#663 WP-Tonic Show With Special Guest Heather Renze The Unicorn Whisperer

We Discuss Heather’s New Book “Birth of a Unicorn: Six Basic Steps to Success”

Heather Renze is CTO of ROCeteer, and is also known as the “Unicorn Whisperer” due to her special focus on entrepreneurs. She is a personal and professional growth expert, executive coach, author, and speaker.

As a founding employee of Evernote, she oversaw the company’s growth from thousands to 100,000,000 customers. She is one of the only women to have wholly programmed, designed, produced and published a game at the company THQ. Additionally, she has worked with the U.S. Navy, NASA and state and local governments around the world. She has led development, scalability, and reliability engineering of web sites with 60+ million unique monthly visitors, 1.7+ billion monthly page views, and 99.99% uptime SLA requirements.

Among her other awards, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid selected her for a commendation in 2016 for her work in increasing STEM education in schools.

Wilde’s writing and speaking spans social media, entrepreneurialism, startups, leadership, cybersecurity, customer experience, fundraising, and diversity issues. She writes for Forbes and hosts the “Entrepreneurial Revolution” column for Inc Magazine. Heather has also recently published a book based on her experiences with Evernote and the start-up community called “Birth of a Unicorn: Six Basic Steps to Success” which you can buy here.

Intro: Welcome to the WP-Tonic podcast where each week Jonathan and his co-host interview the leading experts in WordPress, e-learning, and online marketing; Jonathan, take it away.

Johnathan Denwood: Welcome back, folks to the WP tonic show, it’s episode 663. We’ve got a long-term friend of the show, she has been on the panel show for the past few months and she’s bedded down really well. We thought it was time to have a deeper discussion with Heather, Heather Renze and she is the unicorn whisperer, so, what can we say? So, Heather, would you like to quickly give us a 22nd intro about yourself?

Heather Renze: Yeah, so hi, I’m Heather Renze, I am the unicorn whisperer, which was given to me as a moniker because I help to create unicorn growth companies and also unicorn growth people. I’ve worked with everyone from Evernote, which I was a part of as an early employee, I was an early employee at Spirit Airlines, I work with governments around the world. Currently, my big thing is I’m working with F-works, which is the innovation arm of the US Air Force and Space Force, so I have a lot of stuff on my plate.

Johnathan Denwood: Oh, great, and I’ve got my co-host, Steven, would you like to quickly introduce yourself, Steven?

Steven Sauder: Yeah, Steven Sauder from zipfish.io.

Johnathan Denwood: And I want before we go into the main part of the show, we’re going to be discussing with Heather the early days of Evernote, she’s written a new book I’m going to ask her what the book’s about, and why she wrote it. I’m going to be asking; Heather about her experience of being a minority in the tech industry, i.e. being a woman and a lot of other stuff, and it should be a great discussion. But before we go into the main part of the show, I want to talk about our main sponsor, which is Kinsta Hosting.

Now, folks, if you’ve got a WooCommerce site, you’ve got a learning management system, anything that needs performance, you need quality hosting, and that’s what you get with Kinsta. They’ve been hosting the WP-Tonic site for about three years, it’s a big website, I’ve been really happy with the performance in general and just a great crew to work with. So, if you’re looking for a great and premier WordPress hosting company, you should go over to, Kinsta have a look at their packages either for yourself or for a client, and I suggest that you should buy one of them.

If you do, do that, please do the show a favor, and also Kinsta, and tell them that you heard about them on the WP-Tonic Show, it helps them, and it also helps us; your support is much appreciated. So, Heather as I said, you were one of the first employees of Evernote, and you recently wrote a book, The Birth of a Unicorn: Six Basic Steps to Success, I think that’s the title. Oh yeah, she’s got a copy if you’re watching this listeners and viewers, which you should. Why did you decide to write the book and what’s the basic message that you want to get across in the book?

Heather Renze: So, a couple of years ago after I left Evernote I started working at a company called Rocketeer which is my consulting company that was formed based on a friend of mine, Tony Hsieh, who unfortunately just passed away recently. He wanted help with coaching, mentoring, and advising his investment portfolio, especially in downtown Las Vegas.

