Mark Faggiano on How to Focus on What Really Matters

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Today, on the Early-Stage Founder Show, I’m talking with Mark Faggiano, the founder and CEO at TaxJar, a SaaS startup that automates your sales tax calculations, reporting, and filings in minutes so you can spend time on your business.

As a startup founder you need to be versatile and prepared to wear dozens of different hats in order to get things done, but if you let the company itself get pulled in too many directions, it’s going to be hard to make progress.

In our chat, Mark dives into the importance of focus in early-stage startups, how their own focus has given them a competitive advantage, and how you can figure out what really matters in your startup.

If you feel like there are dozens of paths you could take but are unsure what one is best, then this is the episode for you.

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Topics covered:

  • (00:05) – Mark explains what TaxJar is and where the idea for its inception came from.

    • (02:46) – How TaxJar is a direct response to the needs of customers
    • (03:50) – The process of customer development.
  • (04:39) – A discussion on some of the challenges to getting TaxJar up and running.

    • (06:00) – How to support a growing base of clients.
    • (06:00) – Scaling from a technology standpoint.  
    • (06:00) – How to continue to learn about this particular business.
    • (06:30) – Approaching these challenges.
  • (08:10) – Communicating with clients and potential clients in order to establish trust.
  • (10:14) – Where TaxJar is today.
  • (10:43) – How TaxJar approached the subject of funding
  • (15:00) – A discussion on the subject of focus, and how TaxJar determined which path it was going to follow.

    • (16:05) – Whether or not there was an opportunity for TaxJar on the enterprise level.
    • (18:40) – The importance of mastering one particular skill-set rather than diluting your efforts.
  • (20:52) – Mark explains how TaxJar prioritized their development.

    • (21:45) – Paying close attention to what customers were telling them.
    • (23:25) – Observing the volume of requests.
  • (24:55) – Discussing TaxJar's specific process for customer development and interaction.
  • (27:02) – The hiring process TaxJar uses to ensure every team member brought on is an extremely good fit.
  • (31:06) – Mark offers advice to founders running a growing SaaS company.

    • (31:32) – How to maintain focus and prioritize tasks.

Rapid-fire Questions:

  • (34:13) – What do you spend too much time doing?
  • (34:51) – What do you wish you were able to spend more time on?
  • (35:46) – What are the top priorities for TaxJar moving forward?
  • (36:30) – What are the potential obstacles to those goals?

Where to learn more:

To hear more from Mark connect with him on Twitter @TaxJarMark and to learn more about TaxJar, head over to their blog at Blog.TaxJar.com.

If you're curious to know more about the culture at TaxJar, what it's like to work there, and to hear some of the really pivotal stories and experiences that have led them to where they are today, check out their other blog at Life.TaxJar.com.

Transcript:

Andy:  Mark, thanks so much for joining me today.
 
Mark:  Hey great to be here, thanks for having me.
 
Andy:  00:00:05  Of course!  So, let's just start off with what is TaxJar, and where did the idea come from?
 
Mark:  00:00:11  Sure.  So TaxJar is a sales tax compliance solution focused on e-commerce.  So, not sure how much you know about this.  Most people, it's not a topic they talk about with their friends at a party or anything like that.  
 
E-commerce businesses face a whole host of challenges just trying to be compliant when it comes to sales tax.  And there's a whole host of reasons why that is.  And basically, we automate that and make it simple.  Saving businesses a ton of time so that they can focus on growing the business.
 
Andy:  00:00:52  And then how did this idea come about for you?
 
Mark:  00:00:54  Sure.  So, this isn't my first go-around.  I've started a handful of businesses prior to this and really, sort of led up to this experience.  Developed a real passion around helping small businesses succeed.  And also, developed this focus around products that help small businesses focus on growing, right, instead of all of the backend administrative pains that nobody likes to do.  
 
