Advice For Founders: Stop Running Your Startup “Like A Family”

Before joining the amazing company I work for now, I spent several years doing marketing consulting for various stage B2B startups. As a result, I’ve been granted insights into many different startup cultures ranging from the excellent to the mediocre to the occasionally crappy.

Even if you sell the most incredible product in the world, if your workplace culture isn’t great, you’re not doing it right. Since recently (finally) reading The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, I really agree with his perspective that a great company culture is essential.

To make your company culture great, your most important values must be lived by you and your team. After all, company mission statements are only as strong as how well they’re operationalized.

On this topic, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend where well-meaning founders make the mistake of deciding to solve the “values/culture thing” by declaring that their startup is going to run “like a family,” especially during early stages. Here’s some thoughts on why “running your company like a family” is a really bad idea.

Saying you run your company “like a family” is extremely vague, and by doing this, you may create confusion among your team.

More often than not, when a CEO says to her team that she wants to run the company “like a family,” what she really means is that she wants to run the company according to her definition of how a family runs. After all, no two families are alike. How Jack the CEO’s family operates may be vastly different than how Jane the VP of Sales’ family functions. This leads to terrible and avoidable miscommunications.

Let’s say Jack the CEO calls his executives into a meeting and tells them that the company will now run “like a family” and that he expects leaders and their teams to act accordingly.

What if in Jack the CEO’s family, it’s common to call people out on their mistakes in public settings. After all, a little public shame is how people learn to correct their mistakes, right? So, without explicitly verbalizing any of these assumptions about what family means, Jack expects that when telling his executives to “run their teams like a family,” they’ll align with his understandings.

When Jane the VP of Sales heard Jack’s speech about “family,” she would have likely unconsciously applied it to her own understanding of family. Jane’s family does not behave like Jack’s family. Jane’s family only delivered criticism in private. People are praised in public, and given constructive criticism in private. Period.

When Jack the CEO sits in on Jane’s meeting with her Sales Development Reps (SDRs), one of the SDRs, Carl, reveals that he’s very behind on his numbers for the quarter. To Jack’s surprise, instead of tearing into him in front of the other SDRs, Jane centers the discussion around best practices and what everyone can work on as a team to improve processes. Jane plans to address Carl’s individual issues with him after the meeting in private and to review his performance improvement plan then. But Jack butts in, “Carl, why is everyone else outperforming you? Do you take this job seriously?” Jane goes beet red and after the meeting feels unsettled and confused. Why would Jack  undermine her authority in front of her team, and why he would blatantly go against their stated values? After all, wasn’t this company supposed to run like a family?

This is a pretty simplistic example, but you get the point. If you think a family should behave a certain way, chances are someone else disagrees. So don’t run your company “like a family”. State your explicit values instead.

Your experience of family is inherently subjective, but you likely won’t see it that way—and unchecked subjectivities are a big problem.

Perhaps in your family everyone was supportive, so you think running a company like a family means supporting each other. Great. But what if being supportive in your family also meant that while men in the family worked, women were expected to work only until they had children and then stay at home? So when your VP of Product comes to you announcing she’s going on maternity leave, will you treat her “like family”?

Some families are toxic, and you may unwittingly turn your company culture toxic if you run it like your family.

This is a point I’ve been intimating along the way in this post, but a lot of families are, simply put, dysfunctional and toxic. Maybe in your family you “just don’t talk about” the alcoholic gambling father in the family, so when the CEO’s personal problems start affecting his performance, or he does something unethical, it’s understood no one is to confront it lest they be breaking the family code. After all, you’re family! This is a really big problem and it’s surprisingly common in companies that run this way.

You can’t easily fire or lay off your family.

As Ben Horowitz shares in his book, as CEO or leader, you’re going to have to lay off people, many of whom are really, really great but who just aren’t the right fit anymore or because you personally failed them in some way. Depending on what stage you’re at in your company, it’s not a question of if this will happen—it’s a question of when. And running “like a family” will make it much harder for you and your executives to do this. Because it’s really hard to lay off “family”. Startups aren’t, and can’t be, families.

