Interview a Founder – M.H. Lines of Automaton
Date Updated: Thursday, March 5, 2020
With International Women’s Day coming up this weekend, we continue our series of interviews with female founders of startups and the impact they are having on the tech ecosystem. This time I had the pleasure of sitting down with M.H. Lines, cofounder and CEO of Automaton Inc. Automaton recently picked up first prize at the Women in Cloud #CloudInnovateHER Pitch Challenge.
DS: Tell us a little about your company Automaton and what they do.
MHL: At Automaton, we help business users bring the same level of quality and scale to managing tech stacks, that engineers and IT bring to code. For example, with a sales technology stack built around Dynamics CRM, Atomatest helps make sure that email and landing pages are creating leads, and that the leads being created are pushed to the right sales teams.
DS: What’s your origin story in high tech and how did you come to start Automaton?
MHL: So the company actually was created as by-product, working as a consultant and needing to expand my team, so it very much happened rapidly and by accident. But the product that we’re no known for grew out of that consulting practice.
We had been doing a lot of really large enterprise projects and some projects for some fast-growing startups in the marketing technology and the sales operations CRM space. Then we found out we could hire really great people but we couldn’t tell that they had done all the things they needed to do and one of the first things to go was the testing to make sure that these really complex things were up and running. And half of the teams that I wound up managing in these projects were engineers and the engineers kept asking me, “How do we run a regression test?”
And for the first two months I ignored them because I had no idea what they were talking about, but eventually I wanted to understand what these ‘regression test’ things were. And it’s pretty obvious that for all of the business users managing these cloud applications, not only did we not have the same toolset, we didn’t have the same vernacular for talking about managing new technology implementations with quality.
It’s a problem across any cloud application, that business users can’t do a regression test, can’t do an integration test without doing it manually. Which means it’s almost never done. And it’s never done with consistency and quality, because if you can’t automate it and you can’t do it in a repeatable fashion then it’s very hard for broad teams to be able to do it.
So, we built this tool for our in-house use. One of our clients saw it and said, “Oh that’s cool. What are you using there, I’d like to use that?” And that’s when we realized that we weren’t a consulting firm anymore. We were a product team.
DS: In making that transition, was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome?
MHL: My cofounder Eric Peterson, who was an incredible leader at Tableau until he joined us about a year ago, saw this need and wanted this product, but it’s never like the primary business, right? This isn’t something that very many people would need to productize. It was going to have to be someone to build it as a point solution, the way we have. So he was kind of building it in his mind. We had built a version of it. We came together and built a better mousetrap. And so I think the bigger problem is that so few business leaders, like the HR people leading the SaaS tech stacks or the marketers leading these huge marketing fast tech stack – the average enterprise now has 91 tools in their marketing technology stack – they don’t have any vernacular or any understanding for what testing looks like or what testing should look like.
It’s just not something that’s ever been in their day jobs. They always did marketing and now they’ve had to learn toolsets. And now they’re starting to pick up these IT and technology functions, but this isn’t something IT is handing to them and it’s not something that’s getting into their hands fast enough. So, the biggest challenge for us is in education.
DS: So, looking at your career, when did you first realize that you were going to found a company rather than just go take another job?
MHL: We would have founded the company a year earlier had I been able to talk any of the people that would have been a better CEO than me into doing it. I finally had to just give up and do it myself. I never wanted to be the CEO.
DS: And how does it feel now that you are?
MHL: As terrifying as I expected it to be. Now I have all of the customers that I’ve always cared about and all of the employees who I know to be better leaders and more competent than I could ever be. And it’s my job to support them. So, it feels like an incredible amount of responsibility.
DS: Amazing: Can you take us through a typical day, how much is meetings, etc.?
MHL: On an average day, I start generally between 5:00 and 5:30. I have a home office, so I go downstairs and I try and meet with my team who’s on the East Coast. We work on, generally, sales and marketing things that we’re trying to get out the door.
I spend an hour getting the kids dressed, getting them to school, handing them off to our nanny who keeps them from 8:00 to 5:00 every day.
Over the course of the day there a lot of fundraising meetings, calls with customers, prospects or partners. That tends to be the bulk of my day work.
On an average Thursday we have an hour’s Sprint planning for the week. We go through the product, the features, the usage, the customers that are onboarding and any new integration research.
Probably about 10% of my time is product development now, thinking through, “Would a browser extension be more helpful for our customers?” Most days I have about a 30-minute call or interaction on the internet trying to understand some typical fails. Our product is about trying to make things fail before it ever affects the customer. So researching what is failing is a really good way to figure out what we should be building against.
And then I hang out with the kids for a couple of hours, make dinner. We do a lot of hiking, even though it’s raining. And then I get in bed with as big a glass of wine as I can pour without getting into trouble from my husband and try and write for an hour or two. I’ve been trying to write a book by the end of the year on this ‘citizen technologist’ phenomenon that is happening.
DS: Wow, that is a full day. I was wondering how you manage to balance life versus time in meetings versus time spent moving the needle and if you had any strategies for solving that problem.
