Practical Founders Podcast

#26: His SaaS business is scaling fast by helping other businesses to grow – Mark Abbott

Mark Abbott was an active investor and board member for 20 years when he realized that most of the 100+ companies he helped were not good a their “business fundamentals.” The fundamentals of setting long-term goals, making short-term plans, and then aligning teams and individuals to make efficient progress. He thought of writing a book but discovered the book “Traction” by Gino Wickman and his branded EOS® (Entrepreneurial Operating System) system. 

Mark worked with his cofounders in 2016 to create a software platform that aligned with the principles and processes of EOS and other “Business Operating Systems.” Soon Ninety.io (now just Ninety) was a popular software used by EOS coaches and business consultants. They licensed the branded terminology from EOS Worldwide, which presented both opportunities and challenges.

The company grew steadily, funded by revenues until Ninety had over a thousand customers and more than 50 employees. In 2021, Mark was approached by numerous tier 1 venture capital firms and took $20 million in capital from Insight Partners. Mark and the Ninety team have a big vision to change the way businesses grow and thrive.

Best quote from Mark:

“All systems are comprised of a bunch of elements. When those elements are working well together and you have really open positive and negative feedback loops, you maximize the utility of each of the individual members.

“And that’s what a company is, right? It’s a collection of individuals who’ve got this amazing breadth of experiences and insights and competencies and aptitudes and all these different things. Great companies are really good at helping their people turn one plus one plus one into five.

“EOS and other business operating systems (B.O.S.s) help people figure out how to create focused, aligned, and ultimately thriving organizations.”

Edited transcript of the Practical Founders podcast interview with Mark Abbott, founder and CEO of Ninety 

Greg Head: And we’re live with Mark Abbott, the CEO and founder of Ninety, or do we say Ninety.io, Mark?

Mark Abbott: You know, we used to say Ninety.io but my head of creative is saying no, it’s just Ninety. So we’re trying to get to just it’s just Ninety.

Greg Head: Ninety is a really cool story and it’s a success story on the way. It’s growing fast and you’re still running it. Let’s just start with where Ninety is right now and what Ninety is. Then we’ll go into how you got there.

Mark Abbott: So Ninety is a platform that I like to say makes it almost easy to build a great company. It’s a SaaS platform, so it’s obviously in the cloud and we’ve got a bunch of tools and concepts and sort of disciplines that really help people come together. There are a lot of reasons why it’s called Ninety, but one of the things that we do is we really help all the teams across the company march 90 days together and hit 90% of everything that matters. So there’s a lot that we do. But one of the things we do is help companies become great goal-scoring machines, for example. So you’ve got the senior leadership team and it has its goals, 90-day goals. And actually, those are based upon its vision for the year and that’s based upon its vision for the next three years, and that’s based upon its vision for where it would like to be in ten years. So you got that senior leadership team, but then what the system really does is it helps you take that vision and those goals and then cascade them down to the departments, and then the departments take their goals and their vision and cascade it down the teams.

Mark Abbott: And so, you know, ultimately you get this, this great goal-scoring machine. And the cool thing about it is then you’re winning, right? And people like being on winning teams. And so, ultimately the nearer-term goals help you focus, and the software helps you align. And then if you focus and you’re aligned and you’re actually hitting 90% of the things that you want to accomplish, you thrive. Why is it 90 instead of 100%? Well, actually, the research is pretty compelling that a 15% failure rate is actually close to optimal. Right. And so I don’t like 85. I think we should stretch it and be a little bit better than that. So we chose Ninety. But failure is part of growth. And as I said, research is about 85% success rates, that’s where you’re sort of optimizing the need for speed, the need for growth. And obviously, companies need to grow, things grow or die. And so that’s the big idea behind Ninety.

Greg Head: Tell us where Ninety is these days. And you’ve got a very successful company.

Mark Abbott: I think like we’re right at 99 or 100 employees as of this morning. I think we have close to 6600 companies running on our platform.

Greg Head: Can you give us a range of revenues here? You may not be able to say it.

Mark Abbott: Of the things is we’re huge believers in trust. And part of trust is being transparent and we don’t you know, so we’re very transparent and so pretty close to $14 million in ARR, so annual recurring revenues.

Greg Head: That’s really exciting. You’re using the software yourselves to, would you say, it’s not running the operations. It’s aligning the company to the visions, the goals, the metrics that what needs to be done today, this quarter, and the rest.

Mark Abbott: Obviously, there’s tons of software that people use to, you know, sort of start, build, run, grow a company. You know, what we’re focused on are what we call whole company tools. So these are the tools that everybody in the company should be using, and they’re really working on the company tools as opposed to in the company tool. So everybody is using one of these tools like a meetings tool. Everybody’s involved in a meeting, everybody has data as measurables and they’re scorecards. And so everybody, the organizational chart everybody should be using, right? The people directory, understanding who everybody is and having a sense for them and their backgrounds, their bios, their stories, their family stuff, right? So that’s, you know, everybody should be in that people directory and you know everybody should be having we call quarterly conversations. I dislike annual reviews and so everybody should be having quarterly conversations about how things are going how am I doing as a leader, how are you doing as a team member. So all those tools working on the company tools, are in our platform.

