Today I had the pleasure of interviewing, Catherine Dahl, the CEO of Beanworks, a leading accounts payable automation platform. She strives to help build a business process company that designs and delivers disruptive SaaS solutions to the world of Finance.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Itwas an accident actually. I was part of the different version of this company, and came on as an accountant to help develop the product when it was in its very early stage. Then the company fell apart, and six of us banded together to form a new company, which turned into Beanworks. I just fell into the role of what I called GM at the time. At some point, we realized we were a tech company and nobody has a GM at the top of their organizational structure so it had to be switched to CEO. And that’s how I got into this job and I love it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the things that I have discovered in my journey at Beanworks is that as I walk into challenges, the solutions just sort of fall into my lap when I need them to.
I call it an Alchemist moment from the book The Alchemist.
For example, I went to SaaStr this past year and I needed a new VP of Engineering. Then all of a sudden I saw that SaaStr had a whole session on how to hire a VP of Engineering and it gave me exactly what I needed to hire the right person. But even crazier — before I went to the session, I ran into a person who had been sitting on the virtual bench in my mind as a potential leader in my company, but she was working as Head of Data for another company. She started talking to me because I was wearing my Beanworks hoodie and it just turned out that she was looking to leave her company at the exact moment that I was looking to hire somebody. That session confirmed that she had the right skills for the role. It was very serendipitous, and what I call another Alchemist moment.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Most mistakes are not funny or at least not at the time you make them. The only one I can think of was a naming error. We named the company Bean Evolution at first with the product called beanworksAP. Being a company with mostly younger folk, an idea surfaced that perhaps that was too long and so we agreed to shorten it to BeanEvo. The mistake I made was to not flush that idea out fully. One day a few months into that name, a more mature friend (and a good representation of our customer base) reminded me that this was very similar to a product for reducing flatulence called Beano! I knew what that product was and who used it and why, so we quickly dropped that name and went for one brand and one name! Beanworks won the day on both fronts.
Although not as humorous, hiring mistakes are the most common and frequent errors all startups make. Usually you find them funny later, but not always. The lesson we have learned after hiring almost 200 people over 8 years (we have 65 FTE today) can be summarized as follows; hire for the role you need over the next 18–24 months. And whenever possible hire someone who has demonstrated that they have done that role. Think through the role and focus on the top three things you need in a candidate and optimize for those 3 things.
This is especially critical when adding senior management to the company, I had to go through a couple of different iterations of individuals in key roles. I used to struggle to find the right fit for these roles, and would sometimes give up too easily and just hire to fill the role. But in recent years, we have moved to a deliberate process and focused perseverance on finding the person who can do the role for the next 24 months.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes Beanworks stand out is that we are good-spirited and lighthearted. We try to have a fun online persona in order to make a boring topic interesting. Our culture of creativity and our fun user interface is what really stands out in our market space. Our product is designed for accountants by accountants. I had a customer actually hear me say that at a conference. Shortly after, she walked out of the session and said, “Where do I sign up?”. It shows in our features and how the system works, it is how we stand out from the competition. We’re doing something that is helping the end-user to be successful in their role and that’s the approach we take with it. I think that is quite different than a lot of other software products.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, we’re working on adding an Expensify-like functionality to our platform, which is pretty cool. It will allow us to be the only platform online that has a one-stop-shop for all things AP, including expense reimbursements to employees. That is coming very soon.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
The best advice is to be fair and persistent. I enjoy going into spaces where I’m the odd woman out and trying to break the mould. From a company perspective, we’re trying to do the same thing. We actively recruit an equal slate of men and women to our open positions. The result is that we have a diverse company. Two out of five members of our board are women. Our management team is pretty actually slightly more female than male. Company-wide, I’m happy to say that we are pretty close to a 50/50 split on female/male diversity while being culturally diverse as well. We have great international minds at Beanworks.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
My advice would be don’t doubt yourself. Females tend to underestimate their abilities and undervalue their strengths — and I’m guilty of that. That is something that as a group we have to stop doing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Gina Arsens , who was on my board for a while, was a great supporter of me staying in my role as a CEO, and helping me evolve with the company. Having that kind of support at the board level really makes a big difference. Gina helped me as an executive residence advisor initially, then as an advisor on the board, and now as a chair member. She has worked with me for a number of years. Having that kind of board-level mentorship from leaders that you aspire to be like, plays a huge part in what I’ve become, and when and how I will evolve over time.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We focus on diversity at Beanworks and that’s a good thing. Beyond that, I am proud to be building a company that helps the environment by getting rid of paper and reducing our carbon footprints. Also, we’re making a miserable process pleasant, which is beneficial for a lot of people. Those are all things I think are good for the world — at least the world I live in.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Money doesn’t go as far as you think: I heard it quoted many times “building software always costs twice as much and takes twice as long than you think”, so plan for that and raise more cash than you need for 24 months.
- Everything takes longer than you think: This relates to the previous point, but everything simultaneously takes twice as long as you plan it to take. You can have a solid business plan but the fact of the matter is that it will usually take twice as much time as you think. And you need to plan for that.
- Understand the mentality of VC’s: There are different types of investors throughout the different stages of a company. Back at the start, we were asking the wrong people for money at the wrong times. You have to be savvy about it and know exactly who to ask and when to ask them.
- Leaders are readers — Read Scaling Up books: A great book that I found out a couple of years in called Scaling Up. Another one along those lines which only came out in 2018, is called the 3HAG Way. I wish I could have read it and planned the company by following the guidelines in these books from the start.
- Find a tech ecosystem you can rely on: There are great tech ecosystems out there now, for example TechStars. BCTech has a couple of programs and Acetech is a good place for growth support. I wish someone had pointed out to me earlier where exactly I could find them because they’re so essential for early businesses to succeed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think I’m already doing that. The diversity thing is, for me, my greatest achievement. I’ve been doing it for years, and have been spreading the gospel by being on panels, posting on the topic online and also by supporting the process in my own company. Bringing on BDC as an investor was also a big step — because I wanted that fund to have success, and I believe we are driving early success for them. That’s a good thing, which will continue the momentum of what they’re trying to achieve. So diversity in tech is really my thing. And I already think I’m influencing it in my own way.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Sometimes it’s the simplest things that get you motivated and for me it was “Never give up.” That’s it. Why is it relevant? Because it’s the only reason why we’re still here — my co-founders and I simply refused to give up.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Sheryl Sandberg , from Lean in. She’s doing a great job making progress for women in business and in leadership but overall I am sure she would agree, we haven’t gone far enough. I’d love to have a chat with her and bounce ideas off one another.