As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Federspiel Of Blackthorn.
Chris Federspiel is the CEO and Co-founder of Blackthorn. He is a graduate of the George Washington University. He loves cycling and lives to make things easier, including, as he says, “I get annoyed by squeaky doors that need WD-40.” He has a simple philosophy regarding what he does — “If we can build something that’s remarkably easier to use, while delivering far more value to customers, that’s a great thing. We’ll love it, customers will love it, and we’ll all benefit.”
Blackthorn builds Salesforce-native apps that make processing payments and managing events efficient and ridiculously easy for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Solutions were created from problems solved in their own business environment and customers’ needs. Blackthorn allows customers to use the Salesforce platform to run their businesses their way, giving users full control of business processes through automation, configuration, and customization. Their unique apps fill crucial gaps and lets Salesforce users customize it to their unique needs with simple, click-based processes (no code needed). For more information, visit www.blackthorn.io.
Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My parents bought a 386 when I was 11. I was immediately hooked. This was followed by a 586 Pentium, where I changed the operating system weekly across Linux, Windows NT, and others. I was very depressed as a child as we did not yet known I had bipolar 2, and computers were a safe haven from an uncertain mind and tumultuous family life. Soon after I learned the ins and outs of hardware and software, I was building websites with Java, Perl and CGI in middle school for our local ISP’s clients.
After a few years selling copy machines, doing property management in NYC, launching a software company focused on teaching senior citizens how to use Microsoft apps, as an assistant manager at Pier 1, I moved back to my computer-roots. I started in the Salesforce ecosystem at Internet Creations, a Salesforce Systems Integrator (SI) and Independent Software Vendor (ISV) in 2011 where I gravitated towards both Salesforce administration and the personal relationship building of sales. I then moved to Silverline (another SI), which led me to co-found Plative as an SI. After seeing how hard it was to process payments on Salesforce in implementing this for my customers, I co-founded Blackthorn.io in 2015.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
When implementing payments apps from the AppExchange at Plative, it wasn’t as easy as just buying an app. It was like buying Microsoft Word and having to code how to do a spell check; it didn’t make sense. The thesis for the company was to create a payments app that would fuel Plative’s services. Jumping a few chronological events, there became this payments app, and my co-founder had this idea to layer events on top of it, where the events app would use the payments app to process checkouts and refunds.
We initially focused on payments but then built upon it with events and had many requests from nonprofits to have a donation form that we made our donations app. We didn’t get all these things right the first time. We killed four different apps before we got to where we are today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Well, I’d love it if there was a funny story to tell but when I read this, the first thing I thought of was how our Payments app initially managed automated payments. We have a setting where if you have a stored credit card, a date, and an amount, we’ll auto-charge the card on that date.
What we didn’t know is that when the number of payments to process in a single batch exceeded a threshold, the batch would run five minutes later and pick up the same record to process again. But, it was after the payment had already been processed, even though the process hadn’t finished updating the original payment. This led to customers being charged 2, 3, 4, 5 times. It only happened once we had a customer processing significant volume. After we’d help them process refunds, do a ton of VLookups of Excel data to mass update Salesforce records, the problem was it then happened again!
Ugh, all I could do was laugh. What a mess that was. I felt horrible, customers were angry and it was many, many hours staring at Excel sheets and Salesforce reports to confirm the data got updated properly.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I get annoyed quickly when I use things that should just work, ; software just happens to be one of them (good thing I found my girlfriend -, I’m not the easiest to be with!). Blackthorn.io was created to make Salesforce enterprise apps easier to use. Software shouldn’t require an expert to run it. If you’re required to read the documentation for the app, the company has failed. Imagine having to read documentation to use Instagram or Twitter. Today, we’re probably half-way there.
The second area is to enjoy who we are working with. Ray Dalio says his meaning of life is about meaningful work and meaningful relationships. If someone on our team falls outside of our values, we first work with them to see if there’s an opportunity for change, else we’ll change up the team to make sure everyone is treated with respect and has each other’s backs.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
I always wanted insight into what management was doing at my former companies but everything always occurred behind closed doors. We have a monthly all company meeting where I share everything that’s going on, including my own personal journey. Defaulting to transparency is one of our three values, along with aiming higher and being real.
