5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “The only way to grow your business is to listen” with Libby Fischer and Mitch Russo
The only way to grow your business is to listen. Leaders who reject feedback or constructive criticism will never advance their businesses. Your customers and staff will inform you of where the market is going and where the rough spots are in your company. Your advisors and mentors will allow you to bounce ideas off them and offer you valuable advice. As I said before, no one will come out of nowhere and tell you how to do everything. Listening is the best way to absorb vital information that will help you create these solutions yourself. As you do this, your confidence in your leadership and decisions will grow, and you’ll get better at following your gut, which is admittedly scary at first. Personally, I’ve found that the best things in life are on the other side of fear, and every big issue I’ve had as a CEO stemmed from a little issue that I was scared to approach earlier. I conquered this (and my impostor syndrome) by listening to the people I chose to surround myself with.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Libby Fischer. As an emerging leader in the education technology industry, Libby is already making a name for herself both nationally and in New Orleans, where she leads Whetstone Education. In 2014, Libby Fischer, a TFA alumna, took the helm of Whetstone Education, a then-struggling technology company with a clunky teacher evaluation platform used by 30 schools. Within 9 months, Libby led her two-person team to turn the company around by evolving the product with tools for daily teacher coaching, fast-tracking a UI/UX overhaul that led to a 90% user retention rate and secured a 50-school contract with the pioneers of instructional coaching, Uncommon Schools in New York City. Since then, Whetstone has grown from 30 schools to over 1,300 schools worldwide, with flagship partnerships at Denver Public Schools, DC Public Schools, Tulsa Public Schools, and over half of all public schools in New Orleans. Libby has firsthand knowledge, both as a former educator and current leader in the education field, about the power that proper teaching can bring to a school and its community. Whetstone’s revenue has grown beyond $2 million annually — a difference of 28x from 2014 — and Whetstone has created over a dozen new jobs in New Orleans. All of this was accomplished while bootstrapped. Libby is committed to retaining New Orleans’ top tech talent by establishing an environment where employees can learn and grow. Libby’s ability to lead Whetstone through uncertain waters with no business background led to her being named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Education in both 2016 and 2017 as well as a Silicon Bayou Top 100 in Tech and Entrepreneurship. Libby was a founding member of the governing board of Elan Elementary in New Orleans, and she currently sits on the regional council of STAR (Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response).
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?
I got into tech completely by accident. I majored in Spanish, not business or computer science. My first job out of college was teaching in the Mississippi Delta with Teach for America. After a few years, I moved south and started working at Whetstone Education as the Director of Growth. Not too long after that, I was promoted to CEO at the age of 26 because, frankly, nobody else wanted the job. It’s the absolute best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I think this meandering route to the hot seat gives me a different perspective than many people in tech who have worked their way up or are well-studied on The Lean Startup model. I’m not a born entrepreneur, and I’ve never had any ambitions to be in business or tech; but I had to learn to operate both Whetstone and myself as a leader really fast, or else the lights would have gone out. And I fell in love with it. This high stakes, on-the-job training has helped me pivot and navigate the myriad of emergencies that come up in any business, and I think my non-traditional background is what gives me my competitive advantage.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Whetstone was founded by Ron Gubitz, a principal in New Orleans who needed a better way to keep track of his classroom observations, meeting notes, and teacher feedback. Ron had built an excellent culture of coaching in his school, but emails kept getting lost and there was no way to pull all of the data together. So, Ron went to his friend Andrew Cox, who was a hobby coder and the data guy at the school. Ron told Andrew about his problem and together they built the first version of Whetstone in 2011. As a CEO, the “Aha Moment” for me was when I realized that this platform wasn’t necessarily solving school leaders’ problems. We took a step back and decided to actually go to schools to see what we could to fix it.
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?
One of the most interesting (and scary) things to happen to me since taking over Whetstone was realizing that our product was not solving our users’ problem. I had just moved across the country to take this job on a whim, and I was fielding a stream of complaints (and rightfully so) that Whetstone was making our users’ lives harder. After a certain point, I got out from behind my laptop and went from school to school, following around dozens of principals as they observed teachers and coached them through feedback. I watched as they used sticky notes, paper forms, and spreadsheets to cobble together a mess of a feedback system rather than using the platform they paid for that promised to organize their work and make the process easier. It was incredibly humbling. After each meeting (and after taking deep breaths in my car wondering if I made the right decision in taking the job), I mocked up a better version of Whetstone based on what I saw the principals doing. I emailed it off to each principal for feedback and went back to the schools to shadow them as they tested our updated software. It took six months, but one day I started receiving “I love Whetstone” emails. That’s when I knew we were on the right path.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Whetstone is heading into 2019 in a very good position, with over 1,000 schools on board. These days, we’re analyzing how we are adding value to clients with every interaction. Our renewal rate has been above 90% for the last 5 years, so we know we’re doing something right, but we want to go deeper on this. If you’re not going to be invaluable to your customers, what’s the point of being in business?
