For those outside of the industry, making that big move into the SaaS space can be intimidating and overwhelming.

At 2021’s Future of SaaS Festival, Michelle Sawa, Director of Customer Experience at Lionguard, led a thrilling panel discussion with three key industry leaders. The focus was on how recruits with different backgrounds can bring their own unique perspective and expertise to the SaaS world.

Michelle was joined by:

  • Rachel Swann, CEO at PureClarity
  • Brittani Dunlap, CEO and Co-Founder at BrightReps
  • Iuliia Shnai, CEO and Co- Founder at Marble  

Key talking points include:

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Q: How can people from other industries transition to the SaaS world? What are some resources that can help you transition?  

Rachel: Well, I'm naturally curious, so that certainly helps. So, in terms of resources, there's industry bodies, there's market research, and then there’s good old Google!

Google has completely transformed how we all learn and how we all do business. And I think you also need a little bit of self-reflection. I've been working for quite some time in a range of different organizations, pre online and post online.

It’s really helped to just take a step back and ask, what are the examples of when I've been frustrated? Or, where have customers been frustrated, or team members been frustrated? And reframing that, what could we have done better? What could we do better now?

We’re all from different backgrounds, but there is some common ground between all of us. In many ways, SaaS is no different to any other product offering. It just happens to be a piece of software where people can get massively intimidated. They get intimidated precisely because of the technical aspect to it. By the way, I'm not completely ignorant in programming.

I've learned enough to get by, but it’s about taking a step back and asking, what have we achieved? What have we achieved this week? What have we achieved this month? What have we achieved over this timeline?

A good bit of advice is to get on LinkedIn and reach out to people who seem to be doing well in the field. Without trying to sell them anything, just ask a genuine question. I find myself spending quite a bit of time answering questions. You know what? I'm massively flattered. It's all about coaching and mentoring. That’s a good starting point, just being humble enough to ask questions and learn.

Brittani: I started from the very bottom. I went from the lowest position I could be in for a tech company. I applied and I applied, and they finally took me with no tech experience. It was a really large company. My first thing is to just observe and learn. I spent a year or two genuinely just learning and growing. Who were the players in this type of company? What does this space look like?

I came from leading the space that I was previously in to joining at a low level. I was humbled and I started dialling 50 or 70 dials a day. Then I started to branch out and plan meetings with engineers and understand the technical aspects of the job.

I started to understand how the different roles affected each other. Thankfully, I've always had a community of people who keep me in my place. I'm not the smartest person in the room ever. It's really been a humbling educational process. It took my career in many different pathways, working at companies of many different sizes.

Whether it was very, very large or very small, I had to understand what tech looks like in that space.

And so that would be the biggest takeaway for me: Stop trying to be the smartest person in the room. Be prepared to be vulnerable and it may pay off.

Iuliia: I think, for me, community was the most powerful thing. I was in an academic community, whereas now I was moving into the community of the founders for a startup community, which is outside of academia. I was in Helsinki searching around for different groups to join.

They started giving me different connections, and giving me places where I can go to connect with new people, then it started growing around me into this kind of network. I started reaching out to arrange some events and conferences, and through this I gained a better  understanding of where Marble can go. I focused on getting the right feedback from the right people. I started to focus on not only building the company, but also on building a community. I think this has huge power.

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Q: What were some of the challenges you faced moving into the SaaS community?

Brittani : The beginning was the most challenging part, and being okay with being older than everyone else in the room. It was hard to stay confident and remember that there's a reason I'm here. I'm capable. I had to get comfortable with going from being in charge to being at the bottom in this new environment. I had to give myself the freedom to fail. Again, it goes back to staying humble.

I also had trouble learning to speak the language of this world that I was in, and this made me nervous when standing up to speak in front of a room full of people who did know what they were talking about. But, again, this was all part of accepting that this was a learning process and it wouldn’t happen all at once.

Iuliia: I still face challenges all the time! I think the main challenge is that I’m always trying to enter new communities, new fields, but I’m always facing rejections in response. Rejections from investors, from organizers, from conferences, and from customers.

But I had to learn that if you don’t ask, nobody's going to give you anything. And nobody is gonna give you advice unless you ask for it. Ask, ask and ask again. Don’t take no for an answer.

