NZ IT industry stalwart Heather McEwen decided very early on that working for someone else wasn’t a good fit for her. Nicholas Lane spoke with McEwen about lessons learned through her years as an entrepreneur, and her advice on navigating the roles of a Founder and CEO.
Eager to learn more about McEwen’s latest venture, cloud and technology consulting company Saasam, I started by asking her to hit me with the “elevator pitch”.
“We specialise in cloud applications for SME’s across New Zealand, Australia, South East Asia and the UK. We sell, implement and support Agiloft Solutions for contract management, helpdesk management, as well as document and workflow management. We’ve also developed some applications in-house, such as an integration between Xero and Agiloft. We’re currently also developing software for quality assurance, tracking of vegetable trials, and proof of delivery.”
(Yes you read that right, one application they have created helps large agricultural suppliers track vegetable growth and movement across multiple growers.)
Enterprise software not being renowned as an easy market to get into, I asked McEwen what the story was behind Saasam, and how it came to be.
“I discovered Agiloft about 5 years ago when I was researching help desk software for a client that I had at the time. Back then it was called EnterpriseWizard. I downloaded the free version and proceeded to play with it. After a short period of testing, I thought it all looked a bit too good to be true!
“I ended up going across to the US to complete some admin training in Agiloft, believing it was the best solution for my client. By day three of the course I think they figured out that I knew what I was talking about and Colin Earl, the CEO of EnterpriseWizard, offered me a resellership for New Zealand. After deliberating on that for all of 30 seconds, I returned back to NZ where I founded Saasam; specifically to resell and implement EnterpriseWizard, which has since rebranded to Agiloft.”
McEwen says herself that she has been in IT for “an awfully long time now” and it turns out that means somewhere in the vicinity of 35 years.
After deciding that working for other people wasn’t for her, McEwen became an independent IT consultant for a number of years in both Australia and New Zealand. “I haven’t worked for anybody else except myself since the age of 27, so I’ve certainly made huge number of mistakes along the way, but as far as I’m concerned that’s the only way you learn and you grow. You learn from your mistakes, just don’t make the same one twice and just never, ever give up.”
Having no doubt made some very tough decisions over the years, I asked her to elaborate on some of these, and where she found the strength to make these calls.
“The hardest call is always letting good people go. Any company I’ve formed always has a real family mentality; we’re a team and we look out for each other so letting good people go when changes are required, because of cash flow or some other situation, that is always the hardest call.”
“The strength comes from knowing that if you’re open and honest people will understand why you need to make those decisions and there are no hard feelings. People generally will understand if you are truly honest about what is going on.”
I asked how she fostered the family culture she spoke of at Saasam.
“Maybe this is part of being a woman and a mother, I don’t know. I think I’m a bit of a mother hen [at Saasam]. I like people to be happy, well informed and engaged. I don’t want to sound trite, but I think that women instinctively want that for their family, and I’ve just carried that over into business. I think that’s a good thing.”
McEwen mentioned more than once that as an entrepreneur she liked being in charge of her own destiny. Not only that but that her driving force from when she first discovered IT was to use technology to assist businesses to make processes easier and more efficient. “That is still what gets me up in the morning; knowing that I can make a real difference to businesses.”
Everyone has heard stories of founders who struggle to let go as their business grows, and pass on the responsibilities to the people they’ve hired. So with the next few questions I was interested to hear McEwen’s perspective on this dynamic.
What were the important things to establish early on in a new technology company?
“Get your fundamental processes right, get the right people on board and never underestimate how much it’s going to cost to market whatever you’re doing. There are lots of people out there with great technology ideas, but just because you’ve got a great idea doesn’t mean the world will come to your door demanding it. You’ve got to let people know it’s out there. And that always costs more than you think.”
I asked McEwen how as a founder and CEO, does one know when the time is right to step back from day to day tasks?
“When you find yourself doing too many things at once and the quality of all of them starts to slide. Find somebody else to take on that role, someone who is perhaps better than you are at it and let them take charge. But always keep asking questions; talk to people; never stop learning. Find someone who fits your culture and talk to them.”
Surely, that takes a reasonable amount of humility to do? I enquired. “Absolutely. It’s really hard to admit sometimes that you’re doing a worse job than someone else will. But finding those other people who are better than you are and letting go, that’s a wonderful feeling.”
With that in mind, I asked McEwen what she felt are some of the biggest differences between the role of a founder and CEO of a twelve month old business, compared with that of a three or four year old one.
“At twelve months you’re always looking for the next sale; you’re looking to get money in from wherever you can. It’s a constant balancing act,” she replied.
“As the business grows and matures you get to start to make better decisions about what sort of clients you want or how you’re going to spend the money. Things never slow down, but you allow yourself a little more time to think things through and make more long term, future focused decisions.”
And what did she believe her strongest trait as an entrepreneur (in a male dominated industry no less) to be?
“Sheer stubbornness really. Never, ever, ever giving up. You’ve got to have a fundamental belief in yourself, and be prepared to have some really tough times when you can only afford to eat mince on toast for a few weeks!”
However McEwen warned of balancing stubbornness and self-belief with pragmatism, when an idea or strategy isn’t working.
“There is a difference between never ever giving up and changing the course of what you’re doing. I’ve had businesses that have been formed and since disappeared. I wouldn’t deem that a failure. You’re going to change course, reinvent and try something else, but it’s all part of the bigger vision for what you want to achieve with your career.”
The golden nugget came at the very end of the interview when I asked McEwen what she would say should she be given the chance to speak to her 20 year-old self?
“Follow your passion and you’ll find a way to make it work. It’s all about passion. You have to actually want to do this. It’s not enough to just want to make lots of money, you need to have a burning passion for what you do.”