00:01:29  It just so happens that I've started a couple of tax-based businesses before and we did a good enough job on those, where folks would come up to us and say things like, "Hey this is great, you solved this problem.  What do you know about sales tax, can you help us with that, because that is one of the other big pain points that we have right now in our business."  
 
00:01:50  And, honestly, never gave it a whole lot of thought until it was time — the timing was right to start the next business and took a look at, ok what exactly — what are the challenges and how painful is this?  Really, within a couple of days realized there was a huge opportunity to better serve the customers that we knew really well.  
 
And, they were basically being ignored in the marketplace, and we also saw that some of the things that we've learned from, you know, prior businesses would probably work pretty well here.  00:02:27  And got started almost four years ago, as we're recording this, and really haven't looked back since.
 
Andy:  00:02:34  Yes, because I was listening to one of the other interviews that you did, and you were asked about the whole customer development side of it, and how you really knew this was a pain point.  
 
00:02:46  And I liked your response, because you're not necessarily tackling a new market.  There might not have been a good solution to the problem out there, but you were having people come on up to you and saying, "This is a huge problem for us, we need someone to handle sales tax."  So it's not even like you were really creating some brand new solution, you were just automating something that they were probably doing by hand or with spreadsheets, or whatever at the time.  Is that fair to say?
 
Mark:  00:03:10  Yeah, that's exactly right.  So, the first thing we did, to kind of give you an overview of the process, was to really try to dig in to the mindset of the customer.  And that's what I'm saying, it only really took a couple of days to realize how painful this was.  And honestly, it was probably even hours.  Just trying to, "ok I'm going to pretend I'm Business X and I have to fail sales tax returns in a few states.  What is it that I need to do to be compliant?"  
 
And that was right away, hit us in the head and said, "This is insane!"  Just given the way that the laws are set up in this country, and all the requirements that a small business faces.  
 
00:03:50  So yeah, once we understood that and said, "Ok this is real," then we spent — what you're talking about, we spent a lot of time, about six or eight months in customer development where we called in favours, talked prior customers and said, "Ok, walk us through exactly what it is that you're doing, and how can we fix this?"  
 
And to your point, 00:04:16 yeah it was automating a lot of things that had — really were being done in Excel.  Mostly.  I mean, Excel was our biggest competitor when we launched.  So, just by focusing on one thing and what customers had told us, we were right out of the box able to save them a lot of time and they were very interested in what we were able to provide right when we launched.
 
Andy:  00:04:39  Right, and because it's not even so much of a question of product market fit at that point.  It's really like, "If we can solve this, we have a product that will solve the market's problem."  But knowing that going into it, what were you concerned would be some of the challenges for really getting things off the ground?
 
Mark:  00:04:57  Oh, I think most of the typical things that when you're just getting started — I mean, to your point, we had a really good feeling that we were going to have product market fit right away, just because we were building exactly what people told us to build right?  
 
00:05:02 We didn't make the mistake of guessing and then going in and investing a bunch of time and building something and then figuring out, "Oh boy, we built totally the wrong thing."  So we felt very confident about that.  There's always that sort of trepidation around, "Ok, are people actually going to pay for this?  They've told us they're going to pay for this?"  They gave us some indication around what they're willing to pay, so we built it exactly as they said, and priced it exactly as they said.  
 
Then when those first free trials ran out, there was some nervous around, "Ok, we hope this works, we hope people actually do what they said they would."  And sure enough they did.  00:05:56  So, once we were able to get through that, we knew very, very quickly we were on to something.  
 
And, the first questions become, "Ok, how are we going to be able to support more customers?  How is this going to scale from a technology standpoint?  How are we going to continue to learn about this particular business?"  The domain that we're in is fairly complicated and not something that we went to school for or were experts in at that point.  00:06:27  So those were probably the biggest challenges that we were facing right out of the box.
 
Andy:  00:06:30  And how did you end up approaching this.  When you say the domain, do you continue yourself — are you speaking more towards the e-commerce side of the business?  Are you just speaking to general e-commerce owners?  Are you really niching down, whereas the marketing and all that is surrounding specifically tax law and that sort of thing?
 
