As part of Mitch Russo’s series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, he interviewed Jim Barnish, our Managing Partner and Cofounder. The full story is below. You can also find the original at this link.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My back story is a little different than most. I actually started doing strategic integration (M&A) and process improvement work before graduating high school. It was then that I fell in love with (and began to create a playbook for) all growth-focused strategic, cultural and operational initiatives (plays) that drive Alpha (excess returns) — something I like to refer to as “Operational Engineering”. I followed this Operational Engineering path for more than fifteen years, playing a major role in more than 30 acquisitions/integrations and driving more than a billion dollars in organic and inorganic (M&A) growth, As my role grew from team member to leader, the industry I championed evolved as well — from distribution to retail and eventually landing in the world of software and technology-enabled businesses. Working with tech companies, especially those focused on SaaS, excited me like nothing before and became ingrained in my DNA. In SaaS companies, all revenue was viewed differently: high valuations, recurring revenue, etc., making every dollar of growth that much more valuable — a perfect fit for Operational Engineering.
At one such company, I was fortunate enough to meet and work a CEO that happened to value Operational Engineering and drive Alpha for SaaS companies even more than myself. Fast forward seven years and that CEO (now my co-founder) and we have now driven excellence, leveraging our Path to Value Playbook at dozens of companies, serving and leading companies and investors to realize Alpha. We’ve now scaled our dynamic duo into a talented 30+ person team of serial entrepreneurs and operators with a SaaS platform to support the process, and now go by the name Morgan Hill Partners.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
My cofounder and I had been working as a CEO/COO operating pair in financial sponsor-backed (Private Equity / Venture Capital) tech companies for the last seven years. And the thing we kept seeing was that these companies regularly hit the same roadblocks — which is usually why we were brought in. Eventually, we thought to ourselves, “There’s got to be a better way (than turnaround situations) to leverage our Path to Value Playbook around Operational Engineering to teach companies and executives how to build and scale a tech business, thus avoiding the same pitfalls that so many companies before them hit.” And that was the thesis behind Morgan Hill — and today, we’ve built out a growth playbook that gives tech companies a roadmap to go from Discovery to Scale that we complement with an experienced execution team comprised of serial entrepreneurs and seasoned operators that have built and scaled software, hardware, and technology-enabled companies throughout their career.
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 pictures they paint of a Day in the Life of a Startup Founder are often much more glamorous. The TV shows about entrepreneurs don’t glamorize the 4am nights, or the struggles between co founders, or the stress it takes from a financial and personal perspective. Of course I’ve thought of giving up, but fundamentally when people decide to start their own company, they do it because they believe the sacrifice is going to be worth it in the end. Yes, there are some really long days (and nights), but the drive to continue is knowing that we’re in the midst of building something great. Something with a lasting impact.. “Just do one more thing” is the mindset that gets me through those days, because those efforts add up over time and it’s incredible to see the progress when you look back at where we were mere months ago.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Our company has grown from 5 people to 25 partners in only 20 months, covering a wide variety of functional areas including strategy, sales, product, marketing, talent and technology. It’s never been easy, but it’s a great feeling to look back compared to where we are today. The incredible talent we’ve brought onboard is propelling us forward, and it’s truly a pleasure to be a part of such an incredible team. One of our hiring tenets: “Each hire should raise the collective IQ and EQ of the room.”
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?
This feels like a classic startup story, imagine three founders in a room trying to figure out what we wanted to name this next-generational consultancy. “Horwitz, Lema and Barnish” didn’t have that “Future of Operational Engineering” feel that we wanted. We spent a full week brainstorming different names and doing a typical branding exercise. Eventually, one of our incoming partners mentioned Morgan Hill as an exclusive golf club out in the Bay Area that a lot of tech executives and investors leverage once they’ve “made it”…as you can tell, it stuck. But the lesson there was that although branding is critical to drive the right message to your audience, sometimes it’s the incoming talent that has the next greatest idea, rather than three founders in a traditional branding exercise.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Many members of the Morgan Hill team, both our senior level Operating Partners and junior-mid-level Associate Partners, came out of the corporate consulting world. And the thing that always strikes me as a giveaway early on during our interview process is the ‘why’ behind leaving. Often times, the answer in that industry is because people “burnt out” or “got paid more to go into industry.” The team we’ve comprised is largely people that are looking to do more for the clients they work with. We have truly comprised a team of operators who want to roll up their sleeves and help scale as many tech companies as possible. Morgan Hill is a group of people that are simply passionate about building businesses and the creative problem solving that goes into that each and every day.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I used to be the person who would regularly work till 3am (and later). However, it became apparent that practice was not sustainable in the long-run. I still remember one of my mentors laying into me the morning after I had been sending out a string of late night emails. He was truly concerned for me and lectured me on the importance of leading a balanced and healthy — physical, mental and emotional — lifestyle. It’s easy to get caught up in the grind of being an entrepreneur, and I am still guilty of the occasional 3am night, but I’ve learned, and want to stress the importance of respecting your human limits and taking care of yourself.