And he loved Evernote, he loved the things that we were doing there, and he wanted people that had been in business to really help these young seed-stage entrepreneurs who were a lot of first-time entrepreneurs to get them on the right track. So, he asked me and a couple of other experienced people that had done this before successfully to come and form a company to help them do that. And as part of that, I started telling all of these stories and I started to notice that I was telling the same ones over and over again because these entrepreneurs have the same problems.

Every one of them is they’re beating their head against the wall over and over again, and I saw people coming into these mentor sessions and having a book list, and these were all the same business books being read over and over again. And they were all basically like if you do this, then your business is going to be successful, and they were like, but I’ve done all this stuff, or it doesn’t apply to me because I haven’t got all this money or I just don’t understand why it’s not working. And so [Cross-Talking 05:27].

Johnathan Denwood: It was a crap idea, that’s why.

Heather Renze: Well, partly a lot of them are not the best ideas. If I have to see another VIP nightclub across my desk here in Las Vegas, I’ll probably scream.

Johnathan Denwood: I’ve just got one actually, I’m disappointed that you should, no, I’m sorry I just can’t resist teasing him, I don’t know she brings the worst out of me.

Heather Renze: Well, I’m also an.

Johnathan Denwood: She’s the only one that laughs at my jokes, oh, I’m sorry.

Heather Renze: Yeah, I’m an angel investor and I work with VC funds, so I see a lot of pitches and I’ve worked with a lot of groups and these teams see the same thing. So basically, the book came about because there’s no, there’s no business book that actually shows people the struggle of what it is to be an entrepreneur from it being not an overnight success.

All they see of the story is like, oh, Airbnb comes onto the scene after it’s already successful, and they’re like, oh, I’m going to be the next Airbnb, I’m going to be the next Uber, they don’t know about the fact that the Uber guys took multiple business failures before they figured out how Uber got there. So, I wrote a book about the multiple businesses it took us before we got Evernote and all the emotional roller coasters it took to build that, and the family life that it screwed up on the way there.

Johnathan Denwood: Oh, well here we go, Steven over to you.

Steven Sauder: I think one of the big questions I have about when you’re an entrepreneur and you’re thinking about building a business do you have to say, I’m going to build a unicorn and then go for that, does that have to be a conceptual grounding point of the business? Like, this is the goal, so this is what we are going to do, or is it something that kind of just happens?

Like all of a sudden one thing happens and the next thing happens, and then all of a sudden you start getting revenue, and then you realize like, wait, we can build this into a unicorn company, or we can build this into something huge.

Heather Renze: So, one of the things that I teach that’s not necessarily in the book itself as a concept, you understand it as a subtext, but a unicorn idea for a business is very simple. So for example, you have to be able to understand something instinctually for it to be a unicorn business because for you to be something that’s worth billions of dollars and more.

And then for it to be a publicly-traded company that’s used around the world, this has to be something that multiple people are going to use around the world for years to come and just understand the first time they see it, and then it becomes a daily use thing for them. We’re talking about a car or peanut butter or something like that, this is not a nightclub app. So, for something like Evernote, we knew it was a unicorn idea because it was something that people were going to need to use, not just every day to take notes, but for the rest of their lives.

Somebody would start using this when their baby was born to capture memories from it, and that baby whose account was started the day they were born would still be using this when they’re a hundred years old to see the pictures, the notes, the heartbeat from their first sonogram. When they have Alzheimer’s someday, they’ll be able to look back on their entire life, this is a life capture application that is a unicorn idea, so if you’re not creating something like that, you do not have a billion-dollar business, you do not have a unicorn.

Steven Sauder: That’s a really good thought because everybody when they’re trying to describe their business, oftentimes we are the X of this, right? We are the Uber of this, we are the Airbnb of this, we are the Evernote of that, and you use that because those businesses are super simple, you understand the concept, and therefore, it’s a very relatable sort of analogy.

