Who knew closing the books could be so simple? Leave it to the tireless, pink-haired, ball-of-energy entrepreneur Therese Tucker to completely disrupt the finance and accounting functions we know today. I recently sat down with Tucker to talk about her journey founding, growing, and taking public her finance controls and automation platform, BlackLine, and discuss what has made her and her company so successful.
“Like most entrepreneurs, I’ve always had a stupid amount of confidence,” Tucker, founder and CEO of BlackLine, tells me during our interview. It’s a mix of confidence, naiveté, persistence, and grit that makes up every successful entrepreneur, but not a single one of us could have gotten where we are now with just those traits.
“I thought I was the next Bill Gates,” Tucker said. After quitting her stable engineering job to pursue freelance work as a programmer, Tucker realized she’d need more than confidence to succeed. “I nearly starved to death,” she said. “And I was not the next Bill Gates.”
BlackLine is a fintech cloud software company headquartered in Los Angeles, with offices in Australia, the UK, and Germany. It was founded in 2001 by Tucker using her stock options from a previous company, where she had served as CTO. BlackLine now boasts over 196,000 users in 150 countries, but it all started 17 years ago with just one customer.
BlackLine’s first customer actually helped shape the company’s product offerings and is still a customer over a decade later. Tucker built her business – and simultaneously her credibility – one customer at a time. It was a slow path to growth, but it ensured that she didn’t need to ask for funding, something female entrepreneurs in particular can struggle to obtain.
“Get customers one by one, then ensure sure they are really happy with what you’ve done for them,” she said.“ Get one customer, and treat them like the gold that they are.”
But building the business slowly didn’t always mean smooth sailing. No stranger to failure herself – she initially failed out of her computer science program at the University of Illinois – Tucker has learned some painful lessons over the years, and BlackLine has had its share of struggles.
“I tell people I’m the queen of second chances,” she said. “I have screwed up everything at least once,” including her marriage. Divorced from and later reunited with her husband, Tucker attributes her failures to her ultimate success. “BlackLine is a very successful company, but it has fallen on its face a dozen times along the way.”
One of her hardest lessons came during BlackLine’s early days and is the reason Tucker tells others to have strong employment contracts with their employees. In the early stages of BlackLine, an employee (and presumed friend) left the company to start their own venture … doing the same thing. It was a testament to the business though, proving Tucker was starting something valuable.
Valuable is exactly what BlackLine became – 14 private equity firms eventually came knocking at its door. Looking for investors is actually what led Tucker to one of her biggest mentors – and now board member – Thomas Unterman. After turning Unterman down as an investor, Tucker repeatedly asked him to join her board of directors, to which he repeatedly said “no.” Again, she persisted and eventually persuaded him to take on a bigger role with BlackLine, convincing him that at least as a board member he could have equity in the business.
Mentorship, Gender, and Paying it Forward
As a woman in tech and a female founder, Tucker hasn’t exactly been surrounded by people like herself. I asked if she had any female mentors, and she said “never – they were all men.” But surprisingly, that doesn’t matter much to her. “Gender, in terms of mentoring, doesn’t matter,” she said. “I never needed help on my gender!”
When it comes to mentoring others though, Tucker agrees there’s a need to show women that they can build and run successful companies.
“I used to really dislike when our public relations department would leverage my gender,” Tucker said. “But the reality is, there are not enough women in leadership positions, and young women do need role models. I think it’s important to stand up and say, ‘I’ve done it; you can do it.’”
The advice she wishes someone had given her years ago? Know what you’re getting into. “This is going to take so much longer than you think it’s going to take, and it’s going to be so much harder, and there are painful things along the way,” she said.
Luckily, fellow entrepreneurs have women like Tucker to help guide them on the journey.
Authors Notes: Therese Tucker is married and the mother of two grown children. Before BlackLine, Therese was chief technology officer at Sun Guard Treasury Systems. She is a computer science and mathematics graduate of the University of Illinois. Therese founded BlackLine in 2001, engineered its move to a cloud-based solution in 2007, and took the company public in 2016. BlackLine and Dun & Bradstreet are mutual customers of one another.