In our sixth episode of How I Work, Josh sits down with Rasa Hasan, President and CEO of Timesolv Corporation. You’ll learn about how Timesolv came to be and how it’s grown into a company with clients in 30+ countries. Raza will share some of the pivotal moments along the way, including building an entirely virtual company with employees all over the world. Watch this video for tips on growing a sustainable Software As A Service (SaaS) company.
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Josh Becerra: Hi, this is Josh Becerra from Augurian. I’m here with Raza Hasan, the president and CEO of TimeSolv Corporation. Thanks for being here today, Raza.
Raza Hasan: Great to see you again, Josh. I love your new look.
Josh: [chuckles] I got the COVID beard going. Let me tell our viewers a little bit about you, Raza. You, I said, are presidency of TimeSolv Corporation. You’re an Iowa State Cyclone. my brother went to Iowa State.
Raza: Oh, great.
Josh: You did a bachelor of science in aerospace engineering, and then a master’s in electrical engineering, but then you shifted to MBA in strategic management and marketing from the U of M. I think that those are some really cool interesting combination of skills that you bring. TimeSolv, for those of you who don’t know, is a time and expense tracking and billing software.
It’s primarily used by lawyers and law firms, but I know that it’s available, and a lot of people use it for expense tracking and billing in other professions as well. What I think is great and admirable about what you’ve done, Raza, is this SaaS billing solution. You’ve been working on it since 1999. That was like before we talked about SaaS. It’s amazing that you’ve been doing this.
Raza: Thanks. Sorry to just to interject, TimeSolv started by Thomson Reuters or one of their divisions about that time frame, but I didn’t become part of it until 2006.
Josh: Got it. Cool. You have clients now in like 30 plus countries as well, right?
Raza: Yes, that is correct.
Josh: That’s cool.
Raza: Thank you.
Josh: One of the funniest stories I have about my relationship with Raza is how we met. I’m sure you remember this. We were standing in line, we were at a conference where the bathroom to the men’s was like a mile long, and there were very few women at the conference. There weren’t very many, and we were joking about, “Maybe we could just skip into the women’s.” We almost decided to pull the trigger on that, and then a woman walked out of the ladies’ room and we’re like, “No, let’s not do that.”
Raza: [laughs] Yes, we were the two rebels there.
Josh: That was good fun. We’ve kept in touch ever since and had some coffee, and I’ve been following TimeSolv. Prior to that, you were a product manager at a number of different companies. Can you talk a little bit then about the inspiration for TimeSolv, how you came on board In 2006, or relationship with Thomson Reuters?
Raza: I’ll give you a little bit more history. Growing up, I thought I was going to be just a hardcore engineer. Later on, after I did my master’s and I started to work, it seemed like people just would not pay attention to anything I would suggest. They’d say, “Oh, you’re an engineer. You don’t know this finance marketing.” I said, “Okay, I got to close that gap so people can listen to me.”
That not getting attention and push back to my queue, I said, “I’m going to go through the MBA program at the U here,” which turned out to be a big positive thing for my life because, during the MBA program, I finished in 1998. I learned about the internet. When I learned about the internet, I said, “Wow, this is going to change the life of everybody. I’m just going to not do what I was doing.” I used to develop software for flight simulators.
Then, I used to do planning for Northwest Airlines in terms of hiring pilots and forecasting, things like that. When I learned about the internet, I said, “This is going to change the world, and I don’t want to do anything else. This is where I’m going to bet my life.” That’s where I switched into this product marketing, product management jobs. Luckily, some of these were consulting positions. Some of them laid us off or either they didn’t like me or I didn’t like them.
I kept moving around and I learned a lot of things because of that. Then, finally, I was at Thomson Reuters, and TimeSolv was one of their products. They were trying to figure out if it should be moved from– it was originally from LA area to here in Eagan, Minnesota. My job was to figure out if this is a good opportunity or what to do with it. I saw an opportunity at that point that internet is going to be the dominant application platform. Thomson was not clear on the future of it at that point.
Maybe I shouldn’t use the word Thomson, maybe just a few people I was dealing with because I think about the company, they understand that. I was lucky enough that they didn’t want to do it and I had to quit my job, and then basically just make a deal with Thomson, which was in my looking back, still, it gives me goosebumps to imagine that me as an ordinary employee with very limited resources was going to make a deal at Thomson Reuters, but we were successful in making that deal and it turned out to be a great deal for us.
Josh: That’s outstanding. In those early years then, how did you know that this was actually going to work?
