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John Jahnke is the CEO of Tackle, a platform designed to help software companies generate revenue through the cloud marketplaces—or, as Jahnke describes it, “a no-code middleware product that allows software companies to sell software on the cloud marketplaces without having to build it.”
Tackle holds an impressive resume. The platform has raised $148.3 million in funding, was awarded a spot on the Forbes list of America’s Best Startup Employers 2022, and recently launched a new Startup Acceleration Program designed “to help independent software vendors (ISVs) generate revenue through the four major cloud marketplaces—AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and Red Hat Marketplace.”
Though Tackle was founded in 2016, Jahnke didn’t become CEO until two years later. Before then, he spent most of his life in B2B sales, technical sales, professional services, and customer success. “Always with emerging technologies,” he states.
Let’s take a closer look at Jahnke’s experience becoming a first-time CEO and the discoveries, successes, and lessons he’s encountered along the way.
How Jahnke Became the CEO of Tackle
Dillon Woods and Brian Denker co-founded Tackle nearly six years ago. Today, Woods serves as the company’s chief technology officer (CTO) and Denker as its chief operating officer (COO).
Though Jahnke didn’t become the CEO until 2018, he has been involved with the platform since its inception.
“Dillon originally said to me, ‘Hey, I have this idea about a company. Cloud marketplaces are changing the way so much of technology operates, and I think these marketplaces could serve to change the way that software is sold.’”
Woods and Denker decided to raise a seed round, and Jahnke bought in.
“Having operated as a lifelong seller and person helping people consume technology, the idea of changing the way that software was sold was really inspiring to me,” Jahnke says.
He originally acted as an advisor on product strategy, product-market fit, and sales strategy, but as Tackle began to pick up speed, Jahnke and the team decided to have him take the reins to lead the company through growth.
Jahnke’s Experience As CEO
“When you end up as a CEO, you end up with leaders working for you who know more about what they do than you do,” Jahnke states. “That can be odd, especially if you grew up as an expert in one domain.”
Jahnke says his job as a CEO is to “help amazing leaders do their best work, work together, and understand how to prioritize what’s important to the company and what’s important to the customer.”
Though a rewarding and fulfilling role, being a CEO can be challenging—especially when dealing with the complications of a fast-growing company.
“We went from zero to 10 employees and then 10 to 30, 30 to 60, 60 to 150, and now we’re in the 250 range,” Jahnke explains. “There are a couple of distinct breaking points.”
He says that at 50 employees, there is a distinct point of friction as your current leadership structure won’t support doubling your staff to 100.
“You have to think about teams with multiple layers of leaders. Even though you’re pretty small, to go from 50 to 100 people, the hierarchy looks pretty different.”
Once you hit 150 employees, Jahnke says it becomes all about systems, processes, documentation, and enablement.
“You need a lot of support around the system to move to that next level of scale, and we got caught in a couple of areas where we were underserviced. We had a foundation, but we didn’t have enough to support how fast we were growing,” he acknowledges.
Techniques for Scaling a SaaS
Jahnke admits that building a new software company and trying to sell to your first group of users will be challenging—there’s no sense in embellishing it. But with patience and persistence, it will be worth it.
“You’re often clamoring for someone to use your product so you can get their feedback and figure out if it’s solving the problem you think it’s going to solve, how valuable it is to the user, and ultimately how much you could charge for it,” he says.
Transitioning from that early feedback stage into actually selling can be tricky when you’re a small company, especially if you’re trying to sell to larger companies. As Jahnke describes, bigger companies are often looking to simplify the number of vendors they work with.
“Being able to leverage the cloud marketplaces—like the budget and contracts of the clouds—is incredibly powerful for doing those early deals.”
“We created a new startup package because we had some friction in our system. For very early-stage companies, we were a little expensive for them, and we saw that as an area we could optimize to make it easier to work with Tackle,” he states.
Once you are past that product-market fit mode, Jahnke says it becomes all about people.
“You have to figure out how to build your brand as a company from a people standpoint. The talent markets are incredibly competitive and complicated. Experienced employees have more choice than ever before,” he explains.
Defining and optimizing your brand identity and voice can help you stand out in the employer pool.
Jahnke offers three key questions to ask yourself to help flesh out your brand: What do I stand for? What are my values? Why would people want to work for me?
By answering these questions honestly, clearly, and consistently, you will better understand how to attract and support talent.
“Once you build a brand, talent starts to come to you because others hear about you, the referral networks start to turn on, and it becomes much easier to scale from a people standpoint versus a company that doesn’t have a clear and distinct brand,” he states.
Advice for Founders Just Starting Out
Jahnke’s number one piece of advice for early-stage SaaS founders: Think big and start small.
“You have to have a vision of where you can go, but if you try to do it all upfront, you’re never going to get anyone to use your product,” he says.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘what is one thing that is digestible for a user to start with that can rapidly deliver value?’ And then iterate from there.”
Jahnke also emphasizes the importance of outlining your ideal customer profile.
“A lot of times, people think, ‘I could sell this to all these different industries and company sizes.’ If you’re trying to do that, it’s very difficult to build social proof,” he explains.
“If you can segment down your ideal customer profile to where other users would look at your user and say, ‘I understand their problem, and I identify with that,’ you can get to repeatability a lot faster, especially in the $0-1 million in ARR (annual recurring revenue) phase.”
“If you’re doing four things to make up your $1 million in ARR, you’re not really repeatable. You have four $250,000 ARR companies. You need to do one thing 100 times that makes up $1 million in ARR to have repeatability and expand from there,” Jahnke says.
His last tip for new founders is to pay close attention to a crucial SaaS metric: net dollar retention.
Net dollar retention looks at how much a business’ revenue has grown or shrunk, allowing you to better understand your users and their behavior. “In really healthy companies, it expands,” he states. “145% is considered world-class for net dollar retention.”
“All of that leads to customer success. We actually invested in customer success before we invested in sales,” he shares.
Because co-founders Woods and Denker were originally responsible for Tackle’s sales, transitioning to a sales-led style would have been trickier had the company not invested in a customer success team.
“When you have a customer success team making sure the customers you have are happy and growing with your product, it sets you up for way more success as you build sales,” says Jahnke.
What’s Next for Tackle
Tackle’s horizon looks bright.
“We want to continue to set the pace of innovation for helping software companies sell through the cloud marketplaces,” Jahnke states.
Jahnke also says that they have some predictions for the future: Sellers will help buyers buy digitally, and there will be various places that buyers want to buy. With these advancements comes complexity, leaving an untapped area for innovation for Tackle.
“In the near future, we will release some exciting expansions to the product portfolio that help sellers sell more, make the experience of selling through cloud marketplaces even better, and broaden the kinds of software you can sell,” he describes.
Beyond those teasers, the team is looking forward to continuing to help software companies evolve digitally through innovation.
Head over to Tackle to learn more and stay up to date on what’s coming to the platform.