Danielle Morrill, CEO of Mattermark: Interview

You can’t really top down your culture. We can make a list of values that we want you to have and maybe those could be aspirational, but the...

Share this post

You can’t really top down your culture. We can make a list of values that we want you to have and maybe those could be aspirational, but the reality is that culture comes from the people on the team. So if you’re looking for certain traits, you better hire for them because you can’t just make people have a different culture from what the culture is that’s emergent from the group.


Danielle Morrill is the CEO and co-founder of Mattermark, which is building deal intelligence tools to help professionals in venture capital, private equity, B2B sales with targeted research and discovery of privately held companies.

Asides from running Mattermark, Danielle is well known personality within Silicon Valley and beyond, a Startup enthusiast, an expert story teller via her blog and is an influencer on social media.

Danielle kindly spoke to SaaScribe on The SaaS Revolution Show Podcast, which you can listen to now on iTunes or Soundcloud.This published interview is a lightly edited version of the conversation:


Hey Danielle, hasn’t Mattermark just turned 2 years old?

Yeah. We launched the company in June of 2013 so we actually just celebrated two years from our launch and there were a couple of months before that where it was in development.

What have been your biggest challenges as CEO and Co-founder of Mattermark so far?

One endless challenge is I think scaling up the team is the one that we’re mostly focused on now. So we’ve gone from three people to 40 people in the course of these past two years. And as you can imagine, at every level of scale you run into new challenges, systems and processes that you built before no longer work. That’s always tough.
And then I think also attracting the best talent and making sure you’re kind of building up the various teams at the right pace so they can support each other is also a balancing act. So a lot of challenges there.

You’re a second time CEO and Co-founder. Did you first startup Referly fail?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. We shut it down after about 11 months. We went through a Y Combinator and then continued developments after that program was over but pretty quickly began to realise it wasn’t working.

Why wasn’t it working and what have you learned from that experience that’s helped you for the second time around with Mattermark?

Well, I think fundamentally what I’ve learned is that it’s really very difficult to sell someone else’s products. Referly was about helping people recommend products to one another but then actually get paid if a purchase took place. So that would be recommending a product that was for sale in, let’s say, Amazon.com.
And the truth is when you sell other people’s products that you don’t make things yourself, the amount of money that you make in that transaction is just very small versus the kind of margins you get if you’re building software and then selling your own software.
So I think the lesson learned there is just you’re going to struggle just as much at any business model so you know, whether we continue with Referly or built Mattermark, it would have been just as hard. So you probably should make sure that the economics make it worthwhile for you to do that. And that’s probably the most important insight that we took away.
Obviously Mattermark is where we build software ourselves and sell that software with our own sales team. So the margins and the business model are just completely different.

You started Referly whilst you were heading up marketing at Twilio, where you were the first employee. Was it Twilio by day and Referly by night?

Not really until the very end. I mean, it was really just a side project. At Twilio I ran Developer Marketing so I had dozens of various fun hacking projects that I would work on at hackathons and things like that to demonstrate the value of what we were building. So it was really just one of those little projects that I had that made it easier for me to put affiliate links into my own blog posts.
And then I started really quoting on it again kind of as I was winding down at Twilio. But I wouldn’t say it was like a big endeavour for me during the majority of my time there. Really only in the last month or so.

What’s your advice for Startup founders that are working during the day as an employee and then working on their startup at night?

I wouldnt recommend that. I don’t think that’s doable. I mean, Twilio itself was a startup and I was completely focused on being there and growing that company. That was a ton of work, so I can’t imagine actually trying to do both things at once. I don’t think it would have been successful.

With Mattermark, have you avoided all of Paul Graham’s 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups?

Oh, jeez. I guess I’d have to go check the list. I doubt I’ve avoided all of them, but I’m sure that…
No. I’m sure I’ve made some of those mistakes. I don’t even remember what’s on the list but the reason they’re on the list is because they’re somewhat unavoidable.

First Mistake on the list is being a single founder. 

Well, I got into Y Combinator without a co-founder. And then I ultimately ended up recruiting my husband to co-found with me at Referly and then later we acquired a company called LaunchGram and the CEO of that company became our co-founder for Mattermark. So I guess I dodged that bullet by changing course.
But I did start out as a solo founder.

Brad Feld is a mentor of yours and he’s also on the board at Mattermark?

Yeah, he’s on the board. He led our Series A back in December. We raised $6.5 million from boundary group that time. He’s very helpful. He has great advice and I think also very supportive emotionally of the ups and downs of startup life, which is really awesome.
He’s written some great books that we already had as required reading for our employees like Venture Deals, which basically walks through how venture capital works. It was already something we wanted all our employees to read. So it’s definitely great to have someone we really admire on the team and supporting and helping us grow.