Mark:  00:06:48  Yeah, I'm thinking more about tax law.  I'm thinking, "Ok, we feel like we understand the customer pretty well, we understand the pain point, but how do we understand what the right thing to do is in Texas versus California versus Idaho."  At that point, I was living in California and had some exposure to the California Sales Tax, and had only ever lived in Massachusetts, so had some exposure there, but how do we as a company get smart on 45 states that have sales tax laws, and they're all different.  I mean, they might as well be 45 different countries.  
 
00:07:24  So, we have to build an internal knowledge base here that makes us experts.  Because without that, we can't build the level of trust that we need to build this business.  Tax — anything tax related, finance related, requires a massive amount of trust for folks to actually put their credit card in and start paying you for the product.
 
Andy:  00:07:49  Right.  And it's because it's something — I mean, I've talked to so many — not everyone you'd consider a traditional startup, but just so many small business owners and they have had so many horror stories about sales tax, or any other types of taxes.  It's like if they don't get it right, their livelihood really is at stake.  And so there is that huge element of trust.  And there is a lot of risk on that part.  00:08:10  And so other than making sure on your side internally you had things down, how are you communicating to the customers and to the potential customers to show them that they really could trust you guys?
 
Mark:  00:08:23  [To Be Edited]  Yeah, great question.  So we actually, this is one of the things that we liked about this opportunity when we were sizing it up.  The amount of content and really helpful — well, let me back up, let me start again.  
 
00:08:37  So this is one of the things that we really liked about this opportunity when we were sizing it up.  We noticed that the amount of content that was out there for our target customer was not that strong.  And the content that did exist was written by lawyers or folks that worked for the state.  
 
00:09:01  And it's written in legalese by tax experts.  So we looked at this and said, "Actually, we know how to do this really well.  This has worked in prior business.  We know how to build content that people are going to find to be super valuable."  
 
And thankfully, like I said, we had done that before and we just applied lessons that we had learned in the past, from the past, and went out and started building that content.  And right away, from a search perspective, we were able to get to the top of search because we weren't really competing with anybody.  
 
And to get to your question, we were able to build a level of trust, because people right away came back to us and said, "Hey, this is content that I've been looking for forever.  I love what you guys are saying, and most of all, you're saying in a language that I can understand.  So you've got my attention, I'm interested now.  I want to talk to you more, and what you're saying is making sense to me.  I am finally getting in my head a picture of how I can actually become compliant."  00:10:08  So that was certainly one of the big keys from the get-go, and continues to be for us today.
 
Andy:  00:10:14  And then, where is TaxJar today?  Roughly how large is the company?
 
Mark:  00:10:19  From which perspective?
 
Andy:  00:10:22  You don't need to get into revenues or anything like that.
 
Mark:  00:10:26  Sure, yeah.  So, we've got — we're closing in on 9,000 paying customers as we record this, and we've done that, in like I said before, almost four years.  What else can I tell ya?
 
Andy:  00:10:43  Yeah, I mean that's one of the things — looking at the number of customers and the size of your team that you've built.  I know — did you have a friends and family round?  What was it — you had some funding early on right?
 
Mark:  00:10:56  We did.  So, we did an angel round fairly quickly.  Within six months of "launching" the product.  And those were with, you know, sort of professional angels.  Some folks we did know who had invested in prior businesses in the past of somebody on the team.  Others were people just made intros because they liked what we were doing.  
 
00:11:25  But yeah, we raised that money early on.  That allowed us to bring in our first full-time paid developer.  And kind of grew from there.  And then raised a BC backed round 00:11:38 [To Be Confirmed] probably about 18 months later.  And that's going on — that's almost two and a half years ago.  00:11:44  That's been it for us so far.
 
Andy:  00:11:47  And, 'cause I know you are, 00:11:50 [Inaudible] said that you are a profitable company, and so do you — obviously things can change as well, but do you see that as kind of being the last funding that you will need unless things change dramatically?  Or what is your view on funding going forward?
 