Heather Renze: Right, and Evernotes was remember everything, and that’s really it. It comes down to remember everything for your life, for whatever you need to capture, it’s there.

Steven Sauder: Do you think that services businesses can rocket as fast as product businesses do? Or can you build a unicorn service business or just somebody comes to you with a service business, who would say, hey, I want to build this into something huge? Is like, well, that’s going to take forever, that’s probably not your best idea, look for the product.

Heather Renze: So, something like an Ogilvy can be a services business that can be publicly traded and is obviously worth multi-billions. But that’s built on the Ogilvy brand that sells services, and that’s because they have a multi-billion dollar book of business that they’re selling services to year after year. And they’ve built that brand name for almost a hundred years now, so yes, you can build a multi-billion dollar services business. But you better have the client book that you can resell year after year, just watch Mad Men, to understand what that takes.

Steven Sauder: Yeah. Getting back to your book, what are some of those stories that are in the book that you’ve had to retell over and over that you decided like, hey, let’s distill these down into this book format? What are some of those high points for some of those nuances in there?

Heather Renze: So, there’s so many, every single story in the book I’ve compressed or condensed in some way to make a point, the whole book is structured around Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. And I’ve basically picked stories that help you understand where you are among that point, and then also try to tell it chronologically to be the story of Evernote. So, one that is in particular that I’ve told a lot to people that’s really resonated is about company culture and how there was one time after the Evernote security breach where everybody’s mood was down.

Obviously, because of our company values, our core values would be the whole company where your data is private, your data is portable, and your data is protected. Those were the three core values of the company, and when you have a security breach, we violated two of those core values, and if you got 450 employees around the world that live and breathe those values every day that is like a dagger to the heart.

So, the first thing that I did because it was my job to be morale for the whole company to get everybody back on track, to answer the service, and to make sure that the communication going out with our legal department was correct in all of the languages in all of the countries that we were serving. I turned about 90% of the employees of the company into customer service people overnight, so that we could answer the 80% plus, well, actually 800% more influx because we were at 2000 customer service requests a day to 20,000 customer service requests a day.

So, we needed help quickly, so now, everybody we had to train up overnight to be able to do that, and I had to do daily all hands with everyone at least twice a day around the world, multiple times zones. As well as I set up a, I don’t know if you remember something called Turntable.fm, this was kind of like an early Spotify that people could jump in and four people at a time could set the jukebox to what it was. So, I preloaded it with a playlist, and then I let the entire company go in and add to the music, and for the first couple of days, it was really kind of somber, sad music.

And then by the end of the week, happier music started to come in and then after two weeks it was all happier music, and then by the end of the month, all of the sad music was gone. And it was really funny because we’d have weird Al Yankovic songs followed by Gwar, followed by K-pop followed by Garth Brooks, you got to listen to like the entire company around the world. And, everybody was just happy and laughing and asking each other about this music and it just brought up the collective mood. So yeah, I tell that story in a much more literate, succinct way in the book.

Steven Sauder: That’s cool. That’s a pretty amazing pivot to take that large of an organization to get all those people to do customer service stuff, to kind of help bail out the water, where we could right the ship to keep things moving forward. I’m sure even in doing that, it brings the whole company together because now you’re all in it together, you’re not as isolated in your own little buckets, that’s really cool. What [Cross-Talking 16:09].

Johnathan Denwood: I feel we need to go for our break actually, Steven. Meanwhile, let me ask a question, I never knew this wasn’t yours. We’re going to have our break, we’ll be back in a few moments, folks.

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Johnathan Denwood: We’re coming back; I think we’ve had already, the time flies doesn’t it? When you’re having a good discussion, a good chat as I say, so we’re having a really good chat with Heather Renze, the unicorn whisperer, so Heather you’re not directly in the WordPress world but you kind of hover around the edges don’t you? Because I’ve met you a couple of times at some WordCamps and you joined our panel and you put up with my madness but you’re used to that. So, where do you see WordPress as a slight outsider?

What do you think about where it’s and what 2021 is going to be like for WordPress? What do you think, only slight questions, aren’t they ever?