What drives Danielle Morrill? What makes you get out of bed every morning and think today’s going to be an awesome day at work at Mattermark?

Mostly curiosity. There’s a lot of interesting things going on in the world that I’d like to understand that I think I’m not alone in that desire. I think it’s always a little bit about what’s going to happen today in the market? What’s going to happen today in my company? What new things might we discover as we dive deeper into this data?
And I want to fill the time that I’m here on earth with as much interesting, kind of thought-provoking conversation and content as I can. So that’s just my personal desire. A lot of the time the stuff I write or the things I work on is really just for lack of those things already existing in the world, so I just make them.

CEO’s kind of have to be generalists. But you’ve got to have a lot of skills as CEO.
What are your key skills that you need to be a CEO and how do you keep them sharp?

Yeah. I think that it’s valuable to have skills. I think it is hard to be a Jack of All Trades and Master of None. So on one hand I feel like that’s the challenge. As a generalist, by definition you aren’t a specialist.
So I think the key is really about how to figure out who to hire and also how to evaluate how they’re doing. By having some experience in software engineering or marketing or sales, it’s easier to attract talent because they know you’ll appreciate their efforts and then it’s also easier to evaluate, coach and reward that talent because you have some basis for judging their work. When you can judge their work on results purely but I think if you really want to help with problem solving, it’s great to actually know a little bit about what you’re doing.
For me, I think prototyping has been very important. I definitely still code and often not on Mattermark at this point because I think we’ve gone past the level of rigour that I’m capable of coding app, but just working on various side projects.
I’ve been building software since I was about 12 years old so it’s not really a big deal to me to pick up a new language or to fiddle around with new tools that come out. I think the value in that is to always feel like if you have a great idea and want to move it forward, rather than just trying to tell someone or convince them that it should be built, just build it yourself and show the value is always a much more effective communication strategy. And I think it can generate a lot more buy in.
Then on the marketing side or on the business side, I think the skill that I care about the most is just storytelling. I think that really we use a thread through all the things I do. People want to know why we’re doing what we’re doing. They want to understand why they’re spending these long hours creating things and they want to understand why this matters. They want to understand why we’re going to help them be more successful in the case of our customers.
So that story basically never ends. It’s like being a pop musician and having a set list that you keep going and playing at different cities. The outside world, they’re only hearing it once or twice but to you, I’m basically telling the same stories over and over again every day. So it’s good to be good at that.

Outside of Mattermark, you’re involved in a number of organisations, one of which is Women 2.0. Which is a community for the next generation of female technology leaders. Is that correct?

Yeah. Women 2.0 has been around… I want to get this right. I think 7 or 8 years now and it’s really a community of women globally who are focused on entrepreneurship and building technology. There’s hundreds of thousands of women who’ve come to the Meetups for Women 2.0 across the U.S. and actually across the globe. It’s very cool.

On the Women 2.0 website the stats are that 30% of workers in tech are women and only around 10% are founders. How are you and Women 2.0 helping to change that stat?

Well, I think for me I just work to be a good example of what’s possible. I’m not really actively working to change that stat. Personally, I’m really just working on building a massively successful, valuable company.
And I think that hopefully my storytelling, like you mentioned you like to read the stories on my blog, I hope that men and women actually get inspiration from that. But I do hope that if someone needs a hero to point to to give them an example of what they could do, I would love to be that person.
So I guess my job is to be simply a role model and make sure that my company is successful.

If Mattermark becomes a unicorn or whatever your measure of success is then as a female founder, that’s got to be a massive success and inspiration to other women within tech?

Yeah. I think my job is basically to be more well-known than Travis Kalanick of Uber.

You may have to upset a lot of people to be more well-known than Travis.

Well, I’m good at that. I’m well on my way. I definitely have more work to do.

When hiring, what qualities are you looking for in candidates?

