Our guest today is Christine Watts, Head of Client Success for Ninety.io. Christine has been the driving force behind the company’s incredible growth, taking it from 25 to 120 employees in just three years. They’ve also secured rounds of funding in their series A rounds, propelling them to new heights and allowing them to add some incredible new employees as well. Their software is being used by Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) Implementers and Integrators in 26 countries, making a global impact. Christine’s expertise also extends to knowing when to say no to clients when software feature requests don’t align with the company’s vision. In today’s episode, they discuss Christine’s incredible journey and glean insights from her experiences at the forefront of Ninety.io’s success.
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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- Christine’s journey into the EOS space.
- How Ninety.io uses the “80% solution” rule for their clients.
- The process of raising money and how it changed the company.
- The art of saying “no.”
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In this episode, we’ve got a remarkable guest with us, Christine Watts, who’s the Head of Customer Success at a software platform called Ninety.io. Christine has been the driving force behind Ninety.io’s incredible growth, taking the company from 25 to 120 employees in just 3 years. They’ve also secured two rounds of funding in their series A and B rounds, propelling them to new heights, and allowing them to add some incredible new employees as well. Their software is being used by EOS implementers and integrators in 26 countries making a global impact.
Christine’s expertise extends to knowing when to say no to clients whose software feature requests don’t align with the company’s vision. Her Kolbe profile is a Fact Finder, 8643, which greatly aids in her gathering relevant information in her role. Additionally, her ability to deliver difficult news has proven invaluable in her position. Join us as we delve into Christine’s incredible journey and glean insights from her experiences at the forefront of Ninety.io’s success. Hopefully, you’ll also be checking us out on our YouTube channel. We’ll see you on the inside. You’re going to love this episode.
Christine, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
We’re looking forward to learning from you, about you, and also diving deeper into the company that you run. I’ve been intrigued with Ninety.io for a bunch of years. I bumped into Gino Wickman, who started Traction years ago. You guys got involved in and around the EOS space pretty early in building software. Can you walk us through that path? How do you get to where you are?
There were three founders. Two of them were EOS implementers. It was a product that came out of them coaching Mark, our CEO. We’ll talk about how he’s had the vision for ten years before that timeframe even too. We got started as a product that was generic in the marketplace for business management.
We said we were compatible with EOS because we didn’t have a licensed relationship. A lot of EOS implementers used us and loved us. Eventually, we moved into more of a formalized partnership with EOS over the years. We got started in 2016 and launched out of beta in 2017. I joined in January 2017 as the first non-developer. There were 2 developers on board and then it was just the 3 founders other than that.
Saying that it was compatible with EOS, was it by design? Did they intentionally say, “It looks like EOS is,” because that was almost at the pinnacle of EOS’s growth as well?
It was interesting, initially. We were in that community. We’re going to the very first conference and working within the community of coaches. Software was a very new concept to people. They had always been taught software is bad. Software means you’re distracted. You’re not in the meeting room when things are happening. We built it specifically around EOS.
We run your level 10 meetings and have your accountability chart and BTOs right there, knowing that the world was heading in that direction. Software can be a partner. It’s not the enemy when you’re going into those situations. It helps you stay on track and keep records. There was that bit of pushback and a learning curve for people when we initially launched. We had to make them feel comfortable with that concept, especially the coaches.
It’s interesting because, for years, Gino missed a massive opportunity. They were training thousands of companies on how to use the operating system. After 1 year or 2, they were like, “Bye-bye to the implementer.” It was just the visionary and the integrator self-implemented internally. They didn’t have any SaaS model or software. They were using all the systems but there was no ability to keep them. You guys came along and jumped on that. You’re expanding outside of EOS as well. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?
It’s interesting hearing the people that you talk to on the show too because a lot of them have roots in a specific operating system. Whether they’re using Scaling Up, EOS, or whatever it is, those foundations are important. As you’re a small company, you need to have those guardrails on to say, “We need to save ourselves from making bad decisions. We know the framework we need to use.”
As you expand and get bigger, you have a coach, and there’s more complexity, being able to customize your solution to something that works for your organization is huge. That’s the area that we’re working on, being able to work with partners like EOS that have their business operating systems, offering our templates up for companies that might want to use those as well, and offering more customizable solutions like your weekly meeting.