Better Alternatives Exist

On the surface, running your company like a family sounds like a nice, cozy idea. Family can be a source of a lot of joy and community for many people. But I’d argue that even if every single one of your employees right now consists of your actual family members, still don’t run it “like a family”! Instead, create company values that are specific and actionable. Some examples from leading companies:

  • Talk straight. (ServiceRocket)
  • Results first, substance over flash. (Rackspace)
  • Focus on the user and all else will follow. (Google)
  • Deliver WOW Through Service (Zappos)
  • Respect for the Individual (Accenture)
  • Move fast and break things. (Facebook)
  • Take work but not ourselves seriously. (Kappost)
  • Feel Free (Twitter)

Note that these values have nothing to do with “family” but may overlap with how some families operate.

Final Thoughts

I implore you, startup leaders: stop running your companies like a family. If you have that written somewhere in your mission statement or on your website, take it out right now–or at least be very specific about how you as a company actually define operating like a family. Instead, think about all of the good things you see in family and write those down as values that your company should embody.

Special thanks to Daniel Nelson, Founder of Food On A Truck, for his feedback in an early draft.

Three Of My Clients Got Acquired This Year, And Then One Of Them Acquired Me

For the past few years I’ve specialized in digital marketing consulting for B2B SaaS companies. I’ve really enjoyed helping my clients build out their marketing programs to reach their target markets. I’ve helped bootstrapped and VC-funded startups define their positioning, increase their brand awareness and thought leadership in their niche, and generate increased leads and sales. I’ve learned so much. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve also had the privilege of working with some phenomenal people and teams.

A Series of Client Acquisitions

One of my clients, a Google Ventures-backed veteran in the SEM space, famously shuttered this year. But most of my clients, I’m pleased to say, have wildly succeeded this year. Among this list of successes included three acquisitions: Learndot, a Customer Education platform for Customer Success business sold to ServiceRocket in January 2015; Taxify (part of ShipCompliant), a Boulder, CO-based B2B tax automation SaaS was acquired by Sovos Compliance in April; and, most recently, Frontleaf, a Customer Success analytics platform was acquired by Zuora in May to become their Z-Insights product line.

Joining ServiceRocket As Senior Manager of Growth Marketing

Hiking near Los Altos with ServiceRocket CEO Robert Castaneda and VP of Enterprise Ray Bradbury the day after joining the company.

Hiking near Los Altos with ServiceRocket CEO Robert Castaneda and VP of Enterprise Ray Bradbery the day after joining the company.

I had loved working with the Learndot team. I did some of the best work of my career at that point with founder Paul Lambert and the Learndot crew. One month after the Learndot acquisition (February 2015), ServiceRocket hired me to consult with them on a part-time basis to help promote Learndot, and we quickly ramped up to a full-time consulting engagement. In retrospect, my work with ServiceRocket was a bit like falling in love–slowly at first, but then all at once. I hadn’t realized it, but even before I was consulting with ServiceRocket full-time, I was thinking about them and our work together constantly, reflecting often on the amazing team with whom I was working and the really interesting and creative projects we were working on.

With the amazing ServiceRocket team at Gainsight's Pulse Conference 2015

With the amazing ServiceRocket team (and special guest SalesLoft) at Gainsight’s Pulse Conference 2015

I truly believe in ServiceRocket’s mission, leadership, values, and culture, driven by extraordinary CEO Robert Castaneda. ServiceRocket enables Customer Success for software companies and their enterprise customers through training, support and utilization. When ServiceRocket invited me to join the team as a full-time employee as Senior Manager of Growth Marketing, it was a dream come true. My work as a growth marketer is a fun and challenging blend of content, PR, social media, and demand generation, and is truly further extension of all of the work I’ve been doing in the Customer Success world all along. The team is led by VP of Marketing Colleen Blake, an award-winning Silicon Valley Woman of Influence and incredibly talented marketer and leader. I feel honored to work with and learn from her and the rest of the talented ServiceRocket team every day.