Raza: Being in product management and product marketing, I knew there was a potential in this from just the ability to access information from different locations versus having everything on your computer and only restricted to working from the office. With that mindset, again, one of the things I believe in is that product, you cannot look at it from an ROI perspective only. You cannot say, “What’s the payback period?” That’s how the big company mentality is. Also, that’s why Thomson didn’t want to pursue this because initially, it didn’t look like a great deal.
Josh: It wasn’t big enough.
Raza: It wasn’t big enough. Again, we put the typical metrics of ROI and payback period and IRR over a few years, these things cannot be used to justify products. Most big companies, and this is the mindset, I believe, that to take a product to market requires a passion and a belief. I believe this is what I consider marked beyond numbers because numbers to me is a very simplistic way of looking at anything.
I show you the numbers, you’re going to come to the same conclusion as I would come to the conclusion, but to me, the people I consider having a little bit of extra smart is to see beyond the numbers because if you talk about numbers, everybody’s going to see the same picture. This is where I believed in it. I felt that this is the direction of where the world is going. That was the reason behind it that we bet our life and our life savings into making this deal.
Going back to your question, how did it happen in the start, how did we feel about it, and when did we see that it was going to work out? Again, with like any business, there were a lot of challenges initially. We had this product which is built on obsolete components. The servers were almost dying. This product was a stepchild of Thomson. The people who were initially part of it had left the company, and this was just nobody was taking care of it. There were a lot of challenges there.
Josh: I do think that you hit on something really important, and that is that all of the– not all, but the vast majority of innovation that we’re seeing is not coming from really, really big companies. It’s coming from small companies and teams that have that belief in their product and they don’t need to see like that ROI right away before making that investment. This is obviously a case like that where very early on in the days of the internet, you had the opportunity to be involved and get involved and obviously pursued your passion.
That bet that you placed with your life savings, it seemingly has paid off. Were there any pivotal moments? Obviously, you’ve mentioned being able to even sign that deal with Thomson Reuters, that was a pivotal moment. Were there other pivotal moments or decision points as you look back that you think made a difference today?
Raza: Yes, there were multiple ones, so I’ll walk you through each one of them. First of all, I started out with I knew that I would need at least some level of team. I had been away from hands-on technical work, so I needed at least some support on technology side. Again, I always believe in team effort where you have people with additional thoughts and to bring–
Josh: Complementary skills.
Raza: Yes, complementary skills. One of the things that– I have this fear of not knowing if I’m doing something wrong. I always prefer that somebody is telling me that, “Hey, you’re wrong.” I had put together a small team of couple other guys I knew, but then we were having partner troubles. One of the first people who told the steps was to get that straightened out, so we had to basically make a deal with one of the partners and buy them out. That was the first pivotal positive thing we did because prior to that, we were just a bit dysfunctional because my two partners just weren’t getting along.
Josh: Partnerships are hard. People sometimes, when there isn’t the right alignment, it makes it difficult. Sorting that out, I could see where that would be super helpful.
Raza: That’s, again, for other entrepreneurs, I would say. Again, some decision has to be made that you go forward with that decision and not sit back dealing with it because life is short and it’s going to drag things down and hold you back from succeeding. That was the first pivotal point. The second thing we knew is that the product we had was weak and built on obsolete components. I wanted to make sure that we use the latest and the greatest technology.
In that pursuit, we found this platform called OutSystems which is considered the number one platform on Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for developing new web applications. Not only it does web applications, it also does native iOS and Android applications that are integrated into that web application. We switched over to that. This was also a very big decision because it’s a very expensive product. For us as a small company, we weren’t going to be able to afford it.
I made a special deal with them which was based on revenue share versus their straight licensing price. Just to give you some more insight into it, they said, “We can give you a better price because we’re selling to the US government and we’re not allowed to give you a better price.” I said, “They are the end-users. We are not the end-users. We are resellers of your product. Put us into a separate category of users where we are resellers and give us a better deal which is based on revenue share versus the licensing cost.” They created this separate program. I guess it was a good deal for that time when we were smaller because it is based on revenue share. It’s not as good a deal now.
Josh: How long ago was that?
Raza: That was about, I would say, close to 9, 10 years ago that we’ve started with them, but that was, again, a big pivotal moment. Again, I wanted something that’s going to help us compete with our competitors, so that was a big thing. Then, the third thing we did which is the pivotal moment was that we put together an advisory board with four people. We know we picked people from different areas.
The technology person, investment banker, a marketing person, and a lawyer. We had covered all of these areas that we deal with. That also helped us really grow faster and spend money on sales marketing. Those were the three things that helped us become where we are, have now a good success.
