“You’ll always have to decide which fires you let burn versus which have to be put out immediately” with Bruce Marable and Mitch Russo

I recommend that other startup founders take care of their mind, body and soul to help keep from burning out. For me, that looks like boxing, attending church and constantly reading and listening to podcasts about our industry. It can look very differently for many people, so I say choose what gives you joy, allows you to take your mind off the business when necessary, and remain a balanced human being. I also recommend understanding that everything is not urgent, and you’ll always have to decide which fires you let burn versus which have to be put out immediately. Lastly, I would say build a personal “board of directors” along with having a tribe of other founders you can talk with, to know you’re not the only person dealing with this type of stress since being a startup founder can be a lonely place.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Bruce Marable. Bruce is the co-founder, Employee Cycle. His years in the HR tech space helped him to identify a gap in the market at the intersection of HR and analytics and led to the creation of Employee Cycle, the HR analytics dashboard for small and medium-sized companies. Employee Cycle solves the biggest barrier stopping HR leaders from strategically using people data.

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 grew up in Philadelphia attending Central High School, and then received a degree in Communication Studies from West Chester University. During my college years I found my love for tech startups, co-founding the college classified startup UniversityBay. Although that project never reached its full potential, I realized that I had the passion, skill sets, and grit to succeed in the startup world at an early age.

After graduation, I went on to briefly work for the advertising & PR firm Tierney Communications as a Media Planner, and then for digital marketing firm Razorfish as a Search Engine Marketer. Both companies allowed me to directly work with well-known local and global brands such as Temple Hospital and Johnson & Johnson. This experience in marketing provided the necessary insight for me to co-found my next company, Defined Clarity, a website and app development firm.

During my time at Defined Clarity, me and my co-founders and I never lost the desire to build and launch software products, so we built and spun out the HR tech startup gatherDocs, which was hiring software built for high-volume / high-turnover hourly companies including retailers andrestaurants.. The company built up initial traction, and ended up getting acqui-hired and merged into a Denver-based HR tech company. This experience in the HR tech space allowed me to identify a gap in the market at the intersection of HR and analytics, and led to the creation of Employee Cycle, the HR analytics dashboard for small and medium-sized companies.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for Employee Cycle? Can you share that story with us?

Unlike many founders who tell a magical version of their Aha moment, mine was very practical. With a background in marketing and advertising, it was common to view, track, and analyze data to have a deep understanding of customer behavior, tell a data-driven customer story, and ultimately leverage the data to make better decisions. While selling to HR practitioners, I realized that the HR role was just hitting it’s inflection point where the role was not only looking to become data-driven, but also were asked to use data by their respective leadership team. With this gap in how companies are aggressively using data to track the customer life cycle, but severely lacking the tools to track the life cycle of an employee, I knew that Employee Cycle needed to exist in the world to help make HR smarter and more data-driven. Additionally, most modern HR systems targeting companies under 1,000 employees have open APIs, breaking down the technological hurdle to pull all the people data from multiple HR systems into one real-time centralized view.

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?

Growing up in a rough neighborhood naturally allowed me to build a certain amount of grit, tolerance, and ability to thrive in the face of adversity, so the thought of giving up has never crossed my mind. Entrepreneurship will definitely test you in ways you could never imagine, and will force you to experience every negative emotion on a consistent basis, but when you push through is when you start to actually see real success.

One thing that has really pushed me is the story of my grandmother. With a seventh grade education she moved away from her family, purchased a home, raised her own family, and traveled the world. I always think, if she can do all that with very limited resources and education, then there’s nothing I can let get in my way to make it happen.

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

Today things are going very well. We have raised a pre-seed round of about $500k, and my co-founder Salas has assembled a world class product team, allowing us to have recently launched the beta version of our HR analytics dashboard. The biggest thing that has allowed us to push through the hard times is having happy paying customers, who are gaining real value and solving business problems with our product. That customer validation is the driving force that we’re building a business with real demand, and helping HR and People Ops become smarter and more data-driven.

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

The funniest mistake I made when co-founding my first tech startup UniversityBay was not understanding there’s a such thing as “not asking for enough money”. I remember my first ever investor meeting a few months after graduating college asking for about $100k in funding. I seriously thought at that time (when I was 22 years old back in 2007) $100k was a lot of money, and that it would last forever. I remember the investor looking directly into my eyes asking “do you know what you’re doing?” That quickly made me step up my game so no one would ever think that about me again.