Greg Head: I’ve seen this march, the companies start to grow, and then it’s ten or 12 or 20 people and you can’t run a 25-person organization like you ran a three-person organization, and then they run into the branded systems and you didn’t make up your own system. Maybe you’ve adapted something. You’re leveraging a popular system that a lot of software companies and companies across industries use as they start to grow.

Mark Abbott: I actually had the idea for Ninety back in plus or 2005, and it was after sitting on a bunch of boards and getting frustrated that the CEO wasn’t just executing the fundamentals that I thought were pretty apparent having invested in, and run, and built a company on my own without lots of others. But to me, these are some fundamentals. And I thought, Is it me or why are they not embracing the fundamentals? So I had this idea of writing a book and creating the software. I’d actually I’m not an engineer, but I designed three different software platforms if you will, or tools in my career that had other people build them out. And ultimately I ran into a book that was like the book I was going to write called Traction by Gino Wickman. And then I found out that there was this group of coaches, so he’s building this coaching community. And the truth is, Gino’s book was far better than I would have written. Gino’s brilliant at making things simple but holistic. And so I started to explore the idea of going in that direction and met with Gino and said, I love this. I was going to write a book, but you wrote it better. But I also have this idea about doing software to support this system that you get people up and running on and is that cool? And the answer was, Yeah, we looked at doing it, but it’s just not who we are. We’re not a software company. And so right now this is like 2011 and so I joined the community and you know, here we are.

Greg Head: So you’ve got to learn the system and practice it with companies and help them build their fundamentals to align a bigger and bigger team to move forward. If you don’t do this, your company slows to a stop.

Mark Abbott: Oh, 100% right. Because, you know, all systems are comprised of a bunch of elements. And to the extent that those elements are working super well together and you have really open positive and negative feedback loops, you really maximize the utility of each of the individual members. And so that’s what a company is, right? It’s a collection of individuals who’ve got this amazing breadth of experiences and insights and competencies and aptitudes and all these different things. And, you know, great companies are really good at helping us turn one plus one plus one into five. The likes of EOS. And there are other what they’re calling business operating systems. There are other B.O.S.s out there that really help people figure out how to create focused, aligned, and ultimately thriving organizations.

Greg Head: So you didn’t say, I’m going to create my own system, my own brand, and make the software for it. You work with an established brand and now iOS is quite big. There are thousands. I know plenty of people using the system. And did you make it as a branded EOS software or was it your software that used the explicit methodology?

Mark Abbott: So we had the idea first and then actually shared the idea, with some others. And one of those others had a client who said, well, why don’t we do this? So actually, the first official and licensed EOS software was not built by us. It was actually built by a company that used to be called Traction Tools. So traction tools launched. And I actually, you know, was kind of bummed. I tried to sort of join that train, but they didn’t they felt they didn’t need me, and I respect that. So so they went and did it. And I just kept feeling like, No, I have to do this. So I actually thought about not doing it, but I said, I really have to do it. But I knew what it would take to be a licensed provider of EOS software. And I didn’t want to I honestly didn’t want to be restricted like I knew EOS would restrict us because they told me exactly what would what I needed to do. So I actually so we actually spent the first about 18 months we were called Traxion.

Mark Abbott: We were not a licensed software provider, but I was very close, and still am to a lot of the coaches as a licensed as a non-licensed provider, we couldn’t use the trademarked terms, so we couldn’t use terms like the level ten meeting or VTO for the Vision Traction Organizer. So all those trademark terms we couldn’t use. And while we were growing reasonably well, we knew that if we could get the trademarked terms, we’d grow faster. So we decided to bite the bullet and we entered into a license agreement with the EOS in, you know, we started the company in ’17 and late ’18, we entered into the license and part of those negotiations where they said, Hey, we don’t love you guys having the word Traxion. So I had to come up with a new name. Yeah. Know, I love Ninety. I love the name. I love our logo. I’m delighted that we made the transition to being licensed software.

Greg Head: Did you fund that yourself? Your experiments and getting your first clients?

Mark Abbott: Yeah. So, for all practical purposes, Yes. I mean, the answer is early on I had a couple of co-founders, one of them put in tens of thousands of dollars, but nothing material. I ultimately put in, I think at one point in time, I was over $1.5 million of my own personal money. There were a lot of coaches who liked what we were doing. And so some coaches came in. And so, you know, we sort of had friends and family, but it was predominantly me up until last year.

Greg Head: When did you hit a million a year or something like that?

Mark Abbott: Yeah, there’s a story there, but we didn’t actually start having any revenues until 2017, but we started genuinely working on the code in, I want to say 2016.