Josh: It’s great. Anybody who has a software as a service company and is either smaller or medium size and looking to grow, there are some great nuggets of advice in there about the advisory board, about being creative around your partnerships and how you can compete in ways that ensure that you are still providing top-notch quality product even if it is because you’ve developed a special rev-shared relationship with a really key partner.
One of the other things that is cool about your company is that you are 100% virtual. You have people here in the US, but you also have people overseas. There’s a lot of companies that have tried and failed at this. What do you think has helped you at TimeSolv make this like a viable long-term solution?
Raza: All right. Again, this is another thing I had been a believer in from day one that with the internet, sorry to tell people this, but I personally feel that going to work is an obsolete concept now.
Josh: Now more than ever with COVID.
Raza: Yes, and that COVID has proven that. A lot of people used to question the way we used to do this. They would say, “Oh, your people aren’t working.” Somebody made a comment, “Oh, the guys must be messing around during the day in the garage while they’re supposed to be working.” To me, working at an office is less productive. The reason I say that is every meeting in an office is at least an hour long. Then, there are more people invited to those meetings than necessary.
Let’s say if you have a meeting with 10 people, by the time these people show up and sit down and the conversation starts, it’s another 5, 10 minutes have gone by. People are chatting about their life, the kids, sports, and everything. There’s a lot of social activity that happens. I’m not against that, but if it’s not necessary, then I would prefer to avoid it. The second thing is there is a lot of uninvited interaction that somebody is going to come over to another person and say, “Hey, how is it going?” and start chatting about it.
It becomes more of a social club, which is okay, I’m not opposed to that, but sometimes, even when I was working, if I had to do something serious, I would work from home because then, I could really focus 100% and not be distracted. Another thing which I find weird is that when you’re around people, there’s nothing wrong with it, but I believe you have this feeling that other people are watching you.
You got to dress nicely and just watch for what you’re doing. While you’re at home, I believe this is the place you’re going to be most comfortable because you can adjust things however you feel like. I have an office in the basement. I love it. I have a nice view of the Lake back here, but I still have an electric blanket if in the wintertime when they come here, sometimes, typically the temperature is 63 degrees.
If I want to make myself warm, I have an electric blanket. If somebody does that at work, people would laugh at you like, “Oh, you have a stupid electric blanket?” A lot of people are cold at work because maybe they’re sitting at an event or something. There are a lot of benefits of working from home. The other part is the waste of time to go back and forth. It’s just a mental thing that, “Oh, now I have to go to work. I get up.” People spend time.
Raza: Commuting and getting ready. It’s a mental thing. “Oh, I’m going to work. I got to read the paper before I go to work. I got to have a breakfast and all that.” I don’t have to worry about it, just get ready and get going.
Josh: It’s great. What I think is probably the biggest learning for me is like you set this out from the beginning, like you made this decision from the beginning. At Augurian, we really pride ourselves on our culture and our office culture, and we do try to restrict like we try to make meetings very specific and goal-oriented, so there isn’t a lot of time being wasted, but we like the interpersonal part of our culture.
That’s what we set out to do from the beginning, whereas you made the decision to not do that. That decision is probably what has allowed you to attract the type of people that prefer that type of work. Being very explicit about it right up front has probably helped us sustain being long term and be successful.
Raza: The other question you had is how did we make it successful. Initially, again, we’re used to specific part process. We thought, “We are in Minnesota. We get to hire people in Minnesota.” We were hiring people locally here in Twin Cities. Then, after a few years, we had some turnover because Twin Cities’ job market is good and people have other opportunities. Then, we thought, “Why are we hiring locally? We don’t care. Everybody’s working from home.”
Now, we hire people from within the US from states that have fewer opportunities, prefer to hire people in smaller towns that really value working from home for us because they don’t want to commute to some bigger city that is 50 miles away. I would rather hire somebody who lives in like Redwing, Minnesota than Twin Cities, Minnesota. It opens up the market. We can hire people from any place in the world.
We don’t have to pay the top-notch salaries somebody is paying in the Silicon Valley, things like that. That’s in the US, the benefit. In the outside of the US, initially, again, the mindset was that typically, if you’re looking for offshore resources, people work with the bigger company there and they provide resources. The challenge with that is you don’t control and interact directly with the people who are doing the work.
There is still a lot of turnover, and you have no control over their turnover because that firm that you’re dealing with decides on if these people should be kept or not. What we changed our model is that we hire people directly. They have to work our hours, they have to work on our terms, and then we reward them accordingly. The other part is, any business is only as good as their team.
We are living in a knowledge economy, so you got to really leverage your people. All right. This is not McDonald’s that everything is predefined. I strongly believe in taking care of our people. I believe that is the only way to be successful. If our people need something, just to give you some weird examples, we have given loans to people offshore who we have never met because they were going to build a house and they were short on money, or somebody wanted to put a down payment on a piece of land.
