Matt Zilli of Clarizen: “Make sure you understand your customer’s business”

Make sure you understand your customer’s business. Painfully obvious, I know. But I’ve seen too many SaaS solutions that effectively solve some pain point, but don’t really connect to a customer’s overall strategy. If you’ve identified a pain and you think you have a solution, I recommend starting from the top down. See if you […]

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Make sure you understand your customer’s business. Painfully obvious, I know. But I’ve seen too many SaaS solutions that effectively solve some pain point, but don’t really connect to a customer’s overall strategy. If you’ve identified a pain and you think you have a solution, I recommend starting from the top down. See if you can find out that customer’s business strategy and priorities, and then see if you can pitch your solution as not just solving a pain point, but as accelerating their strategy. If the answer is yes, you’re on to something.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Zilli.

Matt Zilli is the Chief Executive Officer for Clarizen, the global leader in enterprise collaborative work management. He drives the company’s strategic vision to help enterprise customers become more agile. Previously, Mr. Zilli held executive positions at Adobe and Marketo (acquired by Adobe in 2018). He previously served as Chief Customer Officer at Marketo, overseeing Customer Success, Consulting and Global Enablement. He supported Marketo’s growth from ~60M dollars in revenue for seven years through the 4.75B dollars acquisition by Adobe.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My career started with Texas Instruments, working with customers on their semiconductor needs. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I was going to convince someone to invest years of their time building a product with TI chips, we better be a great partner with them to make sure they were successful. That thinking carried over when I moved into enterprise software, where I’ve spent my career in sales, marketing and customer success. Nobody wants to work with a “vendor” so I always emphasize the importance of truly being a good partner to my teams.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The biggest challenges I ever faced involved going through acquisitions. It is one of those unique events where you’ve been so focused on building a great company, working with customers, partners and team members on a strategy, and it all changes overnight. All of the sudden, those same customers, partners and team members are looking to you for answers you likely don’t have. But I’ve always been an optimist, and I’m always driven by the value we’re delivering to customers. Nothing gets me as motivated as hearing from a customer about how we’ve changed their reality for the better. So, in times of great change, I usually focus there — because if your customers will stand behind you, everything else is easy.

I started as CEO with Clarizen on March 31, 2020. As you’ll recall, by then state shutdown and stay-at-home orders were widespread. The vast majority of Clarizen employees were already working remotely so I didn’t get to experience the typical “first day” at a new company where you shake hands with colleagues and associate names with smiling faces. I was in the office for only a few minutes to pick up my laptop and then it was back to my living room which has served as my personal headquarters for the last five months. Throughout that time, I’ve had to adapt to running a company and building customer relationships virtually and as hard as it was for me, I knew it was something that many of our customers were experiencing for the first time so I wanted to do everything I could for them.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Embracing uncertainty is something we’ve found ourselves talking about a lot lately. When I took the reins at Clarizen, it was fight or flight. Between the time of accepting the position in February and officially starting as CEO, the world changed. If I didn’t embrace the uncertainty with a steady hand, we would be in a very different spot as a company than we are right now.

I had many similar conversations with our customers and found that they focused on three main areas to navigate that uncertainty and be able to come out on the other side. First is visibility. Companies that have perfect visibility to how work gets done in their organizations have a lot more confidence in navigating this pandemic. Second is productivity. I don’t mean just the productivity of their team members, but how they maintain and increase productivity across the entire ecosystem of their employees, customers, partners and vendors, especially when everyone is working virtually. Lastly, and most importantly, is adaptability. The leaders I speak to demonstrate their grit every day when they talk about being adaptable, committing to changing as the circumstances around them change.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I remember one project early in my career that was massive — I was tasked with analyzing the global available market for one of our products. I spent weeks collecting data and building what I thought was the perfect analysis. I got to the end and presented it to a group of people. They fired question after question at me about my approach and methodology, about my calculations, about my conclusions. It was clear they weren’t buying into what I was selling. My boss at the time was in the room and after the meeting he asked me two questions: “Do you think your conclusions were correct?” I, of course, said yes. Then he asked, “does it really matter if they’re correct if no one believes you?” That was an eye-opener for me. The lesson here was really about the way I delivered this project — working incredibly hard, but in a vacuum, and completely certain that having the perfect answer would be enough to convince people. As I learned that day and many times since, the power is never in delivering the “right” answer to someone, but instead, it’s in how you bring people along to your point of view, even if it takes hours upon hours of work along the way to do so.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I’m always positively surprised when I hear customers characterize Clarizen as a system of record for their work and how work gets done. It has emerged as a common theme in many of my early conversations and I think that is what sets us apart. Many software and work management companies offer products that help people manage a project. But being able to provide a solution that works for them — from major Fortune 500 companies to small businesses or individual departments — is something that we take a lot of pride in at Clarizen. And that pride goes one step further when we hear from those customers of instances when being able to access that “system of record” has made a positive impact on the people within the organization.

