Letting go: How one tech startup CEO ceded the top seat

Jeremy Roche ran FinancialForce, a closely watched cloud computing startup, but stood down. He tells his story.

One of Silicon Valley’s brightest cloud prospects, FinancialForce, last week announced a change of leadership, surprising most observers. CEO Jeremy Roche stepped down in favour of Tod Nielsen, a tech veteran who has held executive roles at VMware and Oracle, and who most recently led Heroku, a startup which sold to Salesforce.com.

FinancialForce is well funded with powerful backers, strong growth and approaching a $100m revenue annual run rate that put it, if not among the cloud elite then very definitely a known factor in that segment. I have met Roche a couple of times and spoken by phone on a few other occasions. His position was odd in some ways: he is a Brit and his family stayed at their Oxford home while Roche spent a lot of time in the company’s other offices in the US, as well as in the UK office in Harrogate in northern England, a location from where much of the core development for the cloud financial management-cum-ERP company takes place.

I spoke to him to ask him about why he vacated the top seat at a company that had every mark of future success.

Roche was at pains to stress that the move was his own choice and he is “staying in the family on both sides”, remaining an advisor to FinancialForce while taking over as chief product officer of Unit4, a Netherlands-headquartered global ERP software company that is FinancialForce’s largest investor. Roche led the foundation of FinancialForce in 2009 with the financial backing of Unit4 and Salesforce.

“It’s a natural evolution in many ways,” he says. “We were pushing on for 600 people and about to break the $100m run rate. I remember something that [Salesforce CEO] Marc Benioff had said: ‘You have to think about your first million, then the 10 million mark, and then the 100, and then the billion.’ As we were touching on the 100 million, the next stage is the billion and beyond.”


Transatlantic traveller

That led him to think about whether he was best suited to take the company forward. His conclusion: that it was better to hand over to a veteran of growing businesses. The decision was coloured by the unusual working routine that saw Roche criss-cross the Atlantic perhaps 15 or 16 times per year.

“I’ve been running a US business from the UK,” he says. “I had my UK address, my US address and somewhere between on an aeroplane.”

Many Brits and other foreigners solve the problem by living in the US but Roche had made a personal decision not to follow the well-trodden path. That decision must have been coloured by having a fairly young family settled in the UK. Still, the role involved a lot of multi-week business travel, fostering the growth of, in Roche’s case, Boston, Chicago, Toronto offices in north America, and others outside the region.

Oddly enough, the need to travel away from the family probably helped him put in the long days that are part and parcel of getting startups off the ground.

“The lifestyle I lived was what helped me get FinancialForce through those early stages,” he says. “Heads down, 18 hours a day. All I did was live, eat and breathe FinancialForce. My work life, my social life were all geared around the business, but over time that needs to evolve. Someone in the office worked out I’d flown a million miles building FinancialForce.”

Did he ever put a time limit on how long he would stay as CEO, whether that was the $100 revenue run rate, a certain number of years, or whatever?

“I never put a time limit on it... I’m not good at putting boundaries on it,” he says. “FinancialForce is effectively my third child and to give your child the best chance you have to let them move on. I want FinancialForce to have the best chance of becoming the most sustainable business possible.”


Different people

This attitude is a sharp turn away from the chest-beating, alpha-male character of many tech CEOs: think of Salesforce’s Benioff, Larry Ellison, Steve Ballmer, Scott McNealy or 100 others. But Roche, raised in Manchester, is an affable man with the dry humour and willingness to laugh at himself that is a British characteristic.

“You’ve met me a few times: I’m not a Benioff character; I do things my own way. I’m sure I could have put myself in a positon to do it, but Tod, having done those bigger runs, puts us in a great position. I will keep my hand in and we have a lot of similar characteristics.”

The practicalities of leaving the CEO position were plain enough. Roche made his decision “a few months ago”, he says, and got the support of the board and executive team. There was a formal search for his successor but Nielsen’s Salesforce links made him a familiar face and his desire to take on an already sizeable company and then grow it fitted well with where FinancialForce is today.

Last Friday was Roche’s last official working day as boss of FinancialForce. Nielsen was unveiled at the same time and a video meeting was convened for staff in other offices while an email was sent out and announcements put on the company’s internal social network.

“I handed over last Friday, I had Sunday off and on Monday I started at Unit4, Roche says. “Unit4 is relatively global but most of the management team is out of Utrecht [in the Netherlands]. The role I’ve got is very much orientated around the products we’re building, how we go to market and the whole customer success model.”


Family life

Roche lives in Oxford, about an hour (“an easy stride”, he says) away from London and Heathrow airport. The day of an 11-hour LHR-SFO commute will be gone, even if there’ll still be plenty of flights.

“It’s one of the exciting things: I’ll spend a bit more time at home,” he says.

That has to be welcome after so many years in the long-haul world and there will be “a little more time” to see his 20-year son at university and 17-year-old son in the family home. It will likely be a change after the go-go startup years.

“My kids have grown up with that and we adapted our way of life,” he says. “My wife said ‘Does that mean you’ll be home and I’ll have to cook for you more?’ I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’m 51 and to get the chance to do a startup in my forties was great.”

It must have been emotional to leave, I suggest.

“Of course; it’s a thing I’ve nurtured from nothing. It’s a bit like when your kid goes to university: you’re sad to see them go but also very proud.”

Was his leaving a case of ‘let’s have a few drinks and a party’ or a cause for tears?

“We’re holding the drinks later,” he says. “And I’m not telling about the tears…”


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