This was unheard of, a US-based company giving a loan to somebody outside who they have never met. These people, they can run away with that money if they wanted to, but I use some judgment and understanding that, “Okay, this is not what this person is in business. They’re here to help us and we’re here to help them.” With that spirit, we have a phenomenal team even though we don’t meet with each other, but there is a very positive culture in our TimeSolv.
Josh: That’s outstanding. That is a cool way for you to make sure that you’ve got that team buy-in. I want to shift gears a little bit because I’d like to talk about marketing and sales. I’m curious about the marketing and sales activities that you’ve been doing either in the past or today that are working for you. I’m curious about, like– I know you’ve focused, at least initially, on law firms and lawyers probably because of the Thomson Reuters connection there.
I’m curious about your ideas around a niche, and if having a niche is important or not. Then, I’m also curious about 30 different countries represented in your customer base. How did that happen? Just generally, tell me about marketing, sales, international sales, being in a niche, what’s working? Let me hear it.
Raza: All right. A lot of questions, a lot of information here. I’d like to start with the niche because everything is connected to that. Thomson is a big company, and they weren’t really as focused on legal. When we took over, they had a small customer base, but it was still 50% legal and 50% everybody else. The thing is, for me, and again, this is from my education, that for a small company to be successful, you have to focus on a particular area.
I’ll share with you why. The reason is, again, for any business to be successful especially on the internet, you have to be the best in your category. Category can be whatever. You can say that your category– just to give you an example of category. One of the businesses we came across is a website company that does websites only for plastic surgeon.
Josh: I’ve seen all these types of companies.
Raza: Right. The thing is, when anyone, a buyer is going to buy something, they want to get the best product that they can afford. Even if you’re buying aspirin, your brain says, “Okay, this is the better product. This is what I want to get.” When people are buying software especially when it’s on the internet or any product, you got to make sure that you are ideally the number one player in that category so that if a customer looks at you, they say, “Okay, this is the best product in this category that I’m buying.”
The only way you can accomplish that as a smaller company, unless you’re Microsoft and you have a word processor that’s the best for everybody, but when you’re starting out with, you got to create your niche. Sometimes, it’s not there, so you have to figure out how to create it, and then work hard enough and position yourself to be the best in that category. The only way that I believe that can be done is if you focus on a particular niche.
Now, that’s one part of it. The other part is that by having a niche, you know how to market to that niche more effectively. Your marketing dollars go more deeper instead of just sprinkling across the whole world and not winning anything. That’s the other part is, “Your marketing resources as a smaller company or as a startup is always going to be limited,” so you have to say that, “I want to go deeper and have success because marketing is the most expensive thing for any smaller company.”
How we have succeeded is we have focused on legal and hired the right people. Pretty much everybody that deals with our prospects or customers has experience working at a law firm or hasn’t done something with a law firm in the past, but most people we look for are the people who worked at a law firm because we want these people to speak the language of our customers which are typically attorneys or office managers in that law firms.
That kind of what drives that success. We believe right now, we are the best in the legal billing. We can do other things, but we want to stay focused in this area because we consider ourselves the best, and we have done a lot of effort and accomplished results. Another question you had was, what’s working in the marketing world and sales word? On the marketing, one of the big successes, in the long run, is to be blessed by Google and try to be number one in your–
Josh: Yes, rankings.
Raza: Right. We are now the number one. If somebody searches for legal billing software, we’re the number one software vendor there.
Josh: That’s [crosstalk].
Raza: There are some directories ahead of us. We’re not going to be able to compete with a directory which has hundreds of vendors listed, but when it comes to vendors, we are the number one there. To me, that is a big accomplishment. It took us almost 10 years of constant effort, all the different things that have to be done. That’s one big thing that drives our marketing success.
The other things we constantly promote is the ability to have our customer reviews. The word of mouth is very important to us. Then, other things, social media which are typically everybody’s doing that. We do everything else to pay the channels and things like that, but the overall success, I believe it’s the focus and being considered the number one product in that legal billing niche.
Josh: When you started growing beyond the US, was that mostly due, do you think, to the ranking, or was there a lot word of mouth and referrals happening? How did the international customer acquisition happen?
Raza: Another thing, the benefit of a niche is even though there’s over a million lawyers in the US, but a lot of these lawyers, even from outside of the US, meet in many of these conferences. For instance, there is this ABA tech show in Chicago every year. People come, vendors and other visitors, if they can, they come here and attend those big events. They also are following similar news channels and legal education networks.
