S02E38: Jeff Lunsford, Tealium

Our guest in this 31st interview episode with a unicorn start-up leader is the CEO of Tealium, Jeff Lunsford. 

Tealium is a leading customer data platform (CDP), connecting you with your customers, through your data. For companies to better connect with their customers, Tealium combines customer data across web, mobile, offline, and IoT. With more than 1,300 built-in connections supported by Tealium’s turnkey integration ecosystem, brands can build a complete and up-to-date consumer data framework. 

The company was founded in 2008 by Mike Anderson and Ali Behnam, with Jeff Lunsford taking the position of CEO in 2013.  The company reached unicorn status in February 2021, with a valuation of $1.2 billion. Today, more than a thousand top companies around the globe rely on Tealium to power their consumer data strategy. 

Tealium have reached unicorn status thanks to their focus and care for their customers- with a company culture that is “one of winning”, Jeff states that they “win together as a team, holding each other accountable for performance,” acknowledging that although every deal can’t be won, you can still learn from these instances and keep improving. Thanks to this commitment to improvement, Tealium have built a culture of trust and an extensive portfolio of repeat customers. 

Jeff Lunsford has more than two decades of experience as a technology and internet executive and leader. Jeff says “success in business is never a straight line. It is always ups and downs”, and highlights how important it is as leaders, to always have a “positive bounce” in your step. He also believes that the most important thing in business is not IPOs or unicorn statuses, but rather “building great solutions and taking great care of customers so they can deliver true business value.”  

The interview, as usual, was co-hosted with Russell Goldsmith of the csuite podcast. Alongside Holly Justice, Senior Partner at Tyto PR 

We have distilled the most valuable, actionable insights from our first 15 interviews with leaders of unicorn companies and bottled them in our book ‘Growing without borders: The unicorn CEO guide to communication and culture’. You can download it here


Russ: [00:00:02] Thanks for downloading the 31st in our series of episodes of the C-suite podcast that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR Agency Tyto and their own Without Borders podcast, where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications. My name is Russell Goldsmith and my co-host for this episode is Tyto’s senior partner Holly Justice, and today we are thrilled to be joined online from Dallas, Texas by Jeff Lunsford, CEO and President of Customer Data Platform Tealium. 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. Welcome to the show, Jeff. Can we start by you giving us a bit of background to the company and also just explain the area of business that you are seeking to disrupt? 

Jeff: [00:00:58] Yes, certainly. So, the background is that Ali Benham, Mike Anderson, our two co-founders, and I, worked together at a company called Webside Story back from 2002 to 2007, and Webside story was a pioneer in real-time web analytics. And we helped digital marketers as companies arose out of the dotcom bust ashes, we helped them with real-time instrumentation in the cockpits of their business, and that business was a fantastic success. We took it public, then we merged it with Omniture, which then sold to Adobe. Ali and Mike then became a consulting firm, and they approached me in 2011 and said, we’d like to turn this consulting firm into a software company. We think there’s an emerging trend here as software eats the world, we think there’s going to be basically a deluge of very valuable data being created by all these software packages. And we think there is going to be a need for companies to collect that data, organize and enrich that data around visitor profiles, and then distribute that data back out into the enterprise, into all the software packages that companies will use to create compelling customer experiences. And so in 2011, I and some other industry colleagues gave them funding and said, that is a great idea. That’s a huge problem. Let’s go solve it. Let’s hire our engineering team back from Webside story and go make it happen. And so, ten years later, we now have a global company with I’d say about 870 customers worldwide. And this problem that we foresaw, if anything, is a larger problem and a larger opportunity than we thought back in 2011. Our average customer uses 200-300 enterprise software packages, of which 50 to 100 touch the customer. So, when you start thinking about how you collect the data from all those software packages, how do you, on a trusted and well-governed platform because their privacy regulations all over the world,how do you collect that data and coalesce it into truly understanding your customer? And how do you do that in real-time? It’s a huge problem. And every company that wants to be successful has to solve it. 