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 don’t know how funny this is, but in 2015 we attempted a re-brand. For whatever reason, my Director of Marketing and I thought Whetstone’s new logo should be an alligator (It’s a New Orleans thing). We went through 6 or 7 rounds of graphics before deciding on the alligator we thought conveyed a brand that was competent yet fun. After we started showing the new logo to people, quickly heard what we needed to hear. The public reaction was unanimous: an alligator is an aggressive creature! A teacher feedback platform should NOT have a deadly animal as its logo. The lesson we learned is to bring a variety of different viewpoints into decisions like these. This helps us get better-informed ideas and avoid wasting money and time. Maybe someday we’ll use the alligator logo on a t-shirt for April Fool’s Day or something like that.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I like to joke that if the founders of Whetstone had done any competitive research before forming the company, Whetstone wouldn’t exist. This is because Whetstone was originally created to manage traditional teacher evaluations, and there was a very crowded field of data management companies already. Where we innovated and pulled ahead of the pack was in the transition from being an evaluation platform to being a feedback and coaching platform. When I took over in 2014, I noticed that we had a product that our clients only used once or twice a year — when it was teacher evaluation time. Though I had barely any business or tech experience at the time, common sense told me that if your clients aren’t using your platform every day, or at least every week, they’re probably not getting a lot of value from it and they’re probably going to leave you. So, I knew we had to innovate.
We made monthly visits to schools and shadowed principals and teachers to see where else we could add value to their work lives. We saw a TON of instructional coaching — quick observations where a principal would leave feedback for the teacher on a sticky note, weekly data meetings in which teachers and coaches would analyze student data together and plan reteach sessions, teachers observing their peers in classrooms and across schools to learn how to improve their student engagement strategies, and much more. Seeing all of this was a lightbulb moment for me. Coaching is happening in schools every day. I saw that we had the opportunity to create a platform that could not only track all of these things, but also analyze each interaction to help school leaders tailor professional development (PD) sessions to teachers’ individual needs better. Unlike the faculty meetings I attended once a week when I was teaching, Whetstone schools now provide personalized PD to teachers the same way they provide personalized instruction to students. We didn’t invent personalized PD, but Whetstone enables it in a way that wasn’t previously possible or manageable without a huge internal data team at a school.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Take a vacation! It sounds so obvious but I didn’t take off more than 2 work days in a row between 2015 and 2019 and I *felt* it. I’ve taken off more days in 2019 than from 2015–2018 combined and I’m twice as productive as I was during those years. There’s nothing new to say about why taking a vacation is good for you, but what most executives need to hear is: ACTUALLY take your vacation!
Also, get an executive coach. Sometimes this person feels more like a “business therapist,” and that’s a good thing! There’s a lot of pressure when you’re running a company — more than most people are prepared for. Having a coach will give you someone to share your fears with, who is also equipped to help you talk it through so you can overcome them.
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?
Martin Roth, the Chief Revenue Officer of LevelSet, has been an invaluable mentor to me. Before I met Martin, I was a sales team of one and I was afraid to call people on the phone. Martin not only helped me get over the mindsets that were holding me back, but he also helped us make our partnerships work more data-driven. When you’re building a business, you can’t waste any time; Martin has helped us make sure we’re spending what little time we have on the right things so that we can expand our impact and make sure more teachers are receiving more feedback.
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?
- We refined the product to make sure it really solved the needs of our users. When I started we had fewer than 500 users, and only about 100 were active users. This was because the product wasn’t solving their problem, and in some cases actually made their jobs harder (Never what you want to hear). By following them around and updating the product so it made their lives easier, they told all their friends about it and our user numbers naturally grew.
- We built strategic partnerships with the organizations where our users go to get professional development. Your users are going somewhere to improve their craft — go find those places and the people that run them and see if there’s an opportunity to partner to improve outcomes for your mutual clients. This is a win win win for all parties.
- We let our customers speak for us. People trust their peers more than they trust companies, and for good reason. The trick to this is — your product really must solve a pain point for or add significant value to your customer for them to take time out of their busy days to talk about your product. So, the magic of this goes back to the product — make sure it’s making your customers’ lives easier before you ask them to shout it from the rooftops.
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?
Whetstone has been profitable from day one. We have an annual per-user subscription price.
We chose to charge users from day one (as opposed to a freemium model) because (1) we didn’t want to seek investment capital because we wanted to retain control over company direction and (2) it’s really hard to ask someone to pay for something that you’ve been giving them for free. People have been willing to pay for our product since day one, so we know it adds value.
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.