Greg Head: You entered on a license agreement because they could see that it was good software and it was working, that it was helpful and coaches were giving them the thumbs up and that kind of thing? So now you’ve got this dance with a branded company, with their ecosystem of coaches and their trademarked terms and their books. And was that an easy game to play? You’re leveraging their brand and being polite about it and legal about it and everything.

Mark Abbott: No, I would say it wasn’t an easy game to play. OS is very proud of its trademarks and system, and rightfully so. They controlled what we could do with the software. They controlled what we could do with marketing, And they controlled what we could do with our training materials. And honestly, sometimes that makes sense and there are other times it’s like, you’ve got to be bloody kidding me? I really genuinely try to play a long game. I try to have high-trust relationships and try to do the right thing. We managed it the best we could. I’d be misleading you if I didn’t tell you that. There were times when some of my colleagues were like, Why are we putting up with this? And so, there are moments. I’m married now for 33 years. And so my marriage has had moments, too.

Greg Head: There are a lot of these planning systems, business systems, negotiation systems, and selling systems out there. I came from the CRM industry. And there were all the complex selling systems, Miller Heimann and Solution Selling. And many have tried to build software for those systems. Popular systems that people are using here, we’ll do it on software. Very few have worked. So you were able to take a system with the templates and the workshop pages and build that into software where people say, Gosh, that’s amazing. Was that a challenge or did it always seem to work? Because one of the rare ones that made that happen.

Mark Abbott: It’s hard to say this without feeling a little awkward and weird. But I actually have this Excel file that I created, I don’t know, I’m going to say it’s 2014 or 2015 with my vision for how the product would evolve over a ten-year period. So the bigger idea is I think I was fairly clear on. If you had told me we are where we are right now, you know, in 2015, I would have been you know, I would have been. Wow, that’s as far as you could go with all this so far? So it takes a long time to build to do this stuff and make it work, obviously. To make it work for 200,000 people in the system, Right? It’s complex and everything’s integrated. And you think you should be able to just go get something done and the engineers just laugh, Right?

Greg Head: Well, that’s good. So you’re a business-side guy. You’re actually a banker and an operator. You were a private equity investor before in your career and a very business-savvy guy about scale and the fundamentals of the game. Was it a challenge for you to learn the software side or find the software team to manage the nuances of creating a new thing in the world with software?

Mark Abbott: Yeah, it was. As I mentioned, I had a couple of co-founders in the beginning, and one of them, and there’s a long story about how we got connected, but he’s an entrepreneur as well. He originally was the one who was supposed to be responsible for the engineering side of the business. And then I had another co-founder who was another EOS coach. He ran sales at a couple of different startups, so he was supposed to be the sales guy and I was supposed to be the visionary. What became clear pretty early on was the engineers that we hired needed help, and then we ran into trouble. And so I had to go and basically outsource all of the engineerings early on. I have some scars from the early days of pulling together our engineering team.

Greg Head: So was the sales pitch pretty easy, meaning go into the community of coaches and companies using the EOS system, say, you know, the EOS system, you love it. Now there’s a software product that does it. Let’s do the demo, here are the benefits. And you started getting sign-ups. You didn’t have to drop flyers from the sky or convince people. You said you’re already using the system. Now use the software. Was that an easy sell or was that a hard sell.

Relatively speaking, I guess I would say it was easy. We weren’t first to market. Traction Tools was there first. So people were familiar with it to market was obviously clear to me. Clients would ask, is there anything you know, this is silly. We’re using Excel and PowerPoint and Word documents and blah, blah, blah. And you know, you’re coming out of these sessions and my handwriting’s not particularly good. And so you hand all these Post-it notes to people and you’re like, Hey, go, go take this back to the office, go put it in, you know, go type it all up, blah, blah, blah. And so, you know, there was an obvious need, number one. Number two, there was already a player in the market. Number three. So we had a vision from the very beginning, as I mentioned, that was sort of beyond doing digital versions of the tools. And so we came in, I think, with a very clear vision, you know, in terms of what our unique value proposition would be. And we were very focused on providing great customer service.

Mark Abbott: So that was like a huge thing because if you think about it, you have the senior leaders of the organization relying on your tool. We don’t just work 9-to-5. And so, you know, you want to be able to support these people and have them feel like you’re there for them. And ultimately, we’ve become one of the most important partners, you know, most small and mid-sized business company organizations that are running on Ninety have. So we just had our own point of view on how to do this and how to service and what was important and user interface bugs, uptime, all that good stuff, right? So so we had a strong, strong opinion on what we needed to do and we didn’t pivot. We’ve slowed down and sped up, maybe emphasizing one feature over another, in terms of what’s next based upon feedback getting from the marketplace. But we had a strong point of view on who we were and or are and where we’re going and how we help. And it resonated.