Heather Renze: Yeah, well, I think that WordPress is going to continue to dominate in the small business arena for creating websites and powering websites, if not even become more like gain more market share than it has. The improvements that it has every year, the platform for plugins and development, it just keeps getting better and easier to use, and especially, since there’s more competition with Squarespace and Wix, a lot of people that wouldn’t be creating websites on their own.

They get in the door with a Wix website or a Squarespace website, and then they see that there’s so much more that they could be doing, and then they’ll convert over to WordPress. And then they’ll be like, oh, this is so much here, now that I’ve got my website up, now, let me create more of it, and these are people that wouldn’t have had a website, to begin with. But because Squarespace and Wix exist now they’re feeding into WordPress in ways that wouldn’t have happened before.

Even just having Facebook pages now is allowing more people to create WordPress sites, so the barrier to entry is much lower now, and it’s all the better for WordPress.

Johnathan Denwood: Just an anecdote or a sub-question before I throw it over to Steven, I’m finding the decision, well obviously, I don’t have all the facts in front of me, but I’m finding increasingly I’m a bit frustrated. I’m a bit puzzled by the decision-making of the passive leader of WordPress. So, as you said, you’re quite upbeat and part of me is upbeat with you but finding just the PR just the way things are handled in the WordPress community to be quite corrosive and unnecessary in some ways.

Do you have any insights into what might be, I think what I’m saying is that there seems to be a mismatch between a lot of people that are well-known in the WordPress community and the kind of public face. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of, I’m struggling now to find the right word, but I think you got the drift, haven’t you, so want to comment on that, Heather?

Heather Renze: So, a lot of times companies will put out PR or only release information that they’re allowed to, the marketing people have a very thankless job because the community, especially, an active one, like WordPress, they want things now, they want things fixed. At Evernote, we had a bug list that was years long and the feature list was even longer and everyone wanted their feature fixed immediately, and it was our marketing department’s job to try and explain just what was coming up in our own roadmap.

And then I remember when we released the Evernote market and we were releasing socks and things, people were like, why on earth are you doing socks when you can’t even fix the note sinking? Well because that’s what we happened to be focusing on this quarter, but it’s not just this quarter, it took us two years to work on this particular project, and we’re only just releasing it now.

But we’re still working on the bugs, we’re still working on those things and you only release information about it when there’s something to release. So, just because they’re not releasing something doesn’t mean they’re not working on it.

Johnathan Denwood: I see where you’re coming from, but I think there’s a slightly bigger problem, but we can talk about that in the bonus content, over to you, Steven.

Steven Sauder: Yeah, I feel like it’s really interesting dealing with customers and their wants and needs and trying to balance that with your internal organization’s wants and needs and where that’s going, and it can become a complex thing. Especially, when people don’t understand that the guy that’s fixing a bug, probably hasn’t been reallocated to shipping socks, those are two different people, they’re still happening at the same time, it’s going to be okay.

In looking into the WordPress space, to me it feels very different than the huge VC, I’m trying to build a unicorn large startup kind of thing, and I think that’s because, in the WordPress space, there’s a lot more open source stuff. That area of business seems like it’s starting to come into the WordPress area, but somebody who’s been involved in Evernote, who’s built their own product is not on top of WordPress at all, or anything like that. So, in the WordPress area, you have a lot more small companies that are trying to go bigger or try to build a new product.

They started with WordPress because it’s a very approachable area to start, they can build the first proof of concept, and how do you know when it’s time to maybe move from WordPress to something else? Or can you stay in the WordPress space, do you feel, and keep building the business as big as you can? How do you make those sorts of decisions that can kind of alter the whole trajectory of a business?

Heather Renze: Well, as somebody that builds on WordPress, you know that you’re beholden to their APIs and their products and their developments, so you can certainly make a career on it. Lord knows you’ve seen how much money that some of the larger developments, just, just look at Trybal and how much money they just made. There’s a lot of money to be made, especially, if you’ve got good marketing or you find the unicorn idea and for the WordPress people.