Mark:  00:12:01  So, the view on funding is that we want to be in control of our own destiny.  So, not to say that funding always gets in the way of that, but we want to be very smart around who we partner with, from a fund-raising perspective.  
 
We've been super lucky that the folks we've teamed up with so far have been phenomenal.  00:12:26  Super supportive, have taken the perspective more of, "How do we help?" Versus, "Hey I think you guys should really be doing x,y,z."  
 
We feel like, and this is not an ego thing, we feel like we understand this business very well, we understand the customer very well, we have a pretty strong and clear vision of where we need to take this, and we're looking for folks that want to support us in doing that.  
 
00:12:53  Being a profitable company was very, very important to us from the get-go, because we did not want to get into a cycle where we had to raise money out of necessity to keep the company going.  So we were capital efficient and tried to be as capital efficient as we could be from day one.  Because there's a lot of benefits that come with that.  
 
00:13:19  So, in terms of where do we go in the future, we're always looking to develop relationships with folks that could be strategic partners with us.  With that comes the potential to raise more money.  Thankfully, we've gotten a lot of interest just because of what we've been able to do in a short amount of time.  
 
But again, we've got a very sort of clear idea of who that partner is going to be.  We're not interested in playing the game of round after round, after round after round that dilutes equity from our employees.  All of our employees get equity.  And just raising to sort of raise the bar on how much we're supposed to be spending.  
 
00:14:07  We want to be smart and strategic about it so that we can be really efficient and maintain a lot of the advantages we have as a company at being capital efficient and having a very low cost structure.
 
Andy:  00:14:21  Right.  It's something where it's a refreshing take to hear, because I've talked to a lot of boot strappers who abhor the idea of ever raising any money, because of all the horror stories they have heard.  And I hear people on the other side of it, who raise those big rounds and they're constantly — the CEO's job is to go raise more money constantly.  And I like the middle ground you took.  
 
And it's clear you were deliberate about that, because while you're open to the idea of continuing to raise money in the future, you don't have to.  So that gives you the freedom to really make sure that you are choosing the right ultimate party and for the rest of your team.  
 
00:15:00  One thing that we had talked about a little before the call, was just about how hard it was to really stay focused.  And just ultimately decide which way, which path your company was going to follow.  Can you speak to that a little bit?  About the early days of growing and keeping the focus, and when you first realized that was something you needed to pay attention to.
 
Mark:  00:15:20  Sure.  So fortunately, this was all based out of opportunity.  So, you know, we had an idea of what the opportunity for this business long-term would be when we started.  And it turns out we were 1000% wrong.  
 
00:15:37  We had it in the back of our heads how big this business could be eventually, and we were totally off.  And we found that out fairly quickly when we started to get calls from some of the entrenched players in the space, who we kind of looked at and said, "Well, we'll just assume that they are doing things really well, and we are going to disrupt where they don't have a competitive product.
 
Andy:  00:16:05  So was your thinking — not to interrupt — but was your thinking that there wasn't as much opportunity on the enterprise or the larger player's side of the market?
 
Mark:  00:16:14  Correct.  Yeah, we looked at that and said, "There are companies that have been around.  They're great, great companies that have been around for more than a decade, so there's plenty of business going around, we don't really even have to ever come face to face with those guys, we'll take everything else that they're not touching currently."  
 
00:16:35  That's what we thought at the beginning anyway.  So, there was — to get back to sort of the question around focus, it was an easy temptation to do a lot of things at once that would perhaps attract customers who were on that sort of "enterprise level".  
 
00:17:01 But what we decided early on is that look, we were on a good path, we were not going to take on more technical debt than we were able to handle, and we were just going to let things play out the way they're supposed to play out.  
 