Maybe it’s the same at the leadership level but as you get into your marketing team, ops team, and finance, you have specific things that you want to pull into that meeting. Maybe you want to change the timeframe but the purpose is all the same. We need to be identifying our issues and looking if things are on track. Those are all ways that we’re looking to enhance the client experience and make sure that everybody can get what they want out of it.
It’s interesting you mentioned Scaling Up. I’ve known Verne for many years. He took the Rockefeller Habits and overcomplicated them with Scaling Up. You almost need to have 200 plus employees for Scaling Up to work, in my mind. It’s a great system. I’m friends with Andy Bailey, who built the Align software, and Patrick Thean, who built the Rhythm software. I’ve known the community forever. Are you moving into that more corporate or mid-size company operating system or are you staying more in the small to mid-size zone?
We’re looking to hit both because you want to have the specific framework that the small, let’s say, 10 to 250 want to use, which is the EOS market sweet spot. Even for us internally, we’re not going to be under a 250-employee company forever. We’re at 120. We’re scaling rapidly. Anytime we’re making decisions internally, we almost have that client-facing mindset to say, “Would we teach our clients to do this? How would we make it a process, a system, or something in the software that helps them do that as well?”
As we’re scaling ourselves, we’re looking to go up to that. Companies with 2,000 employees should be able to use our software. Not only that but the complexity there. Maybe there’s a PE firm and all of the companies they manage to use. That’s an easy way for them to have insight and access and be able to coach those organizations or as you’re aware, franchise organizations being able to have the franchisor and the franchisees underneath. There are a lot of opportunities there that haven’t been explored yet.
Are you looking at the franchisor space?
We are. We work with a variety of them more on the individual level. There’s a bunch of franchise organizations where they have that specific operating system, whether it’s EOS or another at the franchisor level. They try to get their franchisees to use it as well. We’re exploring that space.
I was the second in command for a company called 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. It grew from 2 million to 106 million in 6 years. There was a group out of Vancouver. I can’t remember what it was called. I think it was Water Street, which was trying to do franchising software but they never got to that next level. It’s got to be a huge market. I love that you mentioned going after the PE firm space and helping them manage and oversee their capital or deployed capital. Is there some pickup in that idea as well?
There’s a handful that already uses us for it. The software is great. You can use it as is but you’re shifting a little bit of the solution. You can be in multiple companies but you can’t share information across those. Sometimes there are people that need to be in multiple and they want to see all of their tasks in one place. There are tweaks and things that we need to do to make it even better. We do have organizations using it in that capacity.
When you’re building software and a SaaS model, how do you know when to say no to certain customer requests versus saying yes to all of them?
We’ve got a very specific methodology around this. I often have to explain it to clients too because there are feature requests coming in all the time. That’s one thing I love about our market. People are so engaged. You never have to pay for product interviews, client interviews, or whatever it is. They want to give you feedback or get on the phone with the PMs. We use a rule of 80%. Is this an 80% solution for all of our clients?
Taking that lens, we have a full snack built out around that. We’re able to use the tools ourselves as a big one. We would never develop anything that we wouldn’t be able to use. We see ourselves as our target market. There are certain things like that that we put through the filter and make sure we’re creating the right thing. There’s a range of features that you’re going to develop.
Mark, the CEO, is on the far end of the range of, “I want to start building things that people aren’t even asking for.” He’s got that visionary mindset. Whereas, internally, the product managers are looking at, “Here’s the feature requests that are coming in. How can we develop and create something that’s going to be adding depth to the platform?”
Did you guys raise money?
Yes. We did it through Insight Partners.
Can you talk about how that process went? I don’t know if you can talk about how much you raised but what was the process of raising money? What did you learn through that process?
It was interesting. 2020 was when it started. With COVID, we started taking off at that point. Everybody was moving to their houses. It was that conversation of something like software, which was the enemy before to a lot of companies. They’re realizing, “I need this to keep all of my people on track and be able to communicate well.” We had a lot of firms reaching out to us purely based on our numbers. Insight came along. I don’t remember too much about that process of going through the refinement and choosing them. We went through an interesting process where we had an initial raise. As contingent on hitting numbers, we had a secondary Series A with them so add-on funding.