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

What makes us stand out is the commitment we have to understanding everything possible about our customers. That requires us to not only know how we can give HR leaders the tools to become more data-driven, but why they need to use data to make better workforce decisions in the first place. It forces us to think about the history of the HR department being perceived as a cost center, and how it needs to be perceived as a success center. Having such deep insight and empathy for our customers drove our e decision to introduce a freemium business model, integrate with specific HR decisions, and target companies under 1,000 employees. We know we’re getting good at this when we attend HR events, and HR leaders think we used to work in HR.

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

I recommend that other startup founders take care of their mind, body and soul to help keep from burning out. For me, that looks like boxing, attending church and constantly reading and listening to podcasts about our industry. It can look very differently for many people, so I say choose which gives you joy, allows you to take your mind off the business when necessary, and remain a balanced human being. I also recommend understanding that everything is not urgent, and you’ll always have to decide which fires you let burn versus which have to be put out immediately. Lastly, I would say build a personal “board of directors” along with having a tribe of other founders you can talk with, to know you’re not the only person dealing with this type of stress since being a startup founder can be a lonely place.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I owe my fourth grade teacher for recognizing that I had enough talent to leave my neighborhood school to attend a school for “gifted” students. That opportunity allowed me to start building relationships with a more diverse set of kids that lived in my neighborhood, realize the world was a lot bigger than what I was previously exposed to, and ultimately change the trajectory of my future education and professional network.

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

We don’t publicly share our customer numbers; however, to build our community we have primarily relied on thought-leadership through our blog and podcast, referrals from integration partners, and outbound sales. I’ve also been fortunate enough to become the host for HR-related events like DisruptHR to continue to build deeper relationships and credibility in the HR space.

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 HR analytics dashboard is a freemium SaaS product with a business model based on employee headcount tiers. Since HR leaders are used to purchasing software primarily based on their number of employees, we wanted to make sure our business model reflected the industry norm. We also wanted to have a value-based pricing model allowing companies to pay more but also generate more value as they grow.

We initially explored charging based on the number of dashboards, users, or integrations; however, we didn’t want to nickel and dime customers1, and thought it was better to charge on actual value gain from being a bigger company.

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 believe the five most important things a SaaS startup founder should know include having a deep understanding of your customer and the value proposition you’re offering. Make sure you truly understand how the customer is currently thinking about the problem, trying to solve the problem, and if they’re willing to spend company budget on the problem. For us, we not only performed market research with surveys, but also performed video interviews with customers for the team to review and discuss. I would next focus on building a great and balanced team. For us, as the CEO, I handle the business side with my co-founder & CTO Salas managing the tech & product sidet. It allows us to use our complementary skill sets to push both sides of the business. It’s also important to make sure you’re playing in a big enough market to grow a large business, and that you’re able to either replace the existing incumbent or create a new market. For Employee Cycle, we’re excited to play right in the middle of that spectrum. We’re not replacing any existing competitors, but we’re also not trying to solve a problem our customers don’t even know they have yet, and they’re still using spreadsheets to sort data. Another very important thing for SaaS founders to focus on is the ability to acquire customers for less than what they’re paying. In SaaS terms, it means having a CAC (customer acquisition cost) that is much lower than your CLTV (customer lifetime value). Lastly, I will mention it’s critical for SaaS founders to understand the importance of customer success. With a subscription business, it’s all about the long-term and lifetime value of your customer, so you have to consistently keep them happy and engaged with your product. That’s why we offer a Data Coach service with the paid version of our product, to make sure customers have a quarterly check-in with someone to help them better analyze and act upon their people data.

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. 🙂

I am overly passionate for more people to help solve the root causes of homelessness. Whether I’m home in Philadelphia where it’s a problem, or traveling to San Francisco for business where it’s even worse, it’s not a good feeling to seeing people without a home.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m not the biggest user of social media, but I can be found on the following outlets:

LinkedIn

Twitter

Facebook

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


“You’ll always have to decide which fires you let burn versus which have to be put out… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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