- Take advantage of critical opportunities. My life before Whetstone didn’t exactly have the defining points of the traditional tech CEO’s CV. As a college student, I majored in Spanish. I didn’t know how to code, and I’d had a love-hate relationship with software platforms in the past. But, I was in the right place at the right time. Most importantly, I had the right attitude for the circumstances that were put in front of me. When you take over a failing company, you can’t linger on the mistakes of the past. You have to stay positive and think outside of the box to achieve success where others failed. My non-traditional background and my willingness to take advantage of this opportunity has turned Whetstone into a multi-million dollar company and impacted thousands of school leaders, teachers, and students across the country.
- Progress can’t always come from behind a desk. There’s a time and a place to sit behind your desk and stare at your computer screen. However, it’s impossible to completely understand the needs of your customers when you’re stuck in your office. When I took over as CEO of Whetstone, our product was in bad shape. It wasn’t adding value to our users’ lives and we were getting awful feedback from customers. Rather than tweaking a few lines of code, I knew that a larger shift had to take place in our product and our offerings. Whetstone could not have made this shift without understanding the true needs of our customers. I got out of my office and journeyed to every school I could to shadow principals and administrators to get a better grasp of their needs. The result was a fundamental change in what we delivered to schools and it led to an enormous shift in how school leaders viewed our product. Sometimes, you just have to get out there and talk to your customers to figure out what’s best for your company.
- Practice what you preach. Whetstone Education provides a platform for classroom observation and teacher feedback. Our whole value proposition is that we offer a tool to make feedback more approachable. That being said, I knew that I needed to incorporate observation and feedback into our own internal processes as a company. As Whetstone’s CEO, it is my core job responsibility to develop and empower my staff to achieve at their highest possible level so that we can serve our clients effectively and meet our business objectives. I take this part of my role so seriously that I hold weekly one-on-ones with each of my five department heads. This way, we problem-solve, brainstorm, and plan out how they are going to accomplish their objectives and key results (OKRs) — all of which are designed to help the company grow. The frequency of these meetings sometimes gets an eyebrow raise from fellow CEOs who think it’s overkill; but Whetstone’s growth rate, retention rate, and extremely low employee turnover tell me something’s working. Beyond helping my team members accomplish their business objectives, I feel it’s my personal responsibility to help them grow their careers.
- Prepare your employees for life after their job. As much as I’d like to believe everyone will be at Whetstone forever, I know that the sad day will come when folks move on. I want to be happy for them when that day comes, and I’ve learned that one thing I can do to help them build strong careers is to give them the opportunity to build relationships across industries. One of the privileges of being CEO is constant invitations to interesting events around the city and country. I bring my team members along with me as much as I can so that they can meet other leaders and learn about other ideas or problems they may be interested in solving. In the meantime, they bring back ideas and energy to make Whetstone stronger, so everybody wins! Employees have a way of circling back to previous roles or previous industries they’ve worked in. I want to make sure that Whetstone is thriving and seen as a place worth coming back to if and when people choose to.
- The only way to grow your business is to listen. Leaders who reject feedback or constructive criticism will never advance their businesses. Your customers and staff will inform you of where the market is going and where the rough spots are in your company. Your advisors and mentors will allow you to bounce ideas off them and offer you valuable advice. As I said before, no one will come out of nowhere and tell you how to do everything. Listening is the best way to absorb vital information that will help you create these solutions yourself. As you do this, your confidence in your leadership and decisions will grow, and you’ll get better at following your gut, which is admittedly scary at first. Personally, I’ve found that the best things in life are on the other side of fear, and every big issue I’ve had as a CEO stemmed from a little issue that I was scared to approach earlier. I conquered this (and my impostor syndrome) by listening to the people I chose to surround myself with.
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. 🙂
Beyond ensuring that all people have access to a quality education, the movement I would inspire is a movement toward a better work/life balance for all people. Whetstone is based in New Orleans, and because there’s always something fun going on in the city, we had to figure out how to build a high-growth SaaS tech company without working 100 hours a week. It’s really important to me that my team and I can leave the office by 5pm most days to be with our families or enjoy our city. Last year, we noticed that nobody was taking advantage of our unlimited time off policy, so we now REQUIRE that everyone takes 10 days off a year. It’s easy to blame the world’s ills on Silicon Valley, but the “you’re not really working if you’re not sleeping at the office” mentality it has bred is toxic (New York City is to blame for this, too). Whetstone’s bootstrapped growth rate, retention rate, and low turnover are proving that it’s possible to get excellent business outcomes while maintaining a company culture that values people as humans and makes them happy at work. Don’t take my word for it — ask them.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
We are active on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/WhetstoneEducation/), but the best thing readers can do is check out our blog (https://www.whetstoneeducation.com/blog), which is full of insights from customers and industry leaders.
Thank you for all of these great insights!
5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “The only way to grow your business is to… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.