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Bill.com: Lessons from the Road to Wall Street

Last week, I had one of the best experiences a venture capitalist can have. The CEO of one of my portfolio companies rang the bell of the New York Stock Exchange, and it was a truly gratifying experience for me because René Lacerte, Founder & CEO of Bill.com, is a longtime friend and confidante. I have watched René transform over the past 12 years from a scrappy entrepreneur to a skilled leader who is ready to pilot a public company.

The job description of CEO changes dramatically over a long trajectory of growth and success, and many people are not able to change and grow at the same pace. Every leader will bring different strengths and blindspots to this challenge, but René’s journey, which I observed from my vantage point as a board member and a personal friend, may provide insights useful to other founders who seek to become public market CEOs.

Signature of Brian Jacobs

A Brief History of Bill.com

I met René at his wedding. His wife, Joyce, is a friend from college, and that’s when I met her new husband for the first time. He founded PayCycle before we founded Emergence, so I couldn’t invest, but I followed their success as a friend of René’s. Eventually, PayCycle was bought by Intuit which was René’s first big win.

Then, he approached me with an even bigger idea. René described for me the challenges he faced managing cash in a small business. Cash is the lifeblood of all companies, and small businesses watch their cash on a daily basis, sometimes holding checks while waiting for an important customer payment, or paying early to get the best terms. By 2006, consumers were already paying their bills online, but businesses were still using paper checks and paper invoices. Paper checks are cumbersome, expensive and the largest source of fraud for small businesses. René knew that businesses could not rely on banks to provide the software platform needed to manage payments and the associated documents, while providing bank-level control and security.

Silicon Valley Fun Fact: The company’s early name was CashView, but when Marc Benioff wanted to join our financing, he offered to sell the domain name “bill.com” to the company. The rest is history.

It seems like yesterday when Bill.com started in a small house in Palo Alto. Engineering worked in the living room, and the board met in a converted bedroom upstairs. René’s vision has not wavered over the past 13 years and today the company transfers over $6 billion per month (>$70 billion annual rate) on behalf of its more than 80,000 small business customers. (More details can be found in the company’s S-1.)  

During this time, I met with René monthly or more. Over thirteen years, we’ve talked about almost every new hire, every partnership, every potential partnership, every termination, every disagreement among the management team. We have also talked about raising kids in Silicon Valley, family milestones and the loss of loved ones. It’s been a marvel to watch him up close as he faced and overcame various business challenges while transforming himself into a skilled manager and a leader in his industry.

  • Growing into a Leader. How did René’s management style change as Bill.com grew? Here are some of my observations of René’s growth over this time. These are lessons from which everyone can learn.
  • Listening. I have found that successful leaders listen well and seek new information to refine their understanding of the market and the customers. With a clear vision in focus, great leaders tweak and hone the best business strategies based on new information. René treats everyone like someone who he can learn from. He knows a lot more about business payments than I do, but he was curious about what I have learned about SaaS pricing, channel strategies, freemium virality or stock option refresh plans. René is wicked smart, but he also knows that he doesn’t know everything.
  • Team Leadership. I have never seen a startup success where a single person deserves all the credit. Every single home-run has something in common: a well-balanced and complete executive team. When I invest in a company, I tell the founder how I will rate them as a CEO by saying, “If you have an expert in each executive role who inspires the confidence of the board, then you are a great CEO. If you don’t, then I will ask why not.” This does not guarantee success, but without it, you will not make it to the IPO. Oh, and by the way, that means you have to convince them to work for you, and motivate them, and align them to work as a team.

"Don’t be a bottleneck to their success."

Despite this pretty clear advice, René has also held these roles at Bill.com, in addition to CEO: CFO, Director of Sales, Head of Business Development, Head of HR, Head of Customer Success. He was doing what founders do, but he learned that it is impossible to scale this way.

Over 12 years, René has hired a lot of people at Bill.com, and I can tell his process has gotten a lot better! A finely-tuned, well-balanced, talented, diverse, high-performing management team is very hard to achieve and requires real leadership. He was a "doer" when we invested in Bill.com, and now he is a leader. It’s a full-time job to manage a team of thoroughbreds. Don’t be a bottleneck to their success.

  • Healthy Culture. I shared a book with René about maintaining youth and vitality as we age called Younger Next Year. René has embraced this philosophy of daily exercise and sets a positive example for the entire company. He takes time for a run almost every day, and we often have our meetings during a bike ride. Is it a coincidence that many of the executives also run, bike and weight training? Going from startup to IPO is a marathon, not a sprint. A healthy fit team will bring sharp minds to every business challenge and has the endurance to score when other teams are tired. I am a big fan of companies that celebrate fitness and health, and I am convinced that it can be a competitive advantage.
  • Coaching and Caring. René is a demanding leader. He sets challenging goals for the company and his team, but he cares deeply about the success of each individual. He has a rockstar team, but he spends a  lot of one-on-one time with each executive and thinks about how to coach them to raise their game.  
  • Raising the Bar. René demands more from himself than he does from his team.  As the company has grown and accomplished more and more, René sets his sights even higher. He understands that goal-setting is key to maximizing human achievement. A clearly defined goal that is challenging but achievable helps everyone stretch to their maximum potential.  
  • Being Human. René is in touch with the human side of Bill.com. I have worked with René through some really good times and some really bad times. Over two decades, I have been to birthday parties, luaus, weddings and award ceremonies, so it’s clear that René can be a party-planner. He takes time to celebrate victories with his team and generally includes everyone in the company. 

René is not afraid to show his emotions when we miss a goal for the wrong reasons. He has explained to me why there are times when he wants everyone to know that he’s upset and why. This is a powerful management tool, but it’s important not to lose control because you will have to explain yourself later.

Emergence is honored to be part of the first chapter in the Bill.com story. We partner with entrepreneurs with the vision and determination to change and grow, so that they can change the way the world works. Today, we salute René Lacerte and Bill.com as we embark on the next chapter as a public company.

Thank you, René. It’s been a great ride! 

Rene on one of our many rides.
Rene on one of our many rides.
Proud moment in front of the NYSE.
Proud moment in front of the NYSE.

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