But the problem is whenever you’re building on someone else’s product, you have to deal with what they build and they can always break you. So, it’s always okay to be a follow on, but if you feel you’re ready to use that as passive income and move on to something else and you have an idea for that, and you have the marketing newsletter from all the people that have subscribed to your product, and you think you can go out on your own, then go for it.

Just know that, for example, with peanut butter, you have to compete for shelf space, and if you’re trying to go out on your own with a brand new peanut butter you got to contact all of those supermarkets and try to get any of them to carry you. And then you got to pay for that shelf space all on your own, and just getting the first one is hard and expensive, and then to get any other ones to carry you, you have to do it all over again. So, with WordPress, you have a built-in audience and for a lot of people, it’s just easier to do that.

Steven Sauder: That’s cool. What are some other things that you talk about in your book? Just maybe some teasers, so people get a little bit more context.

Heather Renze: Well, if you like cats, there are a lot of cats in this book.

Steven Sauder: Nice.

Heather Renze: Yeah, no, what’s different about this book is again, as I touched on this before that it doesn’t just capture the business advice because that’s actually, I kind of did a hide the kale kind of thing. The business advice is woven into the stories and it follows me, it’s written in a narrative sort of way, a lot of people have told me that I wrote it as if it was fiction as it was a fun kind of thriller book.

They felt like they were reading a Clive Cussler novel, and that’s great because Clive Cussler novels were always my favorite, I love Dirk Pitt, those books were, I loved them, and yeah, Raise The Titanic was one of my favorite books growing up. So, if this lives up to Raise The Titanic kind of level thriller fun, then yay, but that’s the point, I want you to feel like Dirk Pitt is going on an adventure and that you’re right there with him in this book.

And so, that’s one of the little spoilers about this, it’s not like you’re reading drive business tips at a lecture; you are on an adventure because entrepreneurship is an adventure. And for some people, I’ve actually gotten letters from people that told me they were angry for me because of how I was treated, and that they wished some parts had happened sooner, but they were relieved at the end of it.

Steven Sauder: Yeah, that sounds great. I was going to end up going and buying a copy to hear this arc.

Heather Renze: Yeah. So, other people have told me, again, about the cats, one of my favorite things that somebody told me was they said that they were in it. They were convinced that I was the kindest, nicest, sweetest person because even though it was painful for me to be separated from my husband for a few months, I stayed with my cat instead of rehoming him.

Steven Sauder: Cats can get you through anything.

Johnathan Denwood: That the lesson you have to learn, you have to stay with your cat, tell them what happens, there we go. Well, we’re getting close to the end of the podcast part of the show, Heather is going to stay on for the bonus content, which you’ll be able to watch the bonus content and the whole interview on the WP-Tonic YouTube channel. There’s loads of stuff on the channel go and subscribe and hit the bell that really helps the show.

So, Heather, what’s the, obviously, I will have links to Amazon where you can buy your book, that’s obvious, I will do that for you. But what are some of the other best ways that people can find out more about you and what you’re up to?

Heather Renze: You can reach me everywhere on the internet at heathriel, so H E A T H R I E L, and yeah, heathriel.com and heathriel on all the socials.

Johnathan Denwood: Right, and Steven’s helped the WP-Tonic website become more of a speed machine, if you’re really looking for help when it comes to optimizing your website Steven and his crew are the people to approach. So Steven, what’s the best way for people to find out more about you and what you’re up to?

Steven Sauder: Yeah, head over to zipfish.io, and you can run a free speed test, and you can see how much faster we can make your website.

Johnathan Denwood: That’s great, and I can say if you want to see the bonus content and the whole show as I said go over to the YouTube channel and subscribe. Also, you can join us on Fridays at 8:30 AM, Pacific Standard time, and Heather joins us regularly on that show as well, where we have a weekly discussion about WordPress and the latest tech stories of the week. And I really enjoy the show, it’s a bit of a blast, we’ll see you soon next week, folks with another great guest. See you soon, bye.

Outro: Thanks for listening to the WP-Tonic podcast, the podcast that gives you a dose of WordPress medicine twice a week.

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