Final Thoughts

I’m so incredibly proud of my amazing clients who have “leveled up” in big ways this year, as well as the small but meaningful roles I got to play in their successes. I’m also prouder than I can express to be a full-time Rocketeer! I am still learning constantly every day, especially from leaders in our field who inspire me, and I look forward to continuing on that journey and creating valuable marketing experiences and content for ServiceRocket customers and the Customer Success industry. I plan to continue blogging here to share insights, news and ideas from the world of customer training, Customer Success and SaaS marketing. I hope you’ll stay connected and continue growing with me on this journey in the membership economy.

Thanks for reading. Sarah

Getting Ready For The Epicenter Of Customer Success: Gainsight’s Pulse Conference 2015

Tomorrow, I’m attending Gainsight’s Pulse Conference 2015 alongside team members from my amazing client, ServiceRocket, who are proud sponsors of the event. I’ve been watching the meteoric growth of Pulse these past few years, and am truly excited to be joining 2000+ other Customer Success enthusiasts and practitioners this year–the first time I’ll be in attendance. I’m excited to meet great people, learn a lot from the expert panels and sessions, and soak up all of the vibes and insights from the premier Customer Success event of the year.

In anticipation of Pulse, here are a few of the latest projects I’ve been working on in the Customer Success world:

The Ultimate Guide to Gainsight’s Pulse Conference 2015


I worked on this guide alongside others from the fantastic ServiceRocket team. It includes recommended speakers, panels, events, and even events to enjoy when you’re in town. I really recommend viewing and downloading if you’re coming to Pulse this year. Published on ServiceRocket website.

Convert Your Prospects Into Customers With Pre-Sales Training


Through introducing customer training into the pre-sales equation, CSMs can help seal the deal and sow the seeds of software adoption and customer loyalty. Here’s why it’s so smart to leverage training to help convert your prospects into customers, as well as some tips for getting started. Published on the Learndot blog.

How To Build Training Programs Your Customers Will Actually Use


To link your customer training to business outcomes and ultimately business return, you need to build training that your customers will actually use. To do this, you’ll need to create courses that are personalized to your customer personas with respect to delivery method, individual users’ professional growth, and ongoing feedback. Wherever your company is in the software training maturity model, you can get started building training your customers will directly benefit from and love to use. Published on the Learndot blog.

Named One of MindTouch’s Top 100 Customer Success Influencers To Meet at Pulse

Top 100 Customer Success Influencers at Pulse.

In other exciting news, MindTouch unexpectedly listed me as a ‘Top 100 Customer Success Influencer to Meet at Pulse Conference.’ I was surprised and honored by the mention, and look forward to connecting with others on the list as well as the uncounted numbers from incredible companies who deserve to be on here. Grab the PDF list of influencers on the MindTouch website.

Thanks so much for reading! If you’re at Pulse and want to meet up, tweet me at @SEBMarketing and say hi. As always, if you have any questions about the amazing companies or software mentioned here, please feel free to drop a line.

Roundup: Recent Posts I’ve Written For B2B SaaS Clients, March 2015 Edition

Happy March! Here is the latest roundup of recent blog articles I’ve written for my clients. Feel free to drop a line or leave a comment if you’re curious about any of the amazing companies I work with or any of the ideas and concepts mentioned here.

SuccessHacking: Customer Success As Growth Hacking: #CustomerSuccessChat Recap

Successful SaaS companies are recognizing and leveraging the relationship between growthhacking and Customer Success. After the February #CustomerSuccessChat, the fifth in the series, I wrote a recap for the Frontleaf blog on SuccessHacking — Customer Success as GrowthHacking. Lots of great expert insights were shared during the chat, and it was fun to rehash it and re-live the highlights. Published on the Frontleaf blog.

6 Exciting Emerging Trends In Customer Success 

If you’re committed to achieving your Customer Success goals in 2015, there’s never been a more opportune time to do so. We’re truly in the Golden Age of Customer Success, with ever-improving tools and processes available for reducing churn and increasing customer engagement. After Frontleaf co-founders Rachel English and Tom Krackeler released an episode of their always-awesome Customer Success Radio podcast discussing new trends that are emerging and taking hold in Customer Success, I wrote a blog summarizing their findings. Published on the Frontleaf blog.

