Oct 25 2017

Scott Dorsey’s Attributes of Great SaaS Leaders

A few weeks ago I was in Atlanta for Techstars Atlanta Demo Day and the Venture Atlanta Conference. I had a great time and it’s fun to see the vibrancy of the Atlanta startup community. My brother Daniel came with me and we had dinner with our cousin Kenny, who lives in Atlanta, so we got some nice, quiet, emotionally intimate family time.

My favorite keynote at Venture Atlanta was from Scott Dorsey. While our paths have intersected for more than a decade and I knew him from a distance, I’ve gotten to know Scott pretty well over the past year. I put him in the awesome category.

If you don’t know Scott, he was the co-founder and CEO of ExactTarget (2000) – one of the original SaaS companies. ExactTarget went public in 2012 and was acquired by Salesforce.com in 2013 for $2.5 billion and became the core of the current Salesforce Marketing Cloud. He was on the Salesforce.com leadership team until he left to start High Alpha in 2015.

If you are doing something SaaS related and you don’t know or follow what Scott says, you should.

At Venture Atlanta, part of his keynote was a riff on the Attributes of Great SaaS Leaders. While the web is peppered with SaaS metrics and the state of SaaS, there’s a dearth of CEO-centric qualitative information. While Scott’s attributes could be for any leader, they are particularly relevant to SaaS CEOs given the dynamic of how high-growth SaaS companies – and great leadership teams – need to work to scale.

His five attributes, which he went deeper on individually in the keynote, reflect his personality and leadership style.

1. Start with the end in mind
2. Are always learning
3. Value team and culture above everything
4. Are both optimistic and never satisfied
5. Give back!

For those of you that are Simon Sinek fans, starting with the end in mind is analogous to starting with your Why. Are always learning is the essence of being a leader in a super high growth rapidly changing world which most SaaS companies operate in. Valuing team and culture above everything is easy to say, but extremely hard to do, especially when your VCs are pressuring you to perform at a certain financial level for rational, or irrational, reasons. Are both optimistic and never satisfied is interestingly similar to Andy Grove’s “only the paranoid survive” while at the same time having a completely different tone.

If you know me, it won’t surprise you that I almost jumped out of my seat at the event and did a happy dance when Scott started talking about Give back! I know I need to train him to say “Give First”, but it’s the same concept. Scott was a leader here, with the creation of the ExactTarget Foundation (now Nextech) in 2011. Nextech works to elevate technical, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills of K-12 students, inspiring and enabling young people from all backgrounds to pursue careers in technology, so he’s been ahead of the curve on the importance of computer science and technical skills in K-12, something which is a big part of addressing many of the social and educational gaps in our country.

Indianapolis’ startup community, like Atlanta’s, is thriving. There’s no question in my mind that Scott’s leadership has contributed to this in a meaningful way.

All of this comes back to the idea that as a leader you should play a very long game. Scott does this brilliantly and it’s been hugely educational and inspiring to me to get to know him.


Also published on Medium.