Greg Head: You said you didn’t do it. Exactly. You know, we didn’t just do what the paper system did and just have a template system about software. You had something more powerful and integrated and leveraged and of value. What was the value? Was it an integrated dashboard that was more useful?

Mark Abbott: Well, so there’s a bunch, right? So there’s single entry. So you’re not writing this stuff down and then going back and trying to remember what the heck you said. And then because you’re working in the system, which is funny to say, right? Because we’re, we’re working on the company tools. But when you’re working in the system, when you’re documenting, let’s say, your goals, which we all call rocks, right? Your 90-day goals, you’re not just documenting the big idea that I’m going to roll out a new CRM, as an example. You’re literally making them smart, specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. You’re putting in the milestones. You’re making sure everybody’s on the same page. You’re deciding who’s going to be responsible for what. So you can literally take the milestones and say, Hey, Joe, you’re going to do this, Jill, you’re going to do that. Jane, you’re going to do this, right? The milestones ultimately have dates. The dates when they’re when you’re a week away from the dates, it creates to-dos. The todos go into the meeting tool, so you’re all reminded about these to-dos that are coming up. So there’s a lot, right? It’s a system of record. It’s a way for everybody to stay on the same page, right? Everybody knows where to go and to look up where our measurables, you know, where where, where are we in terms of our progress on our rocks. Because it’s all integrated, when you sit down with your quarterly conversations as an example, the tool pulls your core values. And so the first part of the quarterly conversation is how are you doing in terms of living up to our core values? The next part is that it pulls the roles and responsibilities from the accountability chart. And so now it goes through the roles and responsibilities.

Mark Abbott: How are we doing in terms of whether are we truly competent in terms of that role and responsibility? Do we have the capacity to be able to do all the things associated with it? Are we committed to becoming better and better at it? You can literally talk about that stuff in your quarterly conversation. It’s also pulling the performance of how did you do in terms of your rocks. So it shows, you know, did you get all your rocks done right? It pulls the to-do information so to-dos, I teach everybody that to-dos or agreements, so are you living up to your agreements most of the time? It pulls from the scorecard your measurables. And so what percentage of the time were your measurables on target? So one of the things I teach everybody, I’m still a little bit of a coach, right? I teach everybody should have 3 to 5 key metrics that define not success but define issues, because no one wants to be micromanaged. So, when is there an issue? Let’s agree on when there’s an issue. Right? So let’s say that you’re sort of a line worker, as an example, and you’re supposed to produce X number of quantity and X quality.

Mark Abbott: And we agree that if the quantity is less than this, there’s an issue. Or we agree that if the quality comes in at less than this, there’s an issue. And so I believe in setting targets that help us see issues rather than try to do unnatural things. Have really stretch goals. I’m into just really making sure everything’s running well, because if everything’s running well and you got good goals and everybody’s aligned, then you’re probably going to perform pretty well. And that’s our experience, obviously. So all that information is pulled into that quarterly conversation. But that’s an example of how these integrated tools become really very powerful. Because what you really want to do is just have a real honest conversation about how things are going. I’m a leader, you know, and I’m a coach and I’m here to help you feel like you’re thriving, feel like you’re getting appropriately challenged, not overly stressed, but things are going well. You feel like you’re growing. And let’s bring some facts to the table. Let’s bring some structure to the conversation so that every single time we get together, we’re talking about the same things. It’s not like I’m going to try to remember what I did over the last 90 days and you’re going to try to remember what you did over the last 90 days or worse. What you did over the last year? That’s crazy, right? And so it just creates a system that’s just much more logical and constructive and fact-based.

Greg Head: That whole cycle of goals and values and people and tasks and all that normal stuff that every business deals with. Once you’re past the entrepreneurial stage and you start to build a little bit of a factory and you have customers to serve and employees and all of that. So everybody recognizes that. Mark, what is the typical size of a company that starts to use your software? It obviously isn’t two employees, but it may not be 2,000. Maybe the big companies already have their own systems in place. I don’t know. What does the range of your customers?

Mark Abbott: So 80% fall between 10 employees and 250 employees. Lots of entrepreneurs who are like starting to think about what they’re going to do. We have a tool for helping them think about what they’re going to build. So there’s a visioning tool that’s inside there? You know, we have companies with thousands of employees as well on the other side. So, the reality is we’re moving into a new age of work. We all sense that, right? COVID has kind of thrust us forward towards something that was going to happen anyway. Our business operating system is a wholesale change to running your company. Because there’s a cadence around meetings. There are just tools and disciplines and it’s for the whole company, right? And so the reason that it’s been tended to 50 is it’s tough to get companies over to 50 to really just sort of do a wholesale change in how they run their run, run and build their company. That dynamic, I think, has lessened, or that issue has lessened as we’re into this new age of work. So every single company that’s out there has to be thinking about how are they going to transition into this new age of work.