Holly: [00:03:33] And as you’ve mentioned there, Jeff, you’ve now been leading Tealium as its CEO for almost a decade now, since 2013. But before then, I guess you could probably class yourself as a bit of a serial entrepreneur. You’ve already mentioned your background at Webside story, but also you led Limelight Networks before then as well. Can you tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey? 

Jeff: [00:03:56] Sure. So, my entrepreneurial journey started in eighth grade when I got a Commodore Vic 20 and started writing software and helped our local laundromat automate his billing process on his Commodore 64. But you do not want me writing your software. We hire much smarter people and better engineers than me at Tealium. So, I got a degree in computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology, was always in love with technology. But then I did a six-year stint in the US Navy and flew fighters. And then when I got out of the Navy after six years, I decided to go back into technology and help friends start a technology consulting company that worked with banks across the US to develop technology strategies and implement them. And then I joined up with a group of entrepreneurs who had started already, 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. That company became S1 Corporation, which was a public company, and I was there for six years, then was recruited to go run a software development tools company called Together Soft in Raleigh, North Carolina, which we sold about six months after I got there. And then the investors in that company asked me to move to San Diego to run Webside story, which is where I picked up the story earlier. So Tealium is my sixth operating role and it’s just it’s been a fantastic decade run. And I see at least another decade here growing this business, it’s such a huge opportunity and we’re really just getting started. 

Russ: [00:05:44] Your last funding round. As far as I’m aware, was $96 million. So that was a series G and that’s what kind of took you over that unicorn status. So, to get you to that that $ 1.2 billion valuation that I mentioned in the intro and with all that investment, what’s the focus for the next 12 months and what’s next for Tealium?  

Jeff: [00:06:03] So we’re investing heavily in product and platform and customer success. We use some of that funding to build out our go to market organization around the world as well. I’d say really across all functional areas of the business. But the two highest priorities at Tealium right now are doubling down on the R&D organization so that we can continue to innovate. This is a very dynamic space and our success has attracted about 100 competitors. I’ve been in many competitive market sectors over the last 25 years, but I’ve never had 100 people who say, we do CDP also. So, it’s a great race and we’re doubling down on the product team. And customer success is absolutely critical as we’re dealing with these global enterprises. So, we’re doubling down in our customer success team as well. 

Holly: [00:07:02] And thinking a little bit more about leadership now, Jeff. Which individual or individuals would you say have had the biggest impact in your development as a leader and who are they and why? 

Jeff: [00:07:12] Oh, let’s see. I had a wonderful commanding officer in the US Navy named Bill McKee, who I learned a lot from. And then I had two wonderful mentors as I got out into business. The first was my CEO and partner at Brintech, a man named Harold Brewer, who taught me how to sell. Harold was just an amazing bank executive and technology executive that understood that industry. And then I joined the gentleman who had started the world’s first Internet bank, Chip Mahan. He introduced me to the capital markets and how to do M&A and also how to go into the largest companies in the world, build executive relationships, and then help understand what their needs are and become a true long-term technology partner. So, I would say those three leaders have taught me that success in business is never a straight line. It is always ups and downs. And as leaders, it’s really important that you always have that positive bounce in your step. George S Patton said pressure makes diamonds and that’s really important when you’re trying to build lasting companies. And we went through various kinds of critical points both in the Navy and then in Brintech and then at S1 with Chip and Harold and the way they reacted and led our teams through those periods of adversity so that we arose stronger out of the back side has always just been a great example for me. 

Holly: [00:08:54] And as you’ve just demonstrated really nicely there, I imagine leading a successful company, you need to have a real melting pot of exceptional skills yourself, but you probably also require an exceptional team around you. What would you say is your greatest strengths and then what are the main strengths of the rest of the Tealium management team that you’ve selected? 