How did the process change the company and the way that you operated?
We’re able to hire more and accelerate growth. I don’t think we fundamentally changed too much. Especially from our perspective, we’re not owned by them or anything like that. Being able to control ownership and control our vision and destiny was a huge part of that and making sure we maintain that. The hiring aspect has been huge. In pre-Series A, I want to remember the number of employees but it was probably around 25. Now, we’re at 120. Being able to let our departments experience some depth there was nice.
When you go through 5X growth in employees, that drastically changes the whole company too. Have you gone from having a management team to a true leadership team?
We adopt that super flat mentality. Our leadership team, people sitting below our CEO, we have ten there. A lot of people would say, “That’s way too many.” It ends up working out well. We’re still able to make great decisions. We’ve had to tweak our process a little bit. Our quarterly planning meetings are 2 days instead of 1 day. Every quarter, we’re looking at things and seeing how can we tweak that agenda to make sure we’re talking about the right things upfront to make the right decisions in the room. There are little things like that that we need to adjust.
Other than that, being able to maintain that flat organization has let a lot of people work autonomously and we’re doing a lot of work around that as we continue to scale. We’re making sure our teams are set up in a way. On the engineering side, we have a pod model. Product managers, designers, and engineers, all work in a team of no more than 7 to 10 people. They’re assigned to an individual tool. That lets them make decisions, have the information they need, and develop against that tool without all of the bureaucracy of needing to go through approvals and things like that.
One of the questions I’ve got about your software, which is so different from so many companies, is in the EOS world, it’s quite easy to get companies that use EOS to use the Ninety.io software because the methodology is understood. They understand the systems, why they’re using the systems, and why software is going to help them manage the systems.
There are lots of companies out there. The vast majority of companies don’t use any operating system whatsoever, at least. They’ve got one but it’s not Scaling Up or 3HAG WAY. It’s not a system that’s branded and replicable. How do you educate that market at the same time as getting them to use your software? Is there a coaching or consulting component to your software? Are you finding that there’s a pain point that they’re saying, “I need to get rid of the pain so we’ll figure out how to use the software?”
It’s interesting because that’s the exact thing we’re working on. We have a full-fledged marketing team and creative team so we’re going out there and trying to educate against those pain points to bring that new people in that are EOS unaware. It’s what we call them internally. They’re not aware that they even need an operating system at this point.
This is the core reason we haven’t even had a sales team, internally. We have such a product market fit within these specific groups. The coaches and EOS implementers act as our sales force. They’re the ones out there that are identifying the client base and bringing them in. Other people find us organically. We probably have a 60/40 split in terms of companies that already have a coach and are coming to us or that are not coached. We’re looking at that un-coached market and identifying ways that we can go after them better.
We see ourselves internally as a technology platform support, service-oriented, and learning-oriented. We have a full education team, where they’re building out content and resources that are the context and concepts behind the software. To your point, you can’t just come in and start using it. It’s not like, “We’re going to start setting up a new CRM. Let’s go.” It’s so much change management that has to happen within an organization. You can’t sell that to an organization. We have to go through that process of understanding like, “What are your needs? Where are you at? If it’s not fit, we’re here. We’ll send you the resources you need until it’s a better fit.”
I’ve been an advisor to a company called 15Five for the last several years. I’m an investor in the company as well. One of the things that we noticed in their growth is that when companies are using their software and employees get fired, quit, and move to another company, the software migrates over. Are you starting to see that at all when executives move to other firms and then they’re taking your software? They’re staying as customers but at a new company.
We’ve seen that a fair amount, even on the point we’re on the client success side. I’m like, “I’d love to figure out how we can follow our clients on LinkedIn and be more proactive around that approach too.” It’s very cool. Especially for me, I’ll have people email me and reach out because I feel like my face and name are out there in the YouTube universe as it’s tied to Ninety and have those same comments of, “I used it here. I’m in a new role.”
It will be interesting to watch the trajectory of your growth change as people migrate and move. Let’s talk a little bit about your growth through the trajectory in the last few years. When you go from 25 employees to 120, how have you had to emerge and grow as a leader? Where have you had to grow?