Mark Abbott: So I think we’re going to actually do fine. We’ve never sold. We don’t do sales. We’ve never done sales. We like to say we don’t sell, we serve. But I think that the 250 to 1000 employee market actually everybody’s trying to think about how they’re going to run their company in a healthy way in this new age of work. Whether you want to call it work from anywhere, whether we want to call it hybrid, very, very few companies have every single person back in the office five days a week. Right. It’s just that toothpaste ain’t going back into that tube. So when people are working from all over the place, how do you make sure everybody’s aligned? How do you make sure everybody’s on the same page? How do you make sure you see what you need to see in order to feel confident that people aren’t quiet quitting? That’s a huge conversation these days, right? Our platform makes it easy to make sure everybody’s on track and we know what’s going on.

Greg Head: How organizations run and align people is age-old or as old as organizations have been there. These are in the business systems with these laws of nature about goals and values and people that aren’t going to change. Did this acceleration in the world of work change any of those fundamentals or did it just reveal that if you’re not doing the fundamentals, it’s really problematic when you’re trying to be remote?

Mark Abbott: When I said earlier that I had this idea for writing a book, I’ve been studying sort of the art and science of company building since the eighties. I have that that’s kind of my crazy brain. And as an example, I had Jim Collins come out and speak to my clients back in the nineties. And I’ve you know, I’ve met with Drucker and I was a huge Demming guy. And the fundamentals haven’t changed. They haven’t, right? You have people who want to test the fundamentals, who push the fundamentals, and who wish they weren’t the way they are. Sometimes the reality is, is that, you know, there’s there have been fads that are like, you know, we’re going to get rid of the corporate hierarchy. Well, I’m not a huge fan of corporate. Everybody in my company knows this. I don’t want to be corporate, but hierarchies of competency exist and they’re not going away. Then that’s a good thing, By the way, because people learn, they grow, they take on new challenges, and they make more money. So becoming better and more competent and more experienced is good and you get paid more for it. So no, the things that made sense 10 or 20 years ago, the vast majority of them still hold true.

Greg Head: And more so now that people aren’t sitting next to each other faking like they’re aligned and productive. So you mentioned earlier, you don’t sell, you serve. Do companies just sign up on your website and install the software or do you have salespeople that aren’t really pushing people to do this, but they’re getting you’re getting pulled into deals? Or how is that sales engagement model because you’ve actually grown a successful company from your idea in the scrappy first customers to a sizable company already and you’re just scratching the surface? So what is roughly the sales model?

Mark Abbott: We don’t sell. So we don’t have a sales force. Where that’s a little misleading is we do have people who are responsible for going out and developing and nurturing and maintaining relationships with coaches. So earlier I said it’s a little more complicated than that. So EOS saw that we were performing quite well during COVID and ultimately came to the conclusion that they probably need to have software too. And so in the summer of 2020, they approached us and basically said, Hey, we need to be in the software business. So would you be interested in selling to us? And like any entrepreneur that has investors you’re like, Well, I’ll have a conversation. Obviously, we didn’t sell to them and they tried to buy the other software company as well. And they ultimately decided that they would stand up their own software. It is what it is. And we respect they got to do what they got to do. They told us they were going to do this. And so we obviously had to think about life without potentially having a relationship with those coaches. And so we actually have a number of business operating systems now that we support. So we support a number of these business operating systems out there now. And actually EOS, we are actually talking about having another long-term license agreement because building software is not easy.

Mark Abbott: Yeah. And I’ve always said that I like having competition. Frankly, it keeps me sharp. And I’ve been telling them, I understand 100% why you want to build software and why you want to be in this. But the competition’s actually good. It gives your customers choice and they’ll feel better about having a choice as opposed to just being told “you will do this.” And the coaches, ultimately, they’ve got a fiduciary responsibility to their clients, their clients trust them and they trust their advice. And so I think the coaches feel we really would like to be able to provide our clients with some choices and so they can make the decision as opposed to we feel like we’ve sort of said, just do this. So yeah, so we’re supporting a number of BOSs these days. It’s fascinating, right? So what are we on? So ”17 to ’18, ’19, ’20 and ’22, almost ’23. So five plus years into this right going on six, it’s been about 60% non-coached, 40% coached. So about 60% of our clients actually come to us because they’ve heard about us. We’re pretty well known in you know, in the EO community. We’re pretty well known in the YPO community. We’re pretty well known within the Vistage community. Actually, we have a pretty darn good relationship with our customers. And so our customers are pretty good sales recommenders as well.

Greg Head: You’re actually bringing your customers into the operating system game, right? They didn’t go to the training and read the book and come through the coaching to you. They’re starting with you saying we get it. Let’s start with software.