How To Train Your Customers To Reach First Value ASAP

Onboarding is one of the most delicate (and critical) periods in the customer lifecycle. After the sale closes, when CSMs and CEMs first engage the customer (if they haven’t already come through pre-sales, to help drive success during a free trial), onboarding is the first chance to help your customers achieve success. Delivering the right customer training is paramount to ensuring your customers reach “First Value” as soon as possible during onboarding. “First Value” or “First Value Delivered” (FVD) is defined as the initial success your customer has with your software, according to your customer’s definition of success. Like Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), ARR (annual recurring revenue), MRR (monthly recurring revenue), Customer Lifetime Value (CLTV), and churn, time to value (TtV) is now one identified by industry experts as a crucial metric that counts for SaaS customer growth and as a predictor of ongoing customer retention.  I wrote about some actionable strategies for training your customers to get to first value in the shortest time during onboarding. Published on the Learndot blog.

Interview with Rob Castaneda and Lincoln Murphy: Customer Training and Customer Success

Lincoln Murphy and Rob Castaneda featured on Sarah Brown Marketing

It was a thrill to interview ServiceRocket’s CEO Rob Castaneda and Gainsight’s Customer Success Evangelist Lincoln Murphy. Rob and Lincoln discussed best practices for training and customer success, as well as their visions for the future of training and learning software. We did an audio interview, and I did a writeup as well. Definitely worth a listen if you’re looking to incorporate Training into your Customer Success program (which you should!). Published on the Learndot blog.

5 Steps For Implementing Your First Customer Training Program

Learndot Enterprise Training Maturity Mode

Software companies who are still manually delivering Customer Training are learning the hard truth: If your company doesn’t yet have a formal Learning Management System (LMS), in effect, you are your LMS. Whether your customers are already knocking on your door asking for training or you’ve independently realized the revenue opportunities of implementing a training program, getting started doesn’t have to be difficult. I wrote about steps to getting started with your first Customer Training program. Published on the Learndot blog.

Building Success: Product Roadmap and Customer Success: #CustomerSuccessChat Recap

Creating products that customers love to use is crucial for retention and growth in the world of SaaS. But like delivering stellar Customer Success, this is easier said than done. Today’s fast-growing-software companies (FGSC’s) build products that reflect the voice of their customers. Yet they also recognize when the best thing for customers is to say no to some of their enhancement requests. So how do you determine which of your customers’ product concerns should be prioritized? And what are the best tools and strategies for aligning your Product and Customer Success teams and keeping customer experience at the forefront of every new deployment? I wrote a recap of the Customer Success Chat exploring these topics and more. Published on the Frontleaf blog.

Thanks for reading! – Sarah

Roundup: Recent Posts I’ve Written For B2B SaaS Clients, February 2015 Edition

I decided to put together a roundup of a few recent blog articles I’ve written for my clients, in case you’re interested in reading what I’m up to. Feel free to drop a line or leave a comment if you’re curious about any of the awesome companies mentioned here.

3 Ways CSMs Can Use Social Media For Customer Education

Customer Education article by Sarah E. Brown

How can customer success managers make use of social media for their customer education campaigns? I focused on some general best practices and case studies from Hootsuite and HubSpot, two SaaS companies who do this very well. Published on the Learndot blog.

Interview With Samuel Hulick: User Onboarding And Customer Education

Samuel Hulick by Sarah E. BrownIf you don’t know Samuel Hulick yet, you’re really in for a treat. I interviewed Samuel about the convergence of user onboarding and customer education and customer success. Lots of great insights in here for any SaaS company looking to nail these. Published on the Learndot blog.

Which Customer Success Analytics Platform Is Right For Your Business?


I wrote an in-depth review of three customer success analytics solutions: Gainsight, Bluenose and Totango. The review came out of hour-long demos with each company and plenty of email exchanges to clarify additional questions. It’s kind of a long read, but I think it gives a pretty solid overview of the platforms if you’re interested. Note: After writing this article, I started working with Frontleaf, another amazing customer success analytics platform I highly recommend checking out. Published on the Learndot blog.