Jeff: [00:09:14] That’s a great question. I feel like my job is to set the strategy. I use a mountain climbing analogy. As the CEO, you are going to work with your leadership team and the board, but you’re basically going to survey the landscape and pick which mountain you want to climb. And your job is then to go arrange financing. So, let’s go raise some capital and then recruit the team. But it’s not my job to then tell the team exactly which route they’re going to take up that mountain or what kind of equipment they’re going to use. 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. And it’s not that I have any amazing insight. It’s just that I listen to the customers, and you can kind of synthesize, okay, once you have three or four companies tell you something, you can kind of see a pattern. And then my job is really, as I said, go recruit the team, raise the capital, and then get out of the way and support them in any way as they execute. And so Tealium’s leadership is fantastic. We’ve built this business up to north of $150 million in revenue and across every functional area – finance, legal, Sales, go to market marketing, customer success, technology, operations. I just have a fantastic leadership team and could not be happier to serve alongside them.  

Russ: [00:11:02] Jeff, a key focus of the discussions we’re having with all of our unicorn leaders is on communications and culture. So just firstly, how has becoming a unicorn changed the perception of the company? 

Jeff: [00:11:15] You know, to me, I think IPOs and unicorn status are just way overdone. Each of those is just a financing event. And that’s all, because what’s really 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, the service business – your customers have to re-up with you or you have no business. And so, it’s what people call an IPO and exit. That’s crazy. It’s an entrance. It’s an entrance to the biggest meat grinder on the planet. And it’s a financing event. And having run public companies for about 15 years of my career and then private companies for about ten years of my career, at the end of the day, it’s really about financing your team. I don’t think I ever even use the term unicorn with Tealium on our internal messaging. It was really our series G financing event. And let’s go hire another couple of hundred people and let’s expand all over the world and let’s keep growing this business. 

Russ: [00:12:22] Excellent. For a lot of tech companies, it can be quite difficult to stand out. What’s at the heart of your strategy in terms of differentiating yourself?  

Jeff: [00:12:30] Well, first of all, we created this category in 2013 when we launched Altium’s Audience Stream Product. Back then, no one was using the term customer data platform. People were talking about CRM and people were talking about master data management. But the idea to get that you needed a real-time, new layer of your 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, that was a new idea. Similar to what TIBCO did in the mainframe area where they created this new message bus concept. And so, we created the category. And we were working with global companies already. So, we had to build to enterprise scale and security and data governance. And so, the scale and the trusted nature of our platform and all the security and privacy aspects of developing our product and operating our product around the world are one of our largest differentiators. Our platform works. We process 6 billion events per day around the world in eight data centres in Europe, Asia, and the US. And we pride ourselves on rapid time to value. So, when we sit down with a company, we will typically try to get them live within 30 to 60 days of commencing a project as opposed to maybe the 6 to 9 months, it might take with some larger enterprise software company. There are so many functional aspects of differentiation. But that’s not really how Tealium sells. We really sell by sitting down with a customer and asking them to put their priorities on a whiteboard. Where would you get the biggest bang for your buck if you could do X, Y, or Z for your business? And then we’ll help you figure out if Tealium can help you achieve those. If we can’t, we’ll move on. If we can, let’s get into business together as partners and make it happen.  

Russ: [00:14:40] Love that. You mentioned just before another 200 employees joining the team. When they arrive, what’s the kind of culture that they can expect? How have you developed that culture and nurtured it? 

Jeff: [00:14:51] Great question, especially in the kind of post-pandemic world of operations it used to be as a leader, you could walk around the building and talk to the engineers and talk to the operators and talk to everyone, and that is no longer possible. So now you have to work through the Zoom, the portfolio and talk to your team on Zoom. We are having a lot of in-person meetings at what we call Tealium connection centres. We have offices as an example in the US we have San Diego, Dallas and Atlanta and we’re getting our team together a lot in person. Even though what happened with us in the pandemic is we hired everywhere. We said, let’s uncap this, where we’re headquartered in San Diego. Let’s hire people all over the US and all over the world.  our culture  is one of winning. We win together as a team and we hold each other accountable for performance. We really care about our customers. As I said earlier, this is my sixth company and we have repeat customers across those companies and repeat employees from those companies that are working here. I literally have companies at Tealium that have worked with me at all five previous companies. And so, it’s a culture of trust that we trust each other, that we’re going after something as a team and we’re going to win. And you don’t win every single deal. But, if you don’t win one, you learn from it and you keep improving and you’re committed to the long term. And at the end of the day, it really is about delivering true business value to your customers, right? Without that, everything is transitory, but with that, you can build a truly permanent, lasting, and important business to the industry. 