I recently spoke with a customer in the spring who was on the verge of reducing its workforce due to the pandemic’s economic blow. It was a common story — they faced an uncertain future and asked every department to make headcount cuts. But our customer was able to perfectly quantify the work their team was doing and its financial impact on the business. That info was shared with the company’s executives and the team did not have to eliminate a single position. The value of having a system of record for the work being done at a company, by departments, and by individual teams is incredibly valuable. It unlocks new processes and depths of understanding that they never had before. Companies need that now, more than ever.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

2020 has turned all of our lives upside down from both the professional and personal perspectives but I think there is one thing in particular that sets this year apart. It has proven that work can happen anywhere and at any time. That has certainly been true for me. It can happen during the 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. window; it can start at 7:00 a.m. when I get back from walking my dog; it can happen after I put my kids to bed. And because work can happen anywhere and anytime, making sure we help each other and are understanding of everyone’s home situation is even more critical. To that end, I have three tips to share.

First, be collaborative in scheduling meetings as well as setting and agreeing to deadlines. Work shouldn’t stop, but be open to the fact that your weekly status meeting may need to change when personal obligations pop up for a team member.

Second, set boundaries and stick to them. Working remotely takes some getting used to. There is no question about it. In a sense, it can be harder to change gears from “work life” to “home life” when you’re working remotely because the physical barrier is far less than if you were going to an actual office building. But it is still important to distinguish between the two and arguably it is more important to do that in today’s climate because we all need to take care of our mental and emotional well-being.

Third, roll with the punches. I had an instance last week when my video conference call was dropped because my preschooler logged into his video conference class. Pre-pandemic, a situation like that would’ve put many of us, myself included, into a negative, stressed mindset. In 2020, it is just life. I logged back in and made a joke while the rest of the participants empathized, and then we got back to work as if nothing happened.

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?

The unequivocal answer here is my wife, Corey (and not just because she’s looking at me right now as we’re sharing our home office). She’s been my amazing partner for the better part of a decade and I wouldn’t have accomplished much of anything professionally without her help. But professionally, there’s one more person I must mention: Chandar Pattabhiram (CMO, Coupa). I often tell people that the two hardest transitions people make professionally are moving into their first role managing people and then moving into their first role managing managers. Learning how to lead people directly requires a thick skin and an open mind. Learning how to lead people who you don’t manage directly takes that to the extreme. Chandar believed in me when I was making that second transition. He personally helped me grow through his coaching and that of the people he introduced me to. He gave me plenty of opportunities to succeed (even after a couple of failures). Without him, I may never have learned how to really lead a team through the good times and the bad. I owe him a lot!

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

Clarizen has 1,000 customers currently utilizing its products as their work management solution of choice. Clarizen One is an adaptive and effective work management solution that provides a comprehensive look at all work streams within an organization. Clarizen Go, which launched last year, is a robust task management solution that is the easiest way to drive agile adoption within an organization. Here are the three main steps we’ve taken to achieve this success and grow our customer base.

Step 1: We listen to our customers. Our customer relationships are incredibly important to us because we understand the trust they put in us to manage all of the work being done by their entire organization. We proactively solicit their feedback to find out what’s working, what’s not working, and how we can make Clarizen solutions better in helping them achieve their businessgoals.

Step 2: We pivot without ego. The feedback we gain from customers isn’t put in a virtual filing cabinet and forgotten. Over the years, Clarizen has updated the features within our portfolio of products as a result of direct customer input on what would be better for them. I speak with customers every day, and the insights they provide have a direct impact on our product roadmap.

