First Female CEO to Lead a Venture-Capital-Backed Startup to IPO Shares Secret of her Success
Fifteen years ago, at age 40, Therese Tucker founded the accounting software company BlackLine. After three years in business, she had taken a second mortgage on her home, maxed out her personal finances, and was borrowing money from friends to keep her company afloat.
Still, she never gave up her dream, and in October 2016, she took her company public. BlackLine’s IPO debuted at $17 per share and closed at nearly $24 per share in its first day, raising nearly $150 million in capital.
The tech industry is seemingly a hard nut to crack for many women entrepreneurs, with female CEOs capturing less than 3 percent of overall venture capital funding, but Tucker didn’t let that, or multiple other setbacks, stop her from reaching the goals that she knew in her heart she could achieve. “Entrepreneurship is a winding road, and it doesn’t always look logical to other people,” Tucker says of her career path.
Her company creates software to offer accounting solutions to a variety of companies, including those in health care. Tucker, who worked in her early career as an electrical engineer for Hughes Aircraft, says she was drawn to using technology to help others solve problems and struck out on her own after a few years as an engineer. “But, boy, did I ever strike out,” she recalls.
Her passion for helping others solve problems using technology has been the driving force behind her career, but it took time to learn how business worked before she could be successful. “I didn’t know the most basic things,” Tucker says.
After starting her company, she eventually went back to working for others and says she had a number of mentors who helped her learn how to survive in business. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” she adds. “Good mentors can keep you from making horrible mistakes.”
That time period also gave Tucker time to start a family and watch her children grow. For her, there was time to get back to her entrepreneurial dreams at a later date. She enjoyed being available to her children, and she was able to put more focus on her own dreams once her children grew to be more independent. “I don’t know that I could have done it any sooner because you want to have kids who are successful in life. You want them to know they are loved, and you have to have your priorities,” Tucker says. “If your kid is sick, he wants mom. It’s just the way it works, and I’m OK with that.”
Once her children were in school, Tucker retired from Sungard, the company that had acquired ADS, her previous employer. She became more involved in her children’s school activities, and she took up yoga. But there was still something missing. So, in 2001, she used funds she had earned from her days at ADS and started BlackLine as a wealth-management software company. She was the sole employee until 2002. But by 2004, she had to “do a pivot.”
“It was a really tough market,” Tucker says. “I didn’t know how to shut it down. There were many times that if someone offered me $5 for the whole company, I would have taken it. I didn’t really know how to get out of it. But when you’re an entrepreneur, you have this drive to build something. I knew I could go out and get a really great job and make a ton of money, and I could pay off all my bills, but then six months later I would be thinking about the company I wanted to build. I’m driven to do this.”
There was a lot of competition in the market, and it took switching to a new service area—accounting—to turn things around Still, growth was slow, and there were more stressful years. Tucker says looking back, she is amazed sometimes at how long it took to see her dream develop “I would think, ‘this is great software; everybody needs it.’ And it just doesn’t work that way,” Tucker says.
Now, at 55, Tucker says she is still learning and is now getting used to being the head of a public company. “How do you keep promises and perform for investors and not lose sight of what’s important to customers?” she says. For Tucker, that means finding ways to make processes easier so clients can focus on what they do best. Healthcare companies were early adopters of her technology, Tucker says, and she has a soft spot for the industry. Her husband works as a hospital chaplain, and she says she sees through his work how health systems have to do so much with so little.
“If there are areas like accounting where you can do a lot more, and you could put your dollars to work in areas that are closer to the people you are trying to serve, I think that’s a very important benefit,” Tucker says. “To this day, I love what I do because I know that my customers benefit from it, so it’s a big deal to me. It’s great that we’ve done an IPO, but at the end of the day, if I don’t feel we have customers who love what we’re doing for them, I don’t want to be here.”
Looking back on her early career, Tucker says she would advise women to ask for and offer flexibility to their employers, and be ready to roll with the punches as situations change. “My husband and I were talking last night about resilience. What makes one person never give up, and what makes another give up after the first hard thing that happens? It comes down to resilience,” she says. She also knows that, for women, there are so many more challenges, as they are pulled in different directions and are balancing professional and personal desires. But high performers are more likely to get flexibility from their employers. It’s about give and take and making sure the job is done as best as it can be.
“Anything is possible,” she says. “If somebody like me can have the success that I’ve had, anything is possible. And isn’t that a wonderful message to give to your kids,” she adds.
Rachael Zimlich, RN, is a healthcare writer from Cleveland.