It’s in the delegation aspect. I feel like so much goes into the people that we’re hiring and the context that we’re providing them. Initially, you’re bringing people in and they’re asking, “How can I help?” When you’re answering emails until midnight and then waking up at 6:00 AM because there are bugs, you don’t have time to even think about how somebody can jump in and help you.
We turned a corner in terms of whether it’s the people that we had coming in or I feel like my maturity in providing more context around situations like, “Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s the landscape. Here’s the direction we’re going.” People started saying, “Here’s what I need to do to take more off whoever’s plate it was.” They’re able to be more proactive in that way. As a leader, I feel like I’m constantly stretching that muscle of how can I give more information and context, whether it’s behind decisions, how we’re seeing the market move, or anything like that to let our people be more autonomous and grow.
You mentioned delegation. It’s interesting. That’s one of the twelve core modules in my Invest in Your Leaders course. Do you have a system that you use for delegating? Can you walk us through some of your thoughts on delegation?
We should have a better one. There are so many things that are pre-baked into how we operate but a great thing that we do have is essentially our responsibilities chart where you can go through every single person’s roles and understand, “Is this still important to me?” We have that pre-baked into our one-on-ones with managers and direct reports.
How many hours are you spending on these individual roles every single week? Let’s have an open, honest conversation. If you’re spending way too much time in a specific area, are there things within there that you can drop down and delegate? That’s how we’re approaching it. I’ll be interested to see how that grows and evolves.
One of my thoughts around delegation has been around Parkinson’s law that work expands to fill the space that we give it. When we delegate projects to people, we have to tell them how little time we want them to spend. Not how much time we think it’ll take but how little time or money we want them to spend. Let them figure out how to do it within that bandwidth and restraint. Delegation is an art.
I’m coming from the place of being there from the beginning. I was doing everything. I had to teach and train myself, “I don’t have to do everything. It will still get done well.” Going through that internal process of letting go of things that I do truly care about is important too.
That’s a whole other area of growth. I’m sorry, I missed that component of what you were saying. It’s the ability to let go and let other people do it and free ourselves up. The to-do list needs to get done but not by you.
I’m much better at that but I struggled with that initially, especially when I was in the weeds in every product decision. I was designing things and talking to clients. Every client conversation could turn into a product interview and discovery. Those kinds of things were very exciting because that was part of our success initially. The feedback loop was so short. I was talking to people. We were getting things out there. I was getting feedback on it. That’s exactly what you need for an initial growth company. That’s part of what I’m doing. I’m not the problem solver anymore but figuring out the systems to put in place so that feedback loop can stay short is important.
I have a former client that I used to coach, Suzanne Evans. She used to figure out her to-do list a week in advance and figure out how many hours or minutes each task would take. On Sunday night, she would delegate 80% of the hours before she’d started working on a single item. She forced herself to delegate 80% of her week. I’m like, “That’s so brilliant.” I suck at that.
Seriously, that’s incredible. That is a skill.
I find it hard too though. When you’re so good at something, it’s sometimes easier to get it going versus slow it down. Ninety.io measures a few different personality profiles. Can you walk us through the different personality profiles you use? How do you use them? I want to dig in around one that we use at the COO Alliance called Kolbe.
We use both Kolbe and TypeCoach even in the interviewing process when we’re going through hiring. We’ve also layered in Print. I’m not sure we’ve done that organization-wide. Through different quarterlies and things on our leadership team, we try and layer in new ones every once in a while. Like you, we rely on probably Kolbe the most in terms of thinking about our working relationship with people and if they’re going to be a right fit for the seat that we’re bringing them into. It’s a great context to frame the conversation around and knowing I’ve got a client success operations person who is a high quick start. I probably need to coach him in terms of communication and bringing people along or whatever changes he’s making because his natural inclination is going to be to just go.
Your Kolbe profile is 8643. The very high first number means you’re a high fact-finder. You like to start projects by asking lots of questions. What is your CEO Mark Abbott’s Kolbe profile? Do you know what his is?
We were talking about this and I should know. We’re not too far off. He’s also a high fact-finder, which is a bit unique for that particular role.