Step 3: We regularly step outside of our comfort zone. We talk a lot about agile methodology at Clarizen because that is where our roots are. Clarizen One was created to help software developers adopt the Agile methodology of project management. Over the years, we’ve found that being agile isn’t just akin to the software industry. It is a concept that has weight in other industries. We’ve adapted our solutions to help companies in other verticals transform to realize the benefits of becoming more agile.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

We understand that adopting a work management solution isn’t an overnight process, nor is it a one-size-fits-all approach. Our goal is always to align our goals with our customer’s goals, and that goes for our monetization strategy, as we want to make sure customers pay for the areas where they receive the most value. Our customers pay a subscription fee that varies based on the components they use most and on the number of users leveraging those components. We’ve toyed with other models over the years, but always with the goal of aligning our monetization to real customer value.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS-based solution? Please share a brief explanation or story for each.

I’ve spent my career in business-to-business solutions, for the past decade in SaaS, so I’ll give you my take from that perspective. The five most important things people should know are obvious, but let me explain where I’ve seen them go wrong:

1. Make sure you understand your customer’s business. Painfully obvious, I know. But I’ve seen too many SaaS solutions that effectively solve some pain point, but don’t really connect to a customer’s overall strategy. If you’ve identified a pain and you think you have a solution, I recommend starting from the top down. See if you can find out that customer’s business strategy and priorities, and then see if you can pitch your solution as not just solving a pain point, but as accelerating their strategy. If the answer is yes, you’re on to something.

2. Small improvements aren’t good enough. A lot of SaaS providers underestimate the cost of change. Improving something by 5, 10, or 15% usually isn’t good enough because the time and cost of change management isn’t worth the upside. I still get SPAM emails to this day offering SaaS solutions to improve my customer satisfaction by 10% or reduce my OPEX by 5%. Truth be told, I can do 100 things to improve by 10%, and most of them will be easier than adopting a new SaaS solution. If you can help me improve something I care about by 30% or more, then we’ll talk.

3. It takes more than just a great product. We have to provide solutions that people are willing to pay for, which means we have to translate a customer’s pain into dollars — increased revenue or saving costs. The road is littered with apps that were a great or a novel idea, but don’t really solve a significant pain or wouldn’t ever have a big enough impact to get the blessing of a CFO. For B2B SaaS, a good test is to speak with CFOs early and often. If you can’t convince a CFO of the value of your SaaS solution, then don’t bother building the product.

4. Don’t dismiss sales and marketing. Yes, it still happens. There are founders who believe their SaaS product will sell itself. In the B2B world, it turns out most employees don’t know how to buy software. So, you might win over a user with a free trial, but is that worth anything to your business? It’s critical to view your revenue engine as a system: Product to Marketing to Sales. Once you have a great product, there’s real magic in marketing it to the right audience and more magic still in a sales team that can translate a product into a business solution companies are willing to pay for. The Product/Sales/Marketing engine powers high growth SaaS companies.

5. Constantly revisit #1. As businesses grow and bring on more customers, it’s easy to let those customers dictate your roadmap. Many SaaS companies fall into the trap of prioritizing the wrong items because “customers asked for them.” I’m all for listening to customers, but we have to make sure we never lose sight of their overall business priorities. Fixing a feature here or there may improve customer satisfaction in the short term, but far too often, those features didn’t really improve the business value you were providing. The most successful SaaS companies solve this by constantly innovating, clearly communicating a vision of where you’re taking your solution so that your customers can buy in for the long haul.

If you could start 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’m a big news consumer — can’t get enough. I would love to start the movement to bring back investigative journalism, harkening back to the days of Woodward and Bernstein. The constant firehose of information most people have access to across news media, editorial media and social media means we all have access to individual tidbits, but it’s too hard for most people to really capture the complete, fact-based picture on any issue. I dream of the good that would come from healthy debate of key issues in the world, which starts and ends with journalists who are empowered to investigate and publish truth.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can always follow me personally on LinkedIn or check me out on Twitter at @mattzilli. For Clarizen, check out our website ( or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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