Mark Abbott: What’s interesting is we actually have customers who’ve never heard of EOS. So they come to us. I deeply believe in the power of coaches and because of the old expression, “you can’t read the label from inside the jar.” You know, we just we’re not very good at being objective about ourselves. And it’s hard, right? Even though the tools, the discipline, and the system, even though it’s all actually relatively simple, it’s hard, right? Navigating that journey of mastery is hard. And so if you can afford it, it’s probably too strong to say crazy, but I think you really, really, really should seriously think about hiring a coach because they can just help you speed up the process. And when you go from, we actually measure the basic strength of your business operating system. So we know how to measure that. And the average company measures around 35% strong across their core competencies. EOS would refer to them as their six key components. But if you look at the core competencies associated with building a great business, most companies score about 35% or 40%. And then, as a coach, my goal is you won’t be surprised by this number, but my goal is to get them to 90% plus.

Greg Head: Being great at the fundamentals at first as opposed to scrappy start-up and then fixing it later. Another amazing thing, Mark, is that you’re the CEO of this fast-growing SaaS company, but you’re still coaching other entrepreneurs.

Mark Abbott: That’s correct. I used to coach, at one point in time, I was over 20 companies, but now I’m down to like five. I always want to do it. I want to be in what we call the session room. I want to be there. I want to understand what people are dealing with. I belong to several peer groups. And so I also, for free, will coach my peers if they want to talk about stuff like that. I love coaching. I really do. Obviously, I’ve got a fiduciary responsibility to my team and the company and our investors, but I think it’s healthy for me to be in the session room on occasion. Using our software as a coach. Almost every session I come up with an idea or a blog or something that is a new insight or I’ve taken something that I’ve I now understand something better than before. And so it’s very healthy, but I don’t work 40 hours a week.

Greg Head: It’s healthy but not easy. I totally hear that. So, Mark, I’m hearing your vision for this was bigger than just being a clever little tool for a branded ecosystem. A little add-on product or a nice little thing. You’re attacking the business operating system software market across now multiple brands of operating systems, EOS, and others. And you’ve got a bigger vision to grow this. And in the end, the software that solves this problem is going to be bigger than all the books and training tools, and so forth that are doing that. So when did you realize that this could be a much bigger thing?

Mark Abbott: You know, we have a great culture and I think I’m a reasonably good leader, but every now and then I have strong opinions. And I say there are strong opinions weakly held, but they’re not so weakly held sometimes. No, We had a very strong point of view about where the world was going and how we could make a difference.

Greg Head: It’s a little different here. Most entrepreneurs I talked to on this podcast and the thousands I’ve talked to in the last few years. They find a problem in the world and they make software and they get a business and they get to ten people and they don’t know what it’s like to run a business with 25 people or 100 people or 250 people, and they keep learning as they go, right? That’s what the coaches are for and all these systems and so forth. You actually had a very clear idea of the funding and the large market and how a bigger company runs. So you went and did the startup thing knowing how a bigger company runs. You actually solving some of those problems, which is a little bit opposite. You’re kind of an entrepreneurial system builder and sometimes those words don’t go together. That’s an interesting combination, meaning a lot of big company people can’t do the startup thing. What is it about you that is both good at the systems and the fundamentals and the deep, bigger business concepts and was able to do the entrepreneurial thing?

Mark Abbott: I’ve had four real jobs in my life and every single one of them either threatened to fire me or they fired me. So that’s just a truth. My personality, and by the way one of the things we were going to do and I’m very excited about is doing some deep fact-based research on the types of entrepreneurs and the characteristics of entrepreneurs. Obviously, we have thousands of them now in our system. So there’s a bunch of different research out there.

Mark Abbott: And frameworks are like maps, right? The map is not the territory of frameworks, not perfect, but it’s helpful. It’s useful, right? Just like a model is useful. It’s wrong, but it’s useful. So a framework that I like that could be wrong, but it’s useful, is there are four types of entrepreneurs. An accidental entrepreneur, that’s someone who for whatever reason ends up being the person who’s responsible for bringing in revenue and getting product out the door. And sometimes those accidental entrepreneurs or people that took a business over from their family, sometimes it’s they just didn’t you know, they didn’t get a job coming out of school. And so they just did this or they didn’t go to college or whatever it is. But they’re just building a business, right? If they disappear, the business disappears.

Mark Abbott: So the next type is a Lifestyle entrepreneur. You see tons of lifestyle entrepreneurs out there. People who are very smart and they don’t want to work for someone, whether it’s a dentist or someone in marketing. There are lots of lifestyle entrepreneurs out there that once again, may or may not create turn a business into a company. And a company, in my opinion, is a business that has gotten big enough, strong enough, and thoughtful enough to be able to endure beyond the founder. So they’re doing something where if the founder leaves, gets hit by a bus, the proverbial hit by the bus, it goes on. So you got those kinds. Then you got Legacy entrepreneurs who, like the Hewlett-Packards of the world, there’s this industry we think could be done so much better. We’re going to enter into it. We’re going to become one of the best of the best. We love this industry. Could be like, you know, the founders of 3M Boeing, right? We just love aeronautics. We want to be in this industry.

