, you'd rather be on the front end of that, and that's what cloud-based software lets you do.

A lot of these firms they’re virtual now, you don't have an office with 30 or 50 Consultants, you might have guys all over the country. So, you get tools like Slack, that are built around consolidating those teams. For services firms, that means how much are we supposed to spend? When are things due? What's done, and what's not that’s depending on me to get done? What should I do today? And then, help me feed that up the chain so that I don't have to have endless meetings to explain where we’re at.

UpTech:
It really helps the ability, when having more and more consultants, to scale and automate this tracking so that it's faster response time for managing it and for client feedback. There are other tools out there that track time, so tell me more about your technology, the IP behind it, what's different about it?

Saunders:
A lot of it is not necessarily IP driven, but more workflow and process. Most of it is about stepping into the journey that somebody goes through when they are part of a project. It begins with a conversation with the customer, it turns into a budget, and then it turns into this vision, and that vision is executed, and all along the way, people have to be connected. 

It's not just about, “Hey Alex, what did you spend an hour doing this morning?” It's about actually stepping back and saying how does that hour fit into the entire context, not just the project you're working on, but also your team. Are you doing the right stuff? Do we have you focused on the right task? Are you going to be able to get to the nine other things you have on your plate on time? And, if you do have to make choices, which ultimately it's all about priorities, how can I help you be smart about making those choices? 

Consultants have a different day to day workflow, and that's what sets BigTime apart - we might be the only time and billing system out there that has zeroed in on the consulting experience. 

UpTech:
Got it. So packages, do you buy based on per user?

Saunders:
Most software companies do that, I mean everybody struggles a little bit with how to do that, and we break it out by user. We have larger packages for larger firms, but really it’s packaged for larger workflows. Think about it, a 10-person organization or 20-person organization that you run, let's say, you might want to look at every invoice before it goes out to make sure it jives with what you believe the client needs to see. You're going to know internally, wait a second, we have problems with this client, or hold on, we did a ton of work for them and I just talked to them. You're going to know stuff. As the company gets to 40, 50, and a hundred people, you might have to have two or three people looking at that to make sure the invoice jives. It's a conversation as opposed to review. 

Back to pricing, our feature sets are really divided into complicated versus simple, so that as your company grows the system grows with it.

UpTech:
Start simple and as you grow you can pay for more and it gets more complex as you have the ability?

Saunders:
100%

UpTech:
What about partnerships or APIs or other connections that you've established? Have you found any that you're currently using, or looking to incorporate?

Saunders:
Tons, yeah. APIs and enterprise software, or integrations and enterprise software is a pretty big hot topic. The problem though is that a lot of them are checking the box for an integration. So, are you integrated, with for example, NetSuite? Yes, check. But, when you get in there and you actually try to integrate you realize it needs to be a lot deeper and a lot smarter. 

If I update the phone number in BigTime and I update the fax number in NetSuite, can I bring those two together, or do I have to choose one or the other? That's simple idea, what we call deep integrations, and we only do half a dozen of those. We have accounting packages, Salesforce is important, we do a fairly deep integration with slack for workflow and notifications. But, that's kinda where we tend to focus those specifics, and then we have an API to deal with the other stuff. 

Business Intelligence is a big thing too. We push all this information that's cloud-based, so BI tools are used to have a database or hub that they can pull from. If you use Microsoft BI, or Looker, or any of those a big repository in which all this data pushes, we support a couple of those repositories.

UpTech:
I appreciate your perspective on APIs just being a checkbox, but are they actually useful? As you've grown over the years, you’ve faced different learning curves, tell me what's one difficulty that you had to go through that you were able to learn something from?

Saunders:
That's a fair question. You know, I would say one of the things that is key, obviously again, I have a Midwestern biased here, is to figure out the value. Chase the value, and you'll figure out the tech. The reason I say this is because it's a hell of a lot easier to have a bottom line and talk about financing, then it is to basically be talking theoretically about what the bottom line might be eventually. So, chase value is my first advice.

Then, as you think about investors, their personalities and approach to how they help mentor you is way more important than their cash, especially in today's market. Who they are and the value they provide sitting in a chair across from you is worth way more than the check they cut. 

UpTech:
That is a powerful point of the board members, and I love that they gave you value before you even went on with them. Five years from now, where do you see your company?

Saunders:
I want to get deeper into these organizations. There's so much workflow outside of just tracking the back office that we can facilitate. So, we will for sure grow by doing some international work, the problems that we deal with aren't strictly US and Canada, they're all over the world. As we move upmarket, we have organizations that are not just hundreds but thousands of users and they have offices all over the world. So, I think we need to be able to approach that geographically just in the technology. 

But then beyond that, there is a whole series of workflows that extend from what we're doing today. The more we can facilitate that I think the better the community will be. Even something as simple as, you're an architect and you need IT services help, and why can't you come to the community that understands how to deal with that? Or, how does one architecture firm with a ton of CAD resources leverage those resources where other firms might need them? It’d be about how can we help our clients help each other.

UpTech:
I like the vision of growth, global scaling and now having to look into languages and interactions,  but also community growth. Figuring out how you can create different partnerships in collaboration, and improving on your product. Now with the round of funding, you have the means to be able to support growth. Now, it's just providing the direction of clarity where are you going and vision.

Saunders:
Yeah, you got it exactly.

UpTech:
Any thoughts then on overall future difficulties to scale a business, both your own or even other entrepreneurs, of what it takes to scale and the difficulties that you imagine you'd have to face?

Saunders:
A lot of that you need partners to help you go through it. Again, I'm an old man, so I don't have much ego left, so if somebody can come in and help that's awesome! But, ultimately as a company grows there are some core values there: what we think about our customers, how we treat each other, what are the types of people that we want to cultivate, and nurture in helping to instill those values. While scaling this is really tough. A lot of scale is process. The growth round funding involves bringing some horses that are really good at the things we used to just skate by with doing, and the hard part is making sure that all of those really high-powered people are knitted together with the set of values, so that in 5-10 years from now we have built a company that we'll all be proud of. 

UpTech:
For you personally, how are you innovating? Where are you looking to get your new insight from?

Saunders:
You know it's funny is everybody talks about innovation or creativity as if its anything you study, or an effort. I think it's all about exposure. I get out of the office all the time, I tend to go to conferences that have nothing to do with enterprise software just so that I hear what other people are saying. Sitting in the audience as just some no-name guy and listening to people talk about AI, and what they're doing in the healthcare field, etc. Then, I come right back with people I need to talk to and the potential for change. Creativity is just being exposed to a lot of ideas, that's where I draw my inspiration from. One of the things you had talked about before, things that you read things that you pay attention, for me, a lot of that is getting outside of tech and understanding how things work.

UpTech:
Are there any books that you've been reading lately, or podcasts that comes to your mind that someone might like?

Saunders:
Everybody has to listen to Malcolm Gladwell's Revision of History. If you're talking about podcasts, that's an absolute must. It's phenomenally creative. He grew up as a reporter so he can do a “got you” interview just as well as anybody else in the market. It's also got these insights that are driven outside of the norm, and so the questions which look at things from the side make it really interesting to listen to.

UpTech:
Love it, Brian. Thanks for joining us! Where can people go to learn more? Anywhere you can drop them to as a first step?

Saunders:
BigTime.net. Feel free to email me if you have questions, I'm on LinkedIn so that's a great way to get a hold of me. Hopefully, we'll get a chance to help all those companies out there grow!

 

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