And, you know, looking back that required a lot of patience, especially on my part.  Traditionally, I've been someone who is super impatient.  Like probably every founder out there.  I like fast paced, I want things to be turned out quickly, and one of the things I've learned is when you have the right team, and you have the right amount of focus, that things are just going to work out the way they're supposed to work out.  
 
00:17:51  And you do what you can and opportunity has its way of coming back.  So, one quick story I'll share with you is that early one when we had customers coming to us, we never expected to get, we were very honest with them and said, "Look, you know what, we probably can't even support you right now.  You'd probably blow up the software at this point."  
 
But they appreciated that.  It was hard for us to have those conversations.  They said, "Hey, that's great.  We like what you guys are doing, let us know when you're ready, because we'll still be ready."  00:18:27  And sure enough, when we called them and said, "You know, we can support the sort of features or volume that you requested early on" they came back.  They were true to their word and they became customers of ours.  
 
00:18:40  That too, provided us some assurance that we can stay focused.  I'm a big believer in trying to remain good at one thing instead of master of 50 things, or being pretty good at 50 things.  I think you have to figure out what's that one thing you're going to do really, really well.  
 
Once you get to that point, then you can figure out if maybe you can add a second thing, but most of us don't even get there, because there is so much that can be done to get as close to perfect as possible with that one thing.
 
Andy:  00:19:14  And now, I want to dive into that a little bit, because it's clear that at this point, you've gone back to some of those bigger customers that you didn't necessarily straight up turn away.  For some of them you did, but you've gone back to some of those customers because you're able to handle them.  So, at what point were you able to say, "Ok we've got this down enough that now we can be looking at thing number two.  That now we can start broadening our focus a little bit."
 
Mark:  00:19:40  Sure.  So, I mean some of it was as simple as they requested a feature that we just couldn't support at that point.  Or it was a use-case that we couldn't support.  Or even think about supporting.  
 
So, eventually we prioritized it, because we had had enough feedback that that was a use-case or feature that we had to take on.  00:20:03  So that was a little bit more simple.  Some of it was, again from a scaling and infrastructure perspective, when we looked at the amount of transactions that they would be adding to our system on a daily basis, we were a little bit nervous and thought, "This is probably not a good idea.  We've got…" — whatever we had at the time, you know a few hundred customers, a thousand customers, we're not going to jeopardize that.  
 
So when we felt comfortable we had made the proper investments in our infrastructure, "Ok it's go time now.  We feel very confident, we've done the math, we've done some testing" — that we can bring in that larger customer and you know, sure enough it worked out well, because again, we had done the homework to make sure that we were making a smart decision to bring them in.
 
Andy:  00:20:52  And that makes sense to me, and one of the things that brings up is that, just generally prioritizing what you're working on.  Because at any early stage startup, there are a thousand feature requests, there are a thousand things that you could be doing, that your team could be doing at any given time.  
 
00:21:10  And so part of it is obviously understanding who you're trying to serve right now.  Like, how the core of your customer base is, and how well are you serving them.  But a lot of it too, is kind of a bit more wishy-washy than that.  
 
And so how did you personally think about prioritizing some of those features in the backlog, in the roadmap to make sure that you didn't lose focus almost accidentally.  Because it really can be easy to go down the rabbit hole of, "Oh ok, this will just be a quick fix" and then weeks down the road you've wasted a lot of time on something that ultimately doesn't matter.
 
Mark:  00:21:45  Yup.  So, not saying we're perfect at this by any means.  I think we've been better than good though on it.  This is, for sure, an easy place to get trapped.  I would say that, honestly this might sound cliche, but we really listened hard to customers.  
 
So, you know, if somebody brought up a particular use-case or feature that we had never heard of, we spent a lot of time with them to make sure we fully understood what it was exactly that they needed, and why they needed it.  Like, "How does this save you time?  How does this make your experience with TaxJar better?"  
 