And then the last group is the Visionaries. These crazy knuckleheads have this point of view about where the world’s going and how they can build a company that will be there when the world gets there. That’s the least common if. You look at it across, you know, let’s just say there are 2 million entrepreneurs in the US as an example. That’s the least common. And if you look at the characteristics of those people through a bunch of different lenses. I look at people through different lenses of sort of personality as examples. You’ll see a lot of them are NTs, right? So they’re big-picture thinkers. I’m an I’m an INTJ You look through the lens of things like Enneagram, I’m very competitive and conscientious. Does that sound like an entrepreneur? And then you look at it through the lens of something like a Kolbe, which is basically how you like to solve problems. And some people are very comfortable with risk, trying a bunch of different things and throwing away what doesn’t work, and doubling down on what works. And I fall into the category of being comfortable with risk. So that’s kind of why I am the way I am. And as an NT, we question why are we doing stuff. You know, there’s if you look at Myers-Briggs as an example, there are four primary temperaments and I believe all four are belonging contribute to the creative process. But there’s the conceptualizes, the big picture, the visionaries, Those are NTs. then there’s the NFs, which are the feelers, the idealistics. So is this going to is anybody going to love this and is society going to embrace this? .

Mark Abbott: And there’s tension between the thinkers in the feelers always. And then you have the SPs, which are their experiencers. And so they’re really good at just getting stuff done right. And then finally there are the critics or the protectors, the SJs, and that’s actually about 50% of the population. And so there’s always you know, we feel it in our politics right now. There’s always tension between the way we’ve done things and progress. And there’s good healthy tension there. And so I’m the guy who comes in and questions how we’ve done things. But as an older person these days, right, as a mature person, I also have a deep appreciation for the culture, the history, the shared, you know, the shared battles associated with with with with tradition. And belief systems that have stood for thousands of years. They’ve stood for thousands of years because they provided utility, they’ve provided value, they’ve provided people with sort of moral and value-based systems. And so, you know, I am one of those guys who’s progressive, but I also have a deep, deep respect for the way things were done. But I still question them.

Greg Head: And you can help move them when you’re speaking both languages, right You can be a translator and a leader. So you’ve got a big vision for this and you raised money from big funding. So you bootstrapped this, built the company up, it expanded during COVID and accelerated and you said, I see a big vision now. And you didn’t just get a little practical funding. You went to a big VC and got big VC funding. Can you tell us about your big funding game?

Mark Abbott: We didn’t go to a VC. We actually had a strong point of view on how we were going to do all this. And my point of view was that we needed to get to $10 million in ARR in order to be able to talk to the best of the best. So best of the best, meaning, the firms that have billions of dollars of capital, the firms that are well known for being really helpful in terms of helping founders and scale and think and do all the things you need to do to build a great company. So our perspective we’re going to get to 10 million without outside funding before we were anywhere near there, probably halfway there, we started getting calls.

Greg Head: Of course.

Mark Abbott: From the big names. So long story short is that, well, last year, right, summer of 2021, we took $20 million right onto the balance sheet from Insight Partners, a multi, multi, multi, multi-billion dollar. Venture capital firm. They gave us credit for the $10 million in revenue before we were there. So we never put together a pitch deck. They loved what we were doing, They loved our numbers. They loved right. So the key statistics that folks tend to look at when they’re looking to invest in a SaaS company and here we are.

Greg Head: So you didn’t do the desperate I-need-money crawl and my metrics are goofy. You had stellar metrics and a big vision and weren’t even knocking on their doors. But you could speak the language of big funding. You came a little bit out of that industry and you could tell who was going to be the most helpful, useful partner. Was there anything different about this game? And usually, you get a little, little bit of money, $5 Million, and then you’re $20 Million or whatever, but you started with a bigger chunk. What was different about this in the end?

Mark Abbott: I don’t know what was different. I mean, I think we got, you know, good terms. Valuation-wise obviously, we got very good terms, in terms of that. But, you know, I think the process we went through was pretty traditional. I think the nature of the investment is pretty traditional. The whole story is relatively traditional. I think what’s probably not as traditional is playing the game so that they would show up.

Greg Head: On your terms. How you wanted it. Yeah, that’s right. That’s the first rule of how to play the game is to know what game you’re playing.

Mark Abbott: It’s this is kind of a part of the story that we’ve been talking about. But the clearer you can get about where you’re going to be in two, three, four, five, six, seven years, and what matters. So our culture matters a lot. So we’re very clear on our core values and what kind of culture we want to have. And so we’re very clear on who our ideal clients are. We’re very clear on what our product does. We’re very clear on what our unique value proposition is. I call these things Focus Filters. We’re very focused. And we have a set of filters and everything goes through those filters and that includes right where we want to be in three years. And as I said, if you were going to grade us or grade me as a CEO, we’re behind where we thought we would be in terms of rolling out new products and features and capabilities. But besides that, we’re pretty close to where we thought we’d be.

