Op-ed: SaaS startup advice straight from Silicon Valley

Erin Blaskie, community manager with Ottawa’s L-Spark accelerator, brings back perspectives, takeaways and unicorn-building lessons from SaaStr 2018
(Photo by Erin Blaskie)

It was the morning of day one: Chaos ensued as more than 7,000 SaaStr-ites descended upon the Hilton Union Square in San Francisco in early February, but, just like everything else in the software-as-a-service space, the organizers pivoted quickly to regain control.

SaaStr Annual is a conference designed to bring together the brightest in the SaaS space to share best practices, divulge industry secrets and remind everyone that the journey, while hard, is not one that you need to do solo.

This was my first SaaStr conference, so I showed up with my laptop in one hand and a coffee in the other, ready to absorb as much information as humanly possible. My primary goals were to come away from SaaStr 2018 with a deeper understanding of the space, the ability to better support our accelerator’s cohort and with a renewed fervour to build some incredible companies right here on Canadian soil. I achieved all of that – and more.

The way we think

We’ve heard it before – founders in Silicon Valley think differently. They will walk into a room, much like Michelle Zatlyn – co-founder of Cloudflare – did, and announce that their company is raising a $20-million round the same way we in Canada might ask for $250,000.

This larger-than-life way of thinking may seem like it’s “just the way it is down in the Valley,” but that would mean forgetting that some people in the Valley, such as Zatlyn herself, are Canadian.

The content at SaaStr features a lot of catchy titles and industry buzzwords delivered by CEOs and founders of world-class companies, but what lies under the surface is the psychology that motivates a lot of the founders here. It’s palpable, infectious and, at times, downright intimidating. However, rippling through the undercurrents is a shared experience that reminds us that we’re all human – regardless of which zip code we find ourselves in.

One of those profound shared experiences came from Therese Tucker, CEO of BlackLine, who is a sassy, 50-something-year-old entrepreneur who has achieved what many would call the pinnacle of success. It was her advice on humility that put me at ease and lessened, if only a little, the intimidation I had around some of these tech giants.

“Pivot from arrogance to humility. It will allow you to be confident in your idea but still seek out wisdom of people who have been there before.”

“The biggest mistakes happen when people believe their own hype. When that happens, they lose focus on the business itself. If you are the CEO of a small company, you need to be committed to doing whatever it takes to make that business successful,” she said.

“Pivot from arrogance to humility. It will allow you to be confident in your idea but still seek out wisdom of people who have been there before.”

Being able to walk into a boardroom and demand your worth may seem like a juxtaposition next to advice on humility, but it seems like many of the Valley founders carry contrasting mindsets. This way of thinking, and the approach that many of the speakers took to solving problems, became my greatest source of learning.

Fall in love with problems

I wish I would have kept a record of the number of times I heard someone at SaaStr say the phrase, “solve problems.” Nearly every single person that took the stage echoed that sentiment loud and clear and applied their own unique viewpoint to it.

For example, Karen Peacock, COO of Intercom, said: “You have to fall in love with problems, not solutions.”

She went on to talk about how you need to watch what people do and not what they say, because you can easily fall into a trap of thinking that you are creating a solution people want when in reality, no one will use it.

Her advice?

“Focus on that magical time when a customer first comes to you and is interested in learning more about what you do. Watch how they move through that process and fall in love with the problems that pop up.”

Allie Janoch, CEO of Mapistry, spoke about the importance of building in a customer success strategy and offered this advice: “Solutions are great because people will pay a whole lot more for them. Solutions solve a core problem for your customers’ business, but keep in mind that sometimes a solution isn’t enough. Sometimes you need a customer success strategy, too.”

2018 predictions

SaaStr ends with a talk from Byron Deeter of Bessemer Venture Partners. It’s called the State of the Cloud, and Deeter, along with his incredibly talented team, share their predictions for the year ahead.

Here were Deeter’s very high-level predictions for 2018:

  1. Rise of server-less computing
  2. APIs will drive innovation
  3. Blockchain will find a home in the enterprise
  4. Payments-as-a-Service
  5. Move from system of record to system of results
  6. Explosion of screen-less software
  7. Values create value; company values and the voice of the employee matter now more than ever
  8. The cloud is flat; we’ll see innovation outside of the Valley


While some of these ideas will ring true and some will not, it’s certainly interesting to see what is coming down the pipeline. My heart did swell with Ottawa pride when I saw Shopify used as an example throughout the report and as the basis for some of the 2018 predictions.

If you work in the SaaS space or you’re building a startup that has a software-as-a-service or enterprise software component, sign up and go to SaaStr.

Most conferences tout the value of the networking, which is completely true for SaaStr, but for me, the content here was king and the can’t-avoid-it-even-if-you-tried side effects of being bumped up against Silicon Valley’s build-a-unicorn energy will keep you going for a long time to come.


Erin Blaskie is the community manager at L-Spark. She’ll be sharing more insights from SaaStr 2018 on the accelerator’s website, L-Spark.com.

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