And by doing that we closed a lot of the common gaps that, you know, may go uncovered when you try to jump into a new feature that you don't really fully understand.  Right?  00:22:37  So, it allowed our product team and our development team to spend time thinking, "Ok if we're going to take this on, what exactly is involved?  Let's really work hard to speck this out as best we can, come up with an estimate of how long it's going to take us.  Figure out how important it is to the business."  So like, "What are we going to get out of this?"  Right?  Is this going to make one guy happy, or — not that there's anything wrong with that — but, or is this going to lead to more customers.  
 
I mean, financially what does this mean to the business.  00:23:08  So, kind of a pain.  It's kind of a long way to go through it, but it's paid off for us.  Otherwise, I think we are just throwing darts and hoping we get lucky.  
 
00:23:25  One other thing I'll add, is we pay attention to volume of requests too.  Right?  So every request that comes in, we log, we have a Trello board, and look it's much easier to tell when a request has come in 97 times versus one that's come in once.  We're going to probably spend a lot of time that's gotten the 97 — if it even gets that far, and really dig into what the value is to the customer and to us to make a decision to ultimately pursue that.
 
Andy:  00:23:57  And I think a lot of what you just said is something that so many startups don't take to heart because they get trapped in that thinking of, "Listen to your customers.  Listen to your customers", so when the customers say they want something, they go out and build it because it was asked for.  00:24:14  
 
But the customer isn't a product expert, they don't know all the options that are possible.  They just kind of know, alright, what they ultimately need.  And this is how they think it could get done.  And it's something where you dig into the 'why' with them, and when you really understand, "Ok, I get what you're asking for, but what are you ultimately trying to do" that lets you come up with solutions that are better than I could have imagined, and I feel like if you can consistently follow that thought process, you're also less likely to end up with the really bloated, hard to use tools that happen so often after a company has had some success and has been going on for years.  
 
00:24:55  And so what I'm curious about is, do you have a deliberate process for talking with customers?  Is it just simply something when they reach out to support, you might send up a follow-up email?  How are you approaching that to keep that communication channel open?
 
Mark:  00:25:09  So, one of the things we do, is we have a company-wide policy that everybody has to handle some level of customer success tickets each month.  Everybody on the team spends two hours a month, basically at our general success queue.  So that's tickets and phone calls.  And that's myself included.  Everybody on the entire team.  
 
I'm a huge believer that everybody has to have constant exposure to the customer.  That's pretty much the way that we do it.  Fortunately, we've also hired a lot of folks that are just not afraid to call a customer if they have a question if they're going through a Trello card that has a feature request.  They're not afraid to hop on a phone and say, "Let's talk about this.  Let's share screens.  I've got an idea of how I might be able to solve this, give me your feedback on it."  
 
00:26:06  Our product team is amazing at doing stuff like that.  So, I would say that's probably the biggest way.  With keeping in mind we've been able to differentiate, believe it or not, by how we treat customers.  So, we do have some internal notes and philosophies around how to talk to customers, both on email and the phone.  How to think about those from a strategic standpoint.  
 
So that all flows through whether you're handling a customer who has questions, somebody who is confused about the product, somebody who might be upset about something, to the types of calls that we're talking about, where it's, "Hey look, we're thinking about building this, let's dig in a little bit deeper on this and let's compare notes and figure out if we're on the right track before we get started writing any code."  
 
Andy:  00:27:02  And one thing you mentioned, was that people on your team, almost no matter what position they're in, are comfortable jumping on the phone, or at least reaching out to the customers to really dig in to this issue.  And is anyone out there who's done some hiring has experiences that you don't just automatically end up with those people by magic.  You need to kind of be deliberate about the hiring process.  
 
And so, we don't have time to necessarily dive deep into your hiring process, but what I am curious about is how do you just generally make sure that when you're bringing people on, that they are a good fit.  That they do embody this customer focused culture you've developed.
 
Mark:  00:27:40  Yeah, great question.  So I'd like to think that we are, sort of, fanatical about the types of people that we hire, and at this point where we are, even though we're not very old as a company, we have learned a lot about hiring.  
 