Greg Head: It’s really exciting. You’ve built up this company and proved something in the world, and now you have investment money to achieve a bigger vision. Mark, what is your bigger vision for the Ninety company?

Mark Abbott: You know, we’re already in 26 countries. We have a 2030 vision and let’s just say we want to be helping millions and millions and millions of people to focus, align and thrive. Because ultimately we’re helping people. You know, obviously, every company is just a collection of people. And I’ve got a blog that I don’t write as much as I want to just because there’s so much going on right now. But it’s, you know, you can find it at Abbottt.work and I believe that you can’t self-actualize. You can’t really matter and feel good about how you matter without work. I think works an extraordinarily beautiful thing and it helps us feel like we matter. Obviously, if we do it well, we get paid well for it. We can take care of our families. We can take care of our communities with that money. I’m all about helping make helping millions and millions of people genuinely love work and feel like they matter and that they’re making the world a better place. That’s, you know, that’s me. That’s what I that’s what I’m all about.

Greg Head: Well, it’s a noble cause and a big vision. Thanks for sharing your story and your journey there and your vision and some of the insights about how your software makes all that better, easier, faster. Mark, is there anything you’d like to add for practical founders out there who are listening about the journey of growing a business to achieve a bigger vision in the world?

Mark Abbott: It’s honestly not that complicated, number one. It’s not. It’s like building a house. It requires tools to build a house. You need a saw, you need a hammer, you need a screwdriver, you need a level. And too many entrepreneurs are trying to build a house, their company, and build their own tools. It’s crazy. Go to whether it’s Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace, or whatever. Snap-on. Go get good tools for building it. Number one. There are a bunch of people that have taken this journey before you. Go get a book on what the classic journey looks like. Understand where you are in the entrepreneurial journey. Leverage the tools that exist ultimately, as you do all this and this is the work. I have a book coming out called Work 9.0 and I believe we’re moving out of work 8.0, from the age of 7th age of work into the 8th age of work. Right? So out of the age of information, into the age of understanding. ultimately you need to develop high-trust relationships with all of your stakeholders. That’s what it’s all about. Just focus on having high-trust relationships, do the work, build the bloody thing, but constantly be checking in on do I have high-trust relationships?

Mark Abbott: It’s a false choice about whether your employees are more important than your customers. That’s sorry, It’s bullshit, right? What matters is you. They trust you, right? Trust is character. It’s competency and its connection. So just develop high-trust relationships. If you do that, you’re going to have all the information flowing back at you that you need to navigate things. Information is extraordinarily important. That’s what evolution is all about. It’s increasing the utility of the information we have. And so take. All that information, respond to it. But ultimately, you do still have to have a point of view about what you’re building and what you’re all about, and where you’re going. They call those earlier focus filters, so it ain’t that hard. I mean, honestly, I’ve invested in over 100 companies. I’ve lent to hundreds and hundreds more. I’ve sat on 25 boards and I’ve coached over probably 200 leadership teams. And I keep telling them , just get really good at the fundamentals and good things will happen.

Greg Head: Yeah, it’s like the famous basketball coach, John Wooden. We’ll start with the fundamentals. I can hear it right there.

Mark Abbott: So the first thing you want to do is tie your shoes properly.

Greg Head: That’s right. And it ain’t that complicated. Mark, it’s been awesome to hear your wisdom and to hear your success story. I totally believe that businesses need a lot more of this than they’re getting. There’s a lot of mess out there. And unfortunately, employees are bearing the brunt of companies not doing the fundamentals. So I really appreciate you sharing your story on the Practical Founder’s Podcast, Mark.

Mark Abbott: You’re welcome. Greg. Enjoyed being here.

In this episode, Mark explains:

  • How he discovered the need to manage business fundamentals better as an investor in 100+ companies
  • Why he decided to license the EOS-branded terminology and change the company’s name to get more “traction”
  • The pluses and minuses of partnering with a branded methodology provider
  • How they used Ninety software to grow faster and be ready for a major venture investment round 
  • Why Mark still participates in CEO peer groups and coaches other leaders in his “spare time”
  • Why he decided to raise $20M in capital from a Tier 1 venture fund in 2021
  • What are the “business fundamentals” that Ninety leverages to accelerate growth

Ninety Company Facts

  • Founded: 2016
  • Description: Ninety provides small to mid-sized companies with the core tools needed to grow and thrive, integrating data, processes, and people into one comprehensive and powerfully integrated system.
  • Number of Employees: 100
  • Funding: Founder-funding to start and grow, then raised a $20M venture Series A round in 2021 from Insight Partners
  • Location: Atlanta, Georgia

Links

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Greg Head recorded this on episode on December 30, 2022 for the Practical Founders Podcast see all of the episodes.

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