I was curious if he’s more of the engineering type. Does he approach business from that perspective more than a lot of entrepreneurs do?
He’s a 7463. He’s got a bit higher on that quick start side but we’re not too far off. The good thing about working with him is he does want to get in the weeds and knows a lot. He’s not just going to take things at face value. That’s been helpful. He’s got a big vision and where we’re heading but it isn’t going to shy away from getting into the details either.
As organizations scale, once you get past the entrepreneurial zone and you’re into more of the mid-size company and you guys are starting to bump into that, the skills of the CEO do need to adapt. You can’t be a super high quick start and run a 120-person company. It starts to fall apart. That’s what happened to me at 1-800-GOT-JUNK? because I was the COO. I was a very strange profile for a COO but it’s because we were so entrepreneurial in this massive trajectory. Once we hit 3,000 employees system-wide, I was banging my head all over the place. It was ugly.
You were like, “Why can’t we move faster on all of these things then?”
It was crazy. We had 330 cities, 4 countries, and 13 operating P&Ls. I was pulling my hair out. It’s funny. They replaced me with the former president of Starbucks US. She came in and said, “What a cute little company.” I was like, “It’s so big.” In looking at the ability to say no to clients, there’s an art there. Is it a not now? Is it a hard no? Is it a no because? How do you say no when some of these requests are so niche that they don’t serve the 80%?
I almost consider this as one of my superpowers, giving people bad news. I used to say that was my job. Initially, you have so many bugs. People want things. You can’t deliver them. It is an art form. It falls into different categories depending on the request. Sometimes things people ask for are physically not possible because you can’t line up data from one day of the week and then make it show on a different day of the week. There are physical limitations that you have to describe to people.
I don’t know. I approach it from a personal mindset of, “How would I want somebody to tell me this information too?” It’s one of those things where it varies from person to person or request to request. Having that centralized mindset around, “Here’s who we are,” having our snack well built out, and knowing product-wise where we’re heading makes things a lot easier in terms of when people come in with those requests.
You were the first non-tech person to join the company. I’m sure now, there are lots of you that are there that are non-tech. What was it that Mark saw in you that allowed him to continue to put more responsibility on your shoulders and give you bigger parts of the organization to scale and run?
Was it given to me or did I take it? I don’t know because even coming in, initially, I was Client Success in Marketing. I saw the founders giving the developers direction. I was like, “I’m going to step in here and be this middle person.” I ended up in this product seat. I feel like maybe it was a combination of both things with me feeling like, “I know how to fix this problem or set things up in a better way so I’m going to jump in maybe sometimes without asking.”
Maybe it’s in general on the other side of the equation of more responsibility being given to me. I’m a fairly level-headed person. Resiliency is a big one for me. Having thick skin, making sure I’m always coming to situations, and I’m not getting hotheaded are big aspects of being able to work through a lot of that early turmoil and trouble.
It’s not an easy road to get here. That’s why when other people are like, “I’m going to go build my software and do this myself,” it’s like, “You should try that. Good luck to you.” We’ve had clients that have told us that before. It’s like, “I know you’ll be back in six months. I love to talk to you about it. I’ll even give you some tips but it’s not going to be something you can go set up on your own.”
Who do you compete with from the operating software point of view? Have you got competition out there that you’re directly competing with? Is it a competitive market or is it still a fairly early-stage market?
The early stage was when we got started. Companies are starting to become more established within it. We’ve got one other one that came up with us specific to the EOS market and they no longer are. We’re the only licensed provider of EOS software. I would still consider them as far as in that business operating space. You mentioned Align. They’re pretty much in that competing space as well, offering a business operating system.
Everything else is a bit more adjacent to that, like the OKR software, performance management, and the 15Five aspect. We’ve got aspects of that within Ninety as well. We see our system as a whole business tool. What does your whole business need to operate? We’re trying to pull aspects of performance management, project management, and all of those different things and have them combined into one tool.
You’re trying to stay squarely in the operations side of the business too. You’re not migrating into the tech side of operations or marketing operations. You’re staying in the ops.
As we continue to build tools, there are things that are complementary to our offering. Wouldn’t it be great if you could survey your employees and get an eNPS or ask them a question every Friday and see how they’re feeling or how they’re doing within their roles? Things like that still fit into that operations mindset, as opposed to getting too specific within a niche there.