And we've leaned a lot about the type of person that fits in with the environment that we've built.  So, we do things like we have a scorecard that we use for every interview that we're on, that has categories.  We're looking for certain categories, certain traits, certain keys in those interviews and we take that very seriously.  I mean, we are looking — we're also very disciplined around, about looking at this person checks all those boxes or they don't.  
 
And if they — if we really like the person and they check four out of five, that's probably not good enough.  We're going to hold out, we're going to be patient, until we get somebody that checks all five.  00:28:44  The other thing that we do, is we make sure — we make it a requirement actually, that every single person that we're going to hire first spend time with us as a contractor.  
 
So we have what's called a mutual trial period, where they spend somewhere between two to four weeks with us, where they get to assess do they like the team, do they like what we're doing, and we get to assess exactly what you're talking about, which is how do they fit in with the team, do they have the types of traits and personalities that we think are important to excelling in this environment, and also, can they do the work.  Right?  00:29:17  They talked a good game, we like their background, but we've thrown them some work now and are they the type of person that is going to be able to be productive for us?
 
Andy:  00:29:30  Hearing you lay out the process that you follow with all this, it's clear just how much thought you've put into it and how deliberate you've been.  So the last thing I just want to ask is, did that come naturally to you?  Are you naturally this process oriented person, or is this something you learned along the way?
 
Mark:  00:29:45  Ahh, that's a good question.  Let me think about this before I answer it.  So, that's a good question, I do like having processes in place.  That being said, we've done everything we can to not turn TaxJar into this corporate environment where there is a process where you have to follow for every single thing you do.  The idea of that kind of makes me cringe just thinking about it.  
 
But we've just learned.  We've been attentive to the mistakes that we've made, and we learn and adjust very quickly.  00:30:30  So this is the process that we have now is something that we did not have right when we were hiring our first, second, third, fourth person.  
 
It's just something that has evolved over the last, almost four years now.  And it really works for us now.  I'm sure it will have to be tweaked again in the future.  But I'm the kind of person that thinks, "Hey when something's working, I'm not going to mess with it.  Let's double down on it.  Let's stay disciplined, there's no reason to question it.  It's yielding great candidates for us and unbelievable team members."  So we'll just keep following the script.
 
Andy:  00:31:06  So to tie it all together, what advice would you have for founders who, they're running a growing SaaS company, but they feel like they're kind of being — they're at that point where they're really being pulled in a hundred different directions, and just having a hard time figuring out what those priorities ultimately are, or should be for them.  How — what can they do to at least start being a little more focused and have a better approach to how they prioritize their tasks?
 
Mark:  00:31:32  Sure.  First thing is never lose touch with the customer.  I think by talking to customers, if you can do it daily, great, but you've got to be doing it weekly.  You're constantly reminded of the things that you're doing well and the things that got you to where you are.  00:31:48  
 
So, you know, you'll be reminded of, "Hey we can't ever lose focus on this core product that we deliver.  This is the one that is making everybody happy."  And you could be thinking, "Jeez, maybe we don't even need to do more than that.  Maybe everything else is a distraction."  
 
Or you'll hear things, you'll hear common threads that say, "Ok, we need to now be able to support this use-case that I am hearing in almost every conversation."  So, let them drive.  Let them dictate what the roadmap looks like.  
 
And honestly, for us, we've been super lucky.  Our roadmap is crystal clear.  There is literally almost no debate about how we're supposed to be spending our time for the next, probably 12 months from now.  Because the customer has really laid it out nicely for us.  
 
And, I would say if you start there, the other big thing 00:32:48 that I would say is, you've got to have people on your team — if you're the founder, you've got to have people on the team that challenge you and don't just agree to everything that you say.  00:33:01  If you surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and are experienced, probably more experienced than you, they'll bring different perspectives to the table that you need to hear.  
 
You may not have to take their advice, or go in their direction, but it is very unhealthy to put yourself in a situation where you're always — you think you're always right, you think you always have the best ideas.  You need to be constantly challenged and open to different ways of looking at things.
 
