Show 167 – Unicorn Interviews – Jeff Lunsford, Tealium

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The 31st in our special series of interviews with leaders of unicorn companies recorded in partnership with European PR Agency, Tyto, and their Without Borders podcast.

Host Russell Goldsmith and co-host, Tyto’s Senior Partner Holly Justice, and were joined online from Dallas, Texas by Jeff Lunsford, CEO, and President of Customer Data Platform Tealium.

Tealium was founded in 2008 by Mike Anderson and Ali Behnam. Jeff became CEO in 2013 and the company reached unicorn status in February 2021 with a valuation of $1.2 billion. Mike, Ali, and Jeff all worked together to create Webside Story from 2002 to 2007 which was a pioneer in real-time web analytics. 10 years later, it now stands as a global company with around 870 customers worldwide.

Jeff started his entrepreneurial journey in eighth grade when he would start writing software and helped his local laundromat automate his billing on a Commodore 64. However, he jokes that he now hires much smarter people at Tealium to do that now!

After being in the Navy for six years, Jeff went back into technology and helped his friends start a technology consulting company that worked with banks across the US to develop technology strategies and implement them. Following this, he joined a group of entrepreneurs who had started the world’s first Internet bank in 1995, and they wanted to create a software company to sell their software to thousands of other banks around the world. Jeff then was recruited to run a software development tools company called Together Soft in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the investors in that company asked Jeff to move to San Diego to run Webside Story. Meaning Tealium is Jeff’s 6th operating role.

Tealium’s last funding was $96 million, which was a series G that took them to unicorn status. With the next 12 months in mind, Tealium is going to continue to have a strong focus on investing heavily in the product, platform, and customer success. Currently, they are using their funding to build out their go-to-market organization around the world across the business. The main priority at Tealium is doubling down on the R&D organization which is continuingly being innovated.

Many leaders have influenced Jeff in his life such as his commanding officer in the US Navy named Bill McKee. He also had two wonderful mentors, CEO, and partner at Brintech, Harold Brewer, who taught him how to sell. Chip Mahan, who started the world’s first internet bank, was Jeff’s other mentor. They have all taught Jeff, success in business is never a straight line. Reciting George S Patton, Jeff quotes “pressure makes diamonds and that’s really important when you’re trying to build lasting companies.”

As the CEO, Jeff works with the leadership team and the board to arrange financing. He understands that it isn’t his job to tell his team what route to take, he explained “You want to hire the climbers and the Sherpas and the amazing team leaders that are going to get the whole group up that particular mountain. And so, I feel like over 25 years, what I’ve been able to do, I have been lucky to see these emerging markets that are really nascent.”

His skills are listening to customers and understanding patterns. Jeff recruits the team, raises the capital, and then lets them execute the rest. So Tealium’s leadership is fantastic, and they’ve built this business up to $150 million in revenue across every functional area: finance, legal, sales, go-to-market marketing, customer success, technology, and operations.

What’s important in business is building great solutions and then taking great care of customers so they can deliver true business value, especially in the recurring revenue software as a service business – your customers have to re-up with you or you have no business. It’s what’s called the IPO and exit.

Culture is a massive part of Tealium, Jeff has never used the term unicorn on their internal messaging platforms. He just went and hired a couple of hundred people with the plan to expand over the world and grow the business. With many competitors in the market, it’s important that Tealium can differentiate itself. They created the category themselves in 2013 when after launching Tealium’s Audience Stream Product as back then, no one was using the term customer data platform. People were talking about CRM and master data management but the idea to get a real-time, new layer of enterprise data architecture stack to collect all this event-level data, create visitor profiles, and distribute those back out to all the systems that could benefit, this was a new idea.

They process 6 billion events per day around the world in eight data centers in Europe, Asia, and the US. Priding themselves on rapid time to value therefore differentiating themselves from getting companies live in 30 to 60 days of commencing a project as opposed to the 6 to 9 months that it could take with a larger company.

In this new post-pandemic world, the culture at companies have changed and this is the same for Tealium. Jeff explained as a leader, you could walk around the building and talk to the engineers, operators, but that’s no longer possible. The culture has shifted online through Zoom, but they still have in-person meetings they call Tealium connection centers. Jeff said their culture is one of winning, they win together as a team, trust each other and they hold each other accountable for performance.

Thinking about the external environment, the global economic outlook is looking uncertain. Therefore, Jeff has adjusted his communications approach both personally, internally, and as a company to maintain confidence in Tealium. He’s seeing dynamism in the sales cycles where there’s a start-stop and a CFO. He doesn’t have concerns about Tealium as their finances are fine and they’re a very well-capitalized business backed by investors. Jeff explained most CFOs are using this as a chance to challenge their teams on every new investment. They’re approved as an enabling platform that unlocks value, customer personalization, and real-time engagement with customers, right when they have the highest propensity to buy. They can see a 20% to 30% improvement in conversion rate because they went from batch to real-time, which really moves the needle for a business and makes them more efficient.

For internal communication purposes, Tealium uses Slack to speak to the team. Zoom is also used with their employees as well as newsletters where each member of the leadership team writes an update. Moving to external communications, Jeff is the external spokesperson and representative of the business. However, he would prefer to not be the external spokesperson for Tealium but understand the investment community need to speak to him and his CFO. Instead, he would want the CMO, head of product, and CTO to be talking to customers and the market. He isn’t the type of leader to be constantly tweeting which is why this podcast is the first that he’s ever done.

In his early career, 25 years ago, he would be a little nervous to do public speaking. But then it just became a natural conversation, and he was comfortable speaking in a group of any size.

The biggest communications challenge Jeff has faced along his journey is the current pandemic world with Zoom meetings instead of face-to-face. But most of the corporate leaders that Jeff knows are working through it to figure out what’s the best way to operate in this hybrid world.

Jeff imagines going back in time to speak to his old self, reflecting on what guidance he would give about communications. He states that he would tell himself to listen and not talk, which is counterintuitive, but what helped him over the years to become a better communicator. This is for communicating with customers, prospects, investors, and employees. Finally, being direct when you do talk saves a lot of time!