Staff.Com and Time Doctor Co-Founder Liam Martin On The Future Of Contract And Remote Work

My client Trada has created an awesome solution for small businesses who need help with their pay per click (PPC) campaigns called PPCPath. Through PPCPath, companies can hire AdWords experts on a contract basis to improve their campaigns at affordable rates. For the PPCPath blog, I interviewed one of the leading experts in contract and remote work, and Time Doctor co-founder Liam Martin. Lots of good info and predictions in here, if you’re interested in the topic. Published on the PPCPath blog.

Avoiding The Pitfalls Of The Small Business Do-It-All-Yourself Mentality

I wrote this piece for Trada for a guest post on Duct Tape Marketing, one of the world’s most popular small business blogs, focusing on why and how small businesses need to outsource. Published on the Duct Tape Marketing blog.

To Boldly Go Where No Podcast Has Gone Before: Customer Success!

Frontleaf blog on podcast by Sarah E. BrownI helped come up with the concept for Frontleaf’s new podcast, Customer Success Radio, the first podcast of its kind in the industry, as part of their overall content strategy. Frontleaf’s co-founders, Rachel English and Tom Krackeler, have been churning out epic episodes featuring experts in Customer Success from the industry. I wrote about the story of the podcast and why and how it came to be. Published on the Frontleaf blog.

Growing Successful Customers: The Ins And Outs Of Upselling

This post highlighted the discussion from the most recent Customer Success Twitter chat I ran a few weeks ago for Frontleaf on the topic of upselling/cross-selling and customer success. I came up with the idea of facilitating a regular Twitter chat for Customer Success early on in my work with the company. There had never been a Twitter chat addressing Customer Success before, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity for them. Customer Success for SaaS companies is such a hot topic, the Frontleaf team and I correctly suspected experts and enthusiasts spanning the industry would be interested. I really enjoy facilitating the chats each month, and writing the recaps. Published on the Frontleaf blog.

Reflections On Being Out In Tech

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be out in tech.

In the startup world, there’s a common understanding that we should bring our whole selves to our startup lives. When a well-known VC writes a blog about how he and his wife negotiate their partnership, we read it enthusiastically because we want to know about his whole self. Entrepreneurs who admit to and discuss their bouts with depression garner our respect and trust both for them and for their organization. I would argue that the “whole self” aspects of entrepreneurship are part of what makes this whole startup ecosystem so rich and exciting. As studies show, being our whole selves at work is also crucial for innovation. Being our authentic selves (and feeling comfortable and safe doing so) makes us more creative and engaged and better contributors at work. (Source)

But who gets to be their authentic self at startups, and who doesn’t? Which groups are still barely at the table, much less able to move through the startup world free to be themselves? As stats from tech companies brave enough to release them underscore, lack of diversity in tech is very much still a problem. While there are many aspects of this lack of diversity that need to be addressed (gender, ethnicity, age, disability status and more), for the purposes of this post, I’ll talk about a particular kind of diversity that I personally come up against: being a woman and being gay.

For the past few years, I’ve been out to my startup clients. I used to ignore inevitable pronouns and questions that would crop up after a few months on a project, but I felt like I was hiding myself every time personal lives became part of a conversation and I neglected to mention my partner. I’m grateful to say that, so far, coming out on the job has never been an issue for me. I have felt only supported by the clients with whom I’ve worked. It turns out, being out at work has not been an issue for me personally any more than my being vegan and ordering tempeh Ruebens at business lunches. That has been my experience, but I know that for many LGBTQ people, coming out in tech brings substantial risk.

In the United States, it’s unfortunately still a privilege to be out at the workplace. A gay CTO in Salt Lake City may worry about telling his co-workers about his engagement, lest doing so get him fired. This may sound extreme, but in many states with vibrant tech communities, workers can still be fired based on sexual orientation. Other issues with coming out at the workplace include simply being treated differently after coming out–not get promoted as quickly, not getting the best projects to work on, having assumptions made about your work based on your orientation/identity, and on.

When Tim Cook came out, it mattered to our community and to young people and to the world. Being out in tech shouldn’t be an issue, but in today’s world, whether we’d like to admit it or not, it very much still does.

Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup

In May 2014, I founded the Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup in an effort to create community around and bring awareness to a group who have been historically underrepresented in society and in tech. Since inception, we’ve grown to 100+ LGBTQ techies and allies, and have hosted diversity in tech-focused, dinners, panels, happy and coffee hours, and community networking events at local startups and technology hubs. The incredible people and co-organizers I’ve met as a result of this are now my friends and unending sources of inspiration (you know who you are).

Having dinner with Joel Spoksly, founder of Fog Creek Software and out leader in tech.

Having dinner with Joel Spoksly, out founder of Fog Creek Software, through Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup.

Boulder, CO, where I live and have clients, has come under fire for diversity and tech issues. It seems like we can’t go a week without some council member suggesting that growing tech in Boulder is just going bring more “straight rich white guys”. I recommend reading Brad Feld’s blog on the subject if you want to read up. Our group stands in the face of those criticisms. Our members are exceptionally valuable contributors to Boulder’s technology economy. Local and international companies and orgs have embraced us, and we’re exploring new ways to partner with allies and companies working to make things better.

A recent Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup held at Quick Left in Boulder, CO

A recent Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup held at Quick Left in Boulder, CO

Our group is now an official partner of Lesbians Who Tech 2015 conference and we’re a NCWIT Affinity Group Alliance member. Our Meetup membership has been generously sponsored by Pivotal Tracker for 2015. We do volunteer work and community service (a few weeks ago 11 of us met to upgrade Out Boulder’s website, for example). Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup has done events with Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software,  gSchool and Galvanize and 500 Startups, Lesbians Who Tech, SendGrid, Trada, Quick Left, and more. And we’re just getting started.

Since I moved to this beautiful mountain town almost two years ago, a lot has changed. When I first arrived, it was illegal for me to marry my partner. Now we have marriage equality. We now also have a LGBTQ tech meetup.

These days, I do my best to bring my whole self to work. Every day I feel grateful for that privilege, and reminded of those who don’t yet have it, and the work that needs to be done.

Thanks for reading. – Sarah

Book Review: Uncommon Stock Series By Eliot Peper

Uncommon StockImpressive (adj.) A male writer who spends only six hours in Boulder and is able to craft a compelling story starring a Boulderite woman entrepreneur. Also see: Eliot Peper.

Dissatisfied with the sparse startup fiction landscape, writer and startup vet Eliot Peper took matters into his own hands and wrote Uncommon Stock 1.0 and its sequel, Uncommon Stock: Power PlayBesides practically creating a new genre, Peper launched an entertaining and compelling series centered around startups, Boulder and human relationships.

Without spoiling too much of the plot of book 1.0, Mara, the outdoor sports-enthusiast protagonist, and her co-founder, James, get themselves into a lot of opportunity, excitement, and life-threatening trouble with their startup Mosaik. Along the way they deal with challenges like building the company, getting beta customers, managing founder roles, fundraising, risking their lives uncovering dangerous secrets through Mosaik’s software, and oh yes–being hormone-filled young adults.

Eliot Peper

Uncommon Stock Writer Eliot Peper

The plot twists and turns are undeniably gripping (without spoiling too much, let’s just say some ex-lovers get a little too crazy about amateur private investigating and pay the price for it), but, for me, my favorite part of 1.0 was how Peper captured Boulder’s startup vibe. I found myself nodding while reading about the savory dishes at local restaurants, beautiful descriptions of the Rocky Mountain landscape and local Boulder institutions.

Power Play takes us along for more adventures of Mozaik. Mara deals with the reality of being CEO at one of Boulder’s fastest growing startups, and the consequences of that role–less time out in nature, and more responsibilities and risk. More lives are at stake in this book, too.

I feel privileged to have been based in Boulder, CO for the past couple years, and really enjoyed reading descriptions of the local restaurants, trails, sights and institutions. If you’ve ever been to Boulder (for even six hours!) I think you’ll love that about this series, too. If you haven’t been to Boulder but appreciate early stage startup drama, Uncommon Stock will also be up your alley.

Peper (who seems overall like a really awesome guy) emailed me that he’s working on Book 3. I can’t wait to read it, and recommend you catch up on one and two so you can get excited about Book 3, too. You can follow him on Twitter to stay abreast of Uncommon Stock news.