Andy:  00:33:29  I mean it seems like a lot of what you're saying is that you need to always be learning.  And whether it's from the customers, whether it's from the team, some people would say that's obvious, but what I like that you went into more though, is that so many companies don't set themselves up in a way that encourages that.  
 
They don't make it part of their process to constantly get feedback from their customers to constantly interact with them.  And they don't make it a priority to really hire people who will keep them in check a bit and give some different feedback.  
 
So the way you tied that all together makes a ton of sense to me and I really appreciate that perspective.  But before we wrap up, I like to ask all of my guests a few rapid-fire questions.  So I'm going to go through them pretty quickly, but your answers don't need to be short.  00:34:13  And the first on is just, what do you currently spend too much time doing?
 
Mark:  00:34:18  Ahhhh.  Probably — I probably spend way too much time on my own company's back-end and administrative problems.  So, too much time on things like, I don't know, things related to accounting, you know, stuff that easily could be eliminated.  
 
I've challenged myself to bring in help to try to solve all of those things so I can focus more on really what I should be doing.  But, I haven't gotten there yet.
 
Andy:  00:34:51  What do you wish that you were able to spend more time on?
 
Mark:  00:34:56  That's a good question.  One of my goals for the year is to spend more time on relationship building, and two reasons:  One is just for personal reasons.  I don't think I've ever been good at that.  
 
And two, I think it's really important to know everybody in your space, from competitors to partner companies, to up and coming companies, to potentially investors.  So, I made that one of my goals when 2017 started.  I've enjoyed it, it's been really valuable, and I do see a need for me to do even more of it.  That probably would be an area where I would be focused even more if I had the time.
 
Andy:  00:35:46  And then on the company side of things, what are the top priorities going forward for TaxJar?
 
Mark:  00:35:51  So I try to keep things really simple here.  Honestly, we are doubling down on what's working, and trying to stay as focused as we can to stay on the roadmap.  So, I probably sound like Captain Obvious and using all kinds of horrible cliches, but like I said before, honestly for us, the future has been very well laid out and our biggest challenge is trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves and we've got to accomplish what our customers have challenged us to do.  And if we do that, we're going to be in a really good spot.
 
Andy:  00:36:30  And so usually I follow up by just asking what's the biggest obstacle to achieving that, but I think you had a good point about the cliches.  And from my perspective, most cliches are cliches because they're true, or at least have some element of truth.  
 
And so you have that plan, and it seems like what you're saying is that the obstacle that could get in the way of you reaching your goals, is just not consistently executing on what those goals are and how you've laid them out.  Is that fair to say?
 
Mark:  00:36:56  Yeah, that's really well said.  So, you know, not executing is probably our biggest enemy at this point.  We've got to stay heads down and do what we have laid out as our goals and our roadmap and you know, looking anywhere else would be a disservice to where we're headed and to our customers as well.
 
Andy:  00:37:20  Mark, honestly you've shared a ton with us today.  So I want to say, first thank you so much for your time and for sharing everything that we talked about today.  This was a really interesting interview for me.  
 
But if listeners also were interested by this, which I'm hoping they are, and I'm assuming they are, where should they go if they want to hear more from you, or just see what you're up to at TaxJar?
 
Mark:  00:37:43  Sure, I'm on Twitter @TaxJarMark.  I won't profess to be the most prolific person on Twitter.  I'm more listening than I am talking there.  I'm also on our blog: Blog@TaxJar.com.  
 
And I'm also at Life.TaxJar.com.  We started a blog, probably about six or eight months ago, where we talk about our culture, what it's like to work at TaxJar, some of the really pivotal stories and experiences that we've had that have led us to where we are today.  And I spend — try to spend a lot of time there sharing with folks the lessons that we've learned there.
 
Andy:  Awesome.  So I'll make sure to get all of that linked up in the show notes, and again, Mark thank you so much for time, it was a lot of fun chatting today.