Rachel: The harder I work, the luckier I become. That keeps me going. Einstein said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing each time, so you need to make sure that every time you fail, you're asking different things, you're asking different questions.

But you should only worry about what's in your control, because you know what? You can't fix something that's not in your control. Many people will reject you, but what's in your control are the questions you ask yourself after that. “Ok, so this is a challenge. Where do I go from here?”

This was especially true in the midst of the Covid pandemic. I've been leading an entire team remotely, and one of the biggest challenges here has been, how do you make it dynamic? How do you give it energy, if you are essentially at the other end of the internet? That‘s all about clear communication and consistency of messaging.

Try to avoid closed questions. Try asking open questions. “We've just talked about where the company's going. What does that mean for you? How are you seeing that?” Open questions are in my control. What's in their control is how they respond to me and what we then do jointly to affect it. That’s a big challenge, and it’s always ongoing.

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Q: What’s the most exciting part about working in the SaaS community right now? And what do you love about what you do?

Iuliia: The most exciting thing for me is the unpredictability. As a SaaS startup, there could be no tomorrow.The company could fold. Or you could become something like Slack, HubSpot, which are super important and have the potential to change society.

I think the other exciting part, for me, is that we are building a much more flexible future. This is a very, very important element for me. In the last 10 years, I’ve been working from home in a very flexible manner. I was dreaming about the time when we could all do that.

When I was at my first online course, I thought it was amazing that I could listen to a Harvard professor online. And I was thinking, that's the future I want. I want this flexibility. I want this technology to improve my life and our lives.

Rachel: It's just the way it's growing and growing that’s exciting for me. And the fact that we've got this opportunity to make a difference and really shape things for the end users. We can genuinely make a difference. I’m just excited about taking things to the next level. We all know that eCommerce was massive last year.

It was massive last year, but it wasn't just new people coming online, it was a natural evolution. And I think a big part of taking things to the next step is being able to help shape the new retail landscape globally.

I think it is really, really exciting. In the UK, there's a big debate around whether the high street is dead. The high street isn't dead. But what does the new normal look like? How do we take all of what we’ve learned in the past year and really make a difference to everybody?

How do we fuse eCommerce with the high street? I think it’s potentially a very exciting opportunity.

Brittani: I would say the opportunities that automation grants us are exciting for me. I love that I'm able to automate the mundane aspects of people's jobs. And then there's this ripple effect on how deeply human beings are able to engage with their customers because of my software.

I love the space that we're in because it has this ripple effect that I wasn't aware of before.  That's the best part for me, that SaaS has the ability to solve immediate problems efficiently. And it happens in this tangible, quantifiable way that allows employees to use their time more effectively. They can engage with customers over more complex, nuanced problems when the software is doing all the mundane work.

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Q: What crucial nugget of knowledge would you give to a new hire?

Rachel : There's two, really. The first one is, there's no such thing as a stupid question. And once you get the answers you're happy with, you need to keep asking. The second thing is, try to look at it from a user point of view, not from what we think.  My dad always used to say, “You have two ears and one mouth, so listen.” We show our expertise by asking, not telling. So when we're with a customer, we ask them, we don't tell them.

If you ask the question, you will hear what they actually want in their own language. How powerful is that? That then tells you what problems you're solving. Also, it gets their attention. You've got their attention, so you can then start building that relationship and have that dialogue.

Iuliia : I want everyone to be transparent in the sense that if you disagree, you should find a way to say that. That way, something can be done better next time. Only through this type of discussion, and through disagreement, can we move forward.

I want to create a culture where everyone, no matter their role, can be as transparent as possible. If we communicate the problem clearly, then we can deal with the problem thoroughly.

Brittani:  I am a huge advocate for that underdog. Someone had to take a chance on me in order for me to get into tech, and I'm glad that they did. And so my piece of advice for new hire, I hired you for a reason.

We brought you onto our team for a very specific reason. You're coming to the table with your own unique perspective  and you can provide us with with feedback and insight into areas that maybe we're blind to. Often, organizations get into a rhythm of working, and they become blind to the bad habits they've adopted.

A new hire from a non-SaaS background can really help to break that. You're a missing piece. We can hire anyone, but we chose you. You got hired for a reason.