Holly: [00:16:40] And just thinking about the external environment for a minute, Jeff, kind of the global economic outlook is looking pretty uncertain for want of a different word. How are you adjusting the communications approach, both your personal one, internally and as a company to maintain confidence in Tealium? 

Jeff: [00:17:00] I think we’re definitely seeing, let’s call it, dynamism in the sales cycles where there’s some start-stop and the CFO wants to look at it again and that kind of thing. And so, there’s really no concern about Tealium. We’ll show people our finances and we’re fine. Very well capitalized business backed by amazing investors. But there are definitely macro headwinds just around the world, right? Mostly in Europe, a little bit in the US. And I just think everybody most CFOs are using this as a chance to just challenge their teams on every new investment. Let’s just check that one more time. And the great thing about Tealium is that our software typically enables the initiatives that these companies want to be successful with because it makes them more efficient. And so, we’re approved as an enabling platform that then unlocks a bunch of value, unlocks customer personalization, unlocks real time engagement with your customers, right when they have the highest propensity to buy. And those are the kinds of things that really move the needle. When you can see a 20 to 30% improvement in conversion rate just because you go from batch to real time, that really moves the needle for a business and makes them more efficient. 

Holly: [00:18:25] And can you share any approaches to internal communications at Tealium that have worked really well for you?  

Jeff: [00:18:31] My team loves Slack. I feel like it’s overload for me personally because as an older school person, I have all this email and text and I don’t even know how I could handle Slack. I’m also on the road most of the time, and Slack is more of a when you’re sitting at your desk kind of thing. So, but we do it all. We have zoom meetings with our employees. We have newsletters where we talk about all the great things happening and each member of the leadership team kind of writes up an update. We have real-time. We have a winning channel on Slack and a winning channel on email where you can just send it to winning if something amazing happens inside the company. And so, you’re sharing stuff in real time. The hardest thing is really just that the old days, we’d get everybody in the room, you know. But as you scale and become a global company you don’t have that anyways, right? And you have to figure out how to engage the employees and communicate. So, we just communicate in so many different ways. And it’s all about being open and transparent and sharing good data. My general philosophy is I want the people out on the front lines to have as much data as I have because they can make good decisions that way. So, we try to be very transparent with what’s happening with the business and share that out with everybody.  

Russ: [00:19:56] And moving from internal communications back to external Jeff, in terms of your role as the external spokesperson, representative of the business, how do you view that? And also, what have you learned along the way along that journey of all those different businesses that you’ve been involved in until now? 

Jeff: [00:20:15] I actually would prefer that I not be the external spokesperson for Tealium. Of course, in the investment community, yeah, they need to speak with me and my CFO. Right, but at this stage of my career, I want to have my CMO, my CRO, my head of product, my CTO. I want to have them out there talking to customers and the market. There are some leaders who are tweeting everything every day, and really, they create a cult of personality about themselves, and that’s counter to how I’m wired. So, I’m actually trying to have the reverse happen, which is why this is the first podcast interview I’ve ever done. 

Russ: [00:20:59] Well, we are very honoured. Thank you so much. 

Jeff: [00:21:04] I’d much rather you talk to someone else on my leadership team. So, you really want to be enabling them in their careers and you want their career to stay with Tealium, of course, because they’re great. But my philosophy is, yes, of course, if we’re going to go sign a massive contract with a massive company around the world, then I’m going to go meet them and be a spokesperson that way. But to me, there’s been a little over rotation to where company CEOs have become these celebrities. In reality, it should be about the team. 