MHL: I show up 15-20 minutes late for every meeting that I’m ever scheduled for. So, I just absolutely ignore my calendar. I’m bad at it. I don’t prioritize well. We have an incredible group of advisors – Bob Crimmins is the one who’s really kicking me in the pants right now – who really give us a lot of incredible advice on coming back to focusing on the right project.
One of our cofounders is a guy named Andy Graves, who’s at Anthem, as an Agile coach. He runs what are our OKRs? How are we focused? What is our cadence for the company? And then we have a drop-everything-and-take-care-of-customers rule. So that if a customer needs something, we try and get it done within two business hours, or, at the least, get it into the hands of the customers by the very next day. It keeps us from gold-plating work. I used to promise what I would think the absolute best solution was, but knowing that I’ve made a commitment to the team to get it out in two hours, I’ve really dumbed down what I offer people. And generally, that’s all they needed. They didn’t need the gold-plated thing that I would have thought was perfect. But it also forces us to prioritize other customers.
DS: If you were going to start all over again, what would you do differently?
MHL: I believe that our company is venture scale in such a way that whoever takes the market in our space will be someone who is venture backed. It’s a huge, growing market and people are becoming aware that they need it, so whoever is going to own the market is going to have to either have unlimited funds to go to market or they’re going to have to be venture backed. So once I realized that and I realized that we were going to need to take venture to scale, talking to people about that kind of company, we heard that no one wanted us to have consulting revenue and that consulting revenue would be seen as a distraction. So, I closed down our consulting business probably too aggressively. I wish we still had more of a consulting practice in play and would have known to give a stronger pushback to investors, that consulting helps us get our product out there faster.
DS: I want to ask you about your path to Azure and what you feel about working with Microsoft’s product.
MHL: I have never had a litmus test with the developers I work with be Microsoft-specific. My litmus test is do they care about the customer in solving the problem and have that searching intellect. Which means a lot of the developers we’ve worked with creating this beta version, and now our secondary version, have not been Microsoft developers per se. I think if you’re not a Microsoft developer, you probably have a predilection for Amazon by default. But, when I was going through not wanting to be the CEO and trying to find anyone else, my incredible leadership coach, Michelle Zeiser from Self Ideate, was the one who had heard about Women in Cloud, and she said, “You have to apply for this program. a) You have a product. b) you need to pursue this product and c) you need to apply for Women in Cloud”, which is a product which helps people get into the cosell ecosystem with Microsoft.
So that was the step, getting accepted into the Women in Cloud program, that pushed me over the edge into really doing this as a company, to really commercializing the solution we built as a consultancy. They gave us a lot of resources and then we were also a Techstars 2019 company and through that… IBM, Oracle, Amazon all help support us. We got into the Microsoft for Startups program, so we’re in both Women in Cloud and Microsoft for Startups and just between those two programs, the resources that have been given to us really pushed us into doing a lot of our development on Azure.
Even our developers who had never used Microsoft before have been flabbergasted by how much faster and with enterprise-level scale the relationship with Microsoft has given us, and with Azure in particular. We just went through some Infosec compliance and the resources, because we were architected on Azure, have really helped us sail through that process.
DS: Now this is your opportunity to give props to three other founders, entrepreneurs, companies or products that you think everyone should know about.
MHL: One of our first customers is an awesome female-founded company here in town called PartnerTap. Cassandra Gholston is the CEO. In addition, to having a product that we’re really exciting to be launching in cosell through our partnership with Adobe, they have a product that I’m enjoying using and they have been an incredible customer and partner and she’s a badass CEO.
I have to mention Chaitra Vedullapalli from Women in Cloud, she’s one of the founders, like Karen Fassio, at Microsoft who is also a founder, so ALL the incredible founders at Women in Cloud for believing in helping us in just the best way.
And then the other one would have to be Leslie Feinzaig from the Female Founders Alliance.
DS: Thanks! So what are you streaming, reading, listening to, playing right now? What’s filling up your leisure time?
MHL: I just started The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get. I resent but love the book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. I bet you hear that from all the founders. It reinforces what a suicidal mission this was, so I appreciate that and don’t appreciate that at the same time.
And I watch just a ton of HGTV. Renovating houses is my favorite pastime, to my husband’s chagrin. He’d like it if I had more profitable enterprises than being a startup CEO and less expensive hobbies than renovating houses.
DS: Thank you so much for that, this has been terrific. Last question now. If Aaron Sorkin is writing the screenplay, who’s playing you in the movie?
MHL: Maybe Ashley Judd? She’s older than I am, I don’t know who any of the younger actresses are.
DS: Emma Stone?
MHL: All I can see is red hair.
DS: What about Elizabeth Moss?
MHL: Yeah, it has to be somebody who probably got into bar fights. I don’t know that Elizabeth Moss has been in enough bar fights. I haven’t done it, but I feel I’m the type of person who could.
DS: Excellent, thank you so much!