Once you penetrate one vertical, the world is becoming smaller and smaller as everybody’s connected. We have not really traced on how these other outside the US people find us.
We really don’t spend much money as of yet. We did have an effort for a short while, but it was not successful for a couple of reasons. In general, we have had success just because these people that we are dealing with have had some connections in the US, and the other part is just being on the internet and easily found that they have come to us.
Another thing is that, again, for instance, strangely, we have a big customer in Vietnam, but once you have one firm in a particular country which is, again– I mean, all these things, I consider as networks. A niche is a network of connected people, and then all these law firms are connected to other law firms. You can penetrate into some of these firms that they have other connections. We get more customers once we enter a particular market. That’s the reason that we have been successful, is focusing on the niche and spreading through those tentacles.
Josh: Anybody watching, it’s just great to hear stories about companies that start small, they grow, they’re successful, they have longevity. You’re building the company and the culture the way that you want it. Nobody is imposing this on you. Just last question would be what kind of advice you might have for someone who’s either started building a SaaS company or interested in building a SaaS company that has the longevity that you’ve been able to create? Advice.
Raza: A few things. One, you have to understand and make sure that you’re creating a culture where your team members are empowered, and they are committed and motivated. For whatever you can do, my personal desire is to share our successes with our employees. To do that, again, as many people as I could, I try to have them on a commission basis. The second thing is to have quick feedback. Most companies have an annual review.
It’s just like a drag for the person performing the review and the person receiving the review. Our goal is to we do this on a monthly basis. Just quick feedback on, “Hey, how am I doing? What can I do better?” things like that. It’s not like a big forum and five pages of information. People are just filling it out because the form is there. That’s, again, focus on building a team.
The other part is, any product is a collective thinking of an organization. What I mean by that is, if it is just the thought process of one person, the product is not going to be as good as just the thought process of 10 people working together. Create a process where you consult and involve the whole team in your product development. That’s what we do. We have a process where pretty much all these different people are involved in that product development process.
It’s not like, “Okay, I know it,” and then our director of sales doesn’t know it, marketing guy doesn’t know. These people are critical to even developing our product. Even though in other companies, they’re, “Oh, you do your marketing, you do your sales, I’ll do the product.” It doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to involve your whole team in that process. Understand that conflicts are a good thing. If we have a conflict, my philosophy is you go back and rise to a higher level to come up with a better solution so that if it’s two parties, that both parties agreed to it, versus somebody saying, “My answer is better than yours. I’m going to go with it.”
No, “My answer is not as good as what you want to see or your answers are not as good as what I want to see. Let’s come up with an answer which both of us would say, ‘This is better.'” We agree to that, go back to the drawing board and figure out a better answer that both say, “This is wonderful.” Another thing I would say is always be learning. Nourish your brain because the product is all about what you think. A couple of books I would recommend, one is Blue Ocean Strategy, which is a great book.
It’s been here for a while. One of the newer books, I follow Simon Sinek. He does a great job. One of the books is called The Infinite Game. That also helps people understand how to have a motivated team and not be just focused on small things, then have a bigger picture. Those are the things I would send. Finally, engage advisors because you need somebody else to bounce off your ideas, somebody who can tell you that you’re doing something wrong, and also, empower your employees to do the same.
I would say these are the things that are important. Again, just make sure you’re going to win where you’re going to play. Finally, another thing I would say is understand that there is no one formula that creates a winning product. It’s the passion. You got to go for it. You may win, you may all lose, but the risk and the rewards are high. If you don’t want to take risks, then don’t be in the product game, be in the services game because then, the risk is lower.
The product is going to be successful, or is it going to be a deadbeat or it’s not going to be worthwhile. Because in the internet age, and especially in the software world, only the winner wins. Then, like the Microsoft Word or Excel, or even the database days of the browsers, in the long run, only a few players are going to stay. Everybody else is going to get washed out. You got to understand, “Hey, where am I going to have that success and I’m going to be better than everybody else?”
Josh: It’s amazing advice. The thing that I keyed in on which I think is so cool is that when I asked you what your advice is about building a software as a service company, all of your answers relate back to people. You didn’t talk about tech stack, you didn’t talk about the partnership, you’ve talked about your team, you talked about your advisors, you talked about getting input.
In the end, I’m concluding, from your advice anyway, is that the people, the people are really what’s going to matter and drive that success. I really appreciate this talk. I really enjoy talking with you all the time, Raza. This has been great. We’ll be posting this up on our SaaS Scoop link, and also on our blog. Thanks again, Raza. I appreciate your time. We’ll sign off for now. Bye.
Raza: All right, Josh. It was a pleasure. Thanks. Stay safe.