Well, it definitely varies as far as the skill side of the equation just depending on the role.
But I think on the kind of more general qualifications, it really comes down to the company’s values and finding value alignment between individuals ethics and goals and ours. So we’ve worked really hard over the past few months to kind of define what that actually looks like.
I think that what I’m mostly interested in finding is is this person a truth seeker and truth teller. And it doesn’t mean that other people are liars, it’s just that some people in the world are really oriented toward rooting out the truth, finding out the facts about the world and explaining them. I think we’re really interested in those people joining the company.
Obviously that’s a big part of what we do. We collect and organise information and turn them into data that can be used to make decisions. So we want to find people who have some degree of genuine passion for that. Even if they weren’t with us, they would probably be doing something along those lines. So that’s the big one.
Then I think the other piece is just we’re not looking to have a huge team just for its own sake. We’d really rather have people who raise the bar and are quite good at what they do. I mean, people talk about the Ten-ex Software developer but truly, I think you should be looking for that Ten-ex person in every function of the company. And we kind of call that raising the bar as one of our values. So looking for people who have evidence in the past of doing that in previous places that they’ve worked is really important.
And I think a lot of these things can sound somewhat trite spoken but then when you interview for them, they can be very illuminating. So a lot of it comes down to spending a significant time with people on the interview process to really understand where they’re coming from.

During the interview process do you have one interview with the candidates? Perhaps they’ve gone through some of the other management levels before your see them? Or are you involved right from the beginning from reading the CV that comes in through email?

Well, I certainly do have an interview generally near to the end of the process if they’ve kind of made it through and are someone that the hiring manager and our team are really excited about. But at that point I’m generally selling. I tend to trust my team to evaluate candidates and I’m mostly, at that point, trying to tell them the story of the company to make sure we have a good chance of closing the candidate should we want to make an offer.
But I do spend a lot of time just researching people and prospecting and reaching out to folks myself because I do find that that’s pretty effective and I like to help with that process. But yeah, I definitely am very involved.

I saw on your site that you have quants, coders, designers, salespeople, data scientists, marketers within the Mattermark team. I guess each of those specific functions,  the people may have very different personalities? From my experience, salespeople and data scientists are very different. How do you ensure that everybody gets along at Mattermark? What are the cultural pillars that you have within the company?

Yeah. I would probably not stereotype people by function. I also don’t think everyone getting along is really the goal. I think the important thing is we’re trying to achieve something here, we’re trying to build a company that has some very specific goals and I think that the way to achieve a good culture is by having people understand what’s expected of them and then understand how they fit.
We all want to belong to something. If we’re going to bother to join a company rather than work for ourselves, I think there’s desire to have that be meaningful.
So I think the first piece is that you can’t really top down your culture. We can make a list of values that we want you to have and maybe those could be aspirational, but the reality is that culture comes from the people on the team. So if you’re looking for certain traits, you better hire for them because you can’t just make people have a different culture from what the culture is that’s emergent from the group.
So I think it’s important to just acknowledge that people are so different. Even within sales, there’s an assumption that every salesperson is loud and extroverted and most popular in high school. I think that’s so far from true. And there’s also an assumption that every software engineer is anti-social, introverted and into geeky video games or other things like that. Also not true. So I think it’s important inside the company to create opportunities for people to be individuals that can connect with other people just kind of regardless of what team they’re on.
We have a science fiction book club and there are people from every team in that. We have a really cool whiskey lounge in our office that one of our employees is Panamanian and he’s an incredible bartender. There’s a lot of people who are into that.
So it’s just finding out ways for people to connect that feel authentic. Like these are things they would do anyway. And creating an environment where people feel like they can just be themselves. I think that’s the best way to build a great culture rather than trying to say, “Okay, these are the 10 values we think we want. Now, everybody conform to this.” Like that just doesn’t work. People don’t do that.

And so what’s coming up for Mattermark? What’s next over the next 6 – 12 months that you’re happy to announce?

Yeah. I don’t have anything to announce formally but we do have some product releases coming up that I’m very excited about. And those will be meaningful to us. They give us new things to sell, they give us new ways for our customers to engage with us, and they enable new workflows. So those are the biggest endeavours that we’ve been working on.
Beyond that, definitely going to continue to be very aggressive with recruiting excellent talent. And we may have some interesting announcements around key hires and things like that. But we’re pretty much a just-in-time company. We’re quite transparent but what we put out there is kind of what’s out there.
Then I think until we’re ready to communicate the next major milestones in detail, we tend to hold them close to our chest. But as you’ve probably seen, we publish things like our financials when we’re ready to do that. So we look forward to continuing to share things like that as we go.

Final question. Now, I’m curious to know, how did Benji get the job as Scrum Master?

Oh, yeah. He’s so cute. So Benji is funny because he’s the perfect colour. Our logo is yellow and he’s golden. He’s just such a great dog, he makes everybody get along instantly. Everyone just stops talking and pets him whenever he walks in the room. I don’t know what else you could really ask for. As Scrum Master being able to silence everyone. It’s an awesome skill.

Danielle spoke with Alex Theuma. Subscribe to the SaaS Revolution Show Podcast to listen to the full interview on iTunes

In this article