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?
Going to call out three people here. First, my dad who trusted a high school kid with way too much responsibility, but really taught me what it meant to work hard to see the results you want to see in your life. Second, my girlfriend and partner in crime Stephanie Dionisio for taking care of me while I take care of the business, and my co founder and longtime business partner, Steven Horwitz. My favorite ‘Steven story’ (and there are many) is when he and I were growing three companies together, and I (finally) took a vacation down to Little Palm Island for my anniversary. When Stephanie and I arrived at the resort we had a collection of certificates waiting for us to cash in on. What a surprise, and boy did I need the massage!
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?
Quick background info. Morgan Hill is a next-gen strategy consultancy focused on building and scaling technology companies that has also built out a growth playbook/platform that we license out to accelerators, incubators and independent consultants. The other piece to that puzzle is that Morgan Hill focuses on working with high-growth SaaS companies and, as one would expect, uses our own platform to guide those companies. We currently have 37 businesses with over 100 users of the platform.
To summarize three key ingredients in building a successful SaaS company:
1. Market need/appetite — this is critical to success
2. Relentless focus on user experience and the talent behind the platform to support
3. Timing to market — “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good”
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?
Our business in split into a few separate areas (services and product), but for purposes of this I’ll stick to our SaaS product. We’ve priced it in what is an oftentimes standard model: “implementation” + recurring monthly subscription. In this case, implementation is initial onboarding and certification of coaches / trainers (of accelerators, incubators, entrepreneurial support organizations) onto the platform followed by a monthly per-user cost based on the number of organizations / users on the platform. This model was chosen because of the stickiness of our product and long-term application it serves for our clients.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’m going to rephrase three of the steps I mentioned earlier, but I think it’s important to drill it in and illustrate what I mean by it:
1. Market need/appetite needs — This is critical to success. Do you remember sixdegrees.com? Probably not, because it was a social network started in 1997…well before people in the market were looking for a social experience such as this.
2. Relentlessly focus on user experience — Here’s one you’ll likely remember. Askjeeves.com — the popular search engine that went head to head with Google — until Google’s superior user experience drove it out of the market. In today’s world, people are more expectant of ‘push and go’ than ever before — simplicity should be one of the top things on every developer’s mind.
3. Timing is everything — Frienders, MySpace, Google+: These are just a few examples of social networking companies that proved some initial success, but ultimately, didn’t have timing right in the market looking back on when Facebook began to have the traction, and then critical mass, that set the foundation for it becoming the behemoth it is today.
4. Execute today, build for tomorrow — The name of the game when building a SaaS company is scalability. This mindset should permeate every aspect of your business, but and this will encompass the last two things that are key to building out a SaaS company — culture and product.
1. Culture — “Hire slow, fire fast.” If you get your first batch of hires right (both executive team and other employees), then your organization will be built on a foundation of talent that will attract to you.
2. Product — One of the biggest pitfalls we’ve seen with companies are the ones that build their tech out like a starter home while preparing to raise a big family. Before you know it, your house will be made up of all sorts of additions and when you’re looking to sell to the next homeowner (i.e., “pitch to an investor”), the underlying foundation will show signs of crumbling that you were not worried about until now — at which point it’s likely too late to salvage.
You are a person of great influence. 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.
Financial literacy as a form of basic education. Even in the US, the most educated nation that has ever existed, this is a vastly underserved area that students will largely not learn about at any level — including post-secondary. Money isn’t everything, but in a world that is plagued with inequality, giving people the education to understand basic economics and finance goes a long way in opening doors for a more natural even distribution of wealth.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn is my main social media presence at this point — https://www.linkedin.com/in/jimbarnish/
Thank you for all of these great insights!
About the author:
Mitch Russo started a software company in his garage, sold it for 8 figures and then went on to work directly with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes to build a $25M business together. Mitch wrote a book called “The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies” and now his 2nd book called Power Tribes — “How Certification Can Explode Your Business.” Mitch helps SaaS company founders scale their own companies using his proprietary system. You can reach Mitch Directly via firstname.lastname@example.org