With our customers, if we have an outage, we broadcast messages as quickly as we can, notifying the start and full resolution of the outage. We’re also transparent with our feature roadmap.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Well, I have a few. Google, ask for help, and don’t give up. Most of the time, I don’t know the answer, so I research what I can, ask people on the team to help me, making sure I’m hiring people for my weak areas, and I never give up.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Creating a bootstrapped company is hard, cash was always against me. In August of 2018, we had $7k in the bank account with an $80k monthly outflow. To get through this, I was talking to my therapist a few times per week, exercising regularly and longer on weekends, calling friends, and remembering that if we went bankrupt, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
I wanted to give up every day, but the fears of failure, looking bad, and having to start over were stronger than the desire to give up, so I kept going.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Things today are night and day different. Instead of seven of us there are 90. Instead of no money, we actually have a cash runway! Banks are willing to give us credit. Customers want to buy our apps. It’s all different. And best of all, I’m not having suicidal thoughts anymore.
By doing all I could to keep the people at the company I loved working with, they’ve fortunately agreed to stay on, and have been the reason we are where we are today. Our early team stayed up long hours and dealt with huge headaches. Being real, transparent, and constantly aiming higher have aided in our success.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Mistakes happen but how leaders handle them really makes a difference. I have had my fair share of emotional outbursts and finger-pointing when something has gone wrong. In the end, it has only caused distrust and negative sentiment between me and my team. I have instead found that the quicker I own up to my mistakes and come forward with a plan of action for ensuring it never happens again, the better my relationships are and the more our company culture builds. Being a bipolar 2 founder, this is pertinent as perhaps my reactions are often stronger than they need to be and it was critical I found ways to best manage this.
- Hire people to do what you don’t like to do. When first starting my company, I was spread thin across roles from engineering to marketing and sales. Product and engineering work are my passion, so I hired great people to run those areas of my business, so I could focus on doing what I love. As an added benefit, my revenue team is thriving with the right leadership; they’re getting the skills development from coaching that they couldn’t get from me.
- Transparency is a two-way street, and crucial for success. As a CEO, I want my team to feel like they can share anything with me — good and bad. With open feedback and communication, I can make necessary changes to better fit the needs of employees. On the other hand, I can’t expect my team to share honest feedback if I am not reciprocating information and letting them know the behind-the-scenes of the business. I’ve had trouble getting the team to speak up though, so we’ve added many channels to do it, with a range of anonymity.
- When you talk, people listen, but sometimes it is better to listen while others talk. It’s hard for me to shut up, but when I speak, others don’t get to shine. I’ve had to force myself to leave meetings or mute myself on calls to empower others to take the reins. It’s been a challenge for me, but it has allowed our team members to grow in their roles and take ownership.
- Taking time for yourself is a sign of strength, not weakness. To bring my best self to work, I have to give myself a chance to release my anger. Exercise is a passion of mine and I try to find time for long bike rides. If I don’t, unwanted frustrations creep up and negatively influence my communication, and the business suffers.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Two people. Brendan Callum and Evan Michalski. In 2018 when the business was in dire straits with leadership (I split from my cofounders), money (we were near bankruptcy), and product focus, I was having a hard time. I was flying back and forth from NYC to SF and was pitching 7–9 investors weekly as part of the LAUNCH accelerator.
I was partly staying at Brendan’s till I got an apartment and spending some of my free time with him and his wife Karen. They listened to my sadness and complaints, saw me cry, and just listened to me. It helped to know I had people in my life that were there for me with whatever I needed.
On one night, in particular, I was in a bad way from the days’ events and state of the business, and Evan changed his plans on a whim. He met me at the Palace of Fine Arts in SF in the evening after a work dinner, and we walked laps around the lake there, with him listening to my saga. We then walked to the beach on the SF bay and did a 15-minute meditation. This really helped to bring my head away from what was happening to calm me down a smidge. He then continued to be there for me as Brendan was, listening to my rants when things were really bad.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If an organization like Kiva could do micro-loans via crypto stable coins via text message and/or via data to work on any older Android device, combined with a low basic income, it could lift people out of poverty in countries where food, water, medicine, education, and the ability to get started in a job due to funding is near-impossible.
This would remove cross-border payment issues, in-person cash delivery, traveling to bank branches while increasing: security around cash and time savings from less travel.
This would need to be coupled with increased methods of stable coin acceptance by small, local global merchants. This is easily technically accomplished via software, but harder to reach a critical mass.
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