I was an advisor to a company called TINYpulse. I did a lot around that employee satisfaction side of things. I was an investor in them as well. The company is changing from 25 employees to 120 employees. How has the leadership team changed and evolved? That’s been pretty fast growth. Have there been any hiccups through that growth?
We started with an interesting model of most people coming in fractional. I was probably the one full-time person on the leadership team. Everybody else was coming in with their layer of expertise but working maybe 1 or 2 days a week. It let us hire qualified people into those roles before we needed somebody full-time. We’re getting to the place where we 1,000% need everybody to be in a full-time capacity. That’s probably been the biggest change structure-wise that we’ve gone through, pulling everybody into being full-time within their seat to build out their department.
Have you had to hire some external hires to bring them into the organization? What’s that been like doing that when you bring in the senior external hires?
We’ve hired everybody externally. Our interview process is good, mainly because we have such a firm ground on, “Here’s our vision and the type of people that we want to bring in.” It’s hitting home our core values. We know where we want to be in ten years. It’s all of those factors to make sure we’re reading out the wrong people. Typically, everybody goes through the 3 or 4 interview process. Even when we were hiring our Head of Data, Mark did the interview and then shared the Zoom link with all of us. It was like, “Here you go. What do you guys think?” I feel like that openness through the process has been helpful as well.
When you’re bringing an external senior hire, let’s say it’s a leadership team member and they’re coming in over top of 70 other employees that are already there and have been there and working hard, there’s a bit of an art to doing that. Can you walk us through how you socialize those hires internally before they start and what the onboarding process is like for those people?
One is probably on the marketing side. We had a new Head of Marketing start in January 2023. Through that, we made sure that core members of the team were part of that hiring process as well. They were in on the interviews. That helped create the buy-in internally because they also want to be mentored in a specific way. We haven’t had a situation where somebody’s coming in over 70 people and they’re not going to know the majority of them.
When our Head of Marketing came in, he could have an understanding of who each person on the team was and be able to work individually with them. That’s been a huge benefit. We’re not bringing somebody in and then them having to convince tens of people why they’re the right fit. There’s that immediate trust and relationship that can start being formed.
Anything on international or global expansion? Are most of your expansions in the US?
We’re in 26 countries. Somebody will correct me if I’m wrong there after this. We’ve always been a global company, which is interesting. On the client success side especially, we have somebody that works overnight shift as well from Germany. We have 24/7 support there. Employee-wise, we’re not expanding outside the US necessarily. We do have a couple of people in different countries and that lends itself well to being able to support multiple languages and things like that.
Globally, we’re not going after any specific markets. We’re trying to follow those coaches along the path that they’re going. If we have UK-based coaches, any way that we can go after and support them through training sessions they’re running, conferences, or anything like that, we want to be a part of that journey.
When you’re so tightly tied and compatible with EOS, how do you get coaches that are non-EOS coaches to start to adapt? Do they feel like there’s a competition that they’re having to deal with or joining the dark side?
You never see the other side at least from my perspective. Those people coming in shouldn’t feel like they’re competing in any way with any other specific coach. They have their referral link in. The client gets a unique experience based on whatever the coach set up. The coach can come in. If they’re not using EOS as an example, they can create their template. Every time their link is used, the client’s set up. Everything’s named the way they want. Pages are configured the way they want. It’s a pretty unique experience for those coaches that have very individualized operating systems set up.
Let’s go back to the 21 or 22-year-old Christine Watts. What advice would you give the younger you that you probably know to be true now but wish you’d known when you were just getting started?
Be bolder. I’ve always been in these leadership positions maybe because people just see me as having a cool head and being able to speak reason into situations. Going back through sports growing up, I was always the captain and played D1 in college. It’s the same thing. Through a lot of those situations, I feel like I dealt with hard things but I didn’t own it. I feel like I’m doing a much better job of getting out of my head like dealing with the Imposter syndrome and being bolder in those situations.
Christine Watts, the Head of Client Success for Ninety.io, thank you so much for sharing with us on the show.
Thanks for having me.
That was great.