Holly: [00:21:41] With this being your first podcast, Jeff, you’re clearly a natural communicator. Given the external spokesperson role that you do need to play, like for those investment meetings and things as you’ve mentioned. Have you had to formulate a plan to get there to get better at it? 

Jeff: [00:21:58] No, to me, I’ve always just been a very direct communicator as far as the business, our strategy, the investment community has never been a problem. My CFO and I both have like we’ve run public companies for, I don’t know, 15 years. So, talking to public investors, private investors, just like when you’re building a partnership with a customer. You’re also building a partnership with your investors. And you just speak with them that way. 

Russ: [00:22:27] What about in those early days, though? Were you ever nervous about getting up in front of an audience at all or is it just something that came naturally to you? 

Jeff: [00:22:35] I think in my first business meetings outside of the Navy, when I was asked to speak, I was a little bit nervous perhaps. 25 years ago, 1994/95. But then it just become, it’s just a natural conversation whether you’re talking to one person or whether you’re talking to 800, that’s how I’ve learned to just get comfortable speaking in a big group. 

Holly: [00:23:01] And what would you say has been your biggest communications challenge that you’ve faced along your journey, and how did you overcome that? 

Jeff: [00:23:09] Well, I think it’s right now in this world of the pandemic and everyone’s distributed and you have all these Zoom meetings and in the old days you travel to see customers and investors. But now you actually have to travel to see employees, too, which is hard on the body. But I think right now is really the most challenging time to be a leader that I’ve experienced in my career. And we’re not through it, right? We’re just executing and keeping our heads down and building our business. But most of the corporate leaders that I know are sort of working through what’s the best way to operate in this hybrid world. 

Russ: [00:23:51] Jeff, we’ve got one final question for you, which we’ve actually asked all our unicorn leaders this question. If you were to go back in time and speak to your old self, what guidance would you give yourself about communications? I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be about just being direct and honest, which is pretty much what you said. But is there any one particular kind of thing that you would say? 

Jeff: [00:24:10] Yes. I think the best way to communicate is to listen and not talk. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but what has helped me over the years is speaking less and listening more, both to our customers, our prospects, our investors, and our employees. And I think it’s really important. Of course, then when you are going to communicate just being direct. 

Russ: [00:24:37] Jeff Lunsford, thank you so much for taking the time to join us and record today. Really appreciate it.  

Jeff: [00:24:41] Thank you. 

Russ: [00:24:42] Holly, thoughts on what Jeff had to say? 

Holly: [00:24:45] What a great chat. I thought it took a lot from his open and honest approach to some of those questions, particularly around how he’s finding the current period the most challenging time to be a leader and a communicator. Navigating this post-pandemic hybrid working situation. I think lots of people are trying to pretend it’s great, but we don’t all have the answers to how to do it. And I loved kind of how he approached that in terms of putting every audience first and listening to what they want and responding to what they want rather than just talking at them or leading at them. I thought that was really interesting. 

Russ: [00:25:22] Not the first of our guests to say that he didn’t make a big fuss about becoming a unicorn internally as well.  

Holly: [00:25:28] Yes, true. 

Russ: [00:25:30] Yeah, that’s definitely a consistent theme that we’ve seen. Ok, well, if you want to find out more about Tealium, then their website is simply Tealium.com.  We’d love to hear your comments on today’s chat. You can do that by sharing them on our Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter feeds, or you can do it in the comments of the YouTube version of this podcast. Those are all linked from the top of our website at csuitepodcast.com, where you’ll also find all our previous shows and supporting show notes, plus links to where you can follow us for automatic downloads of each episode via the likes of Spotify and Apple. And if you’ve liked what you’ve heard, please do give us a positive rating and review. We’re of course, available on all podcast apps. Just search for the csuite podcast and hit, follow or subscribe. And don’t forget, you can also subscribe to the Without Borders podcast from our partners at Tyto. All the details for that or on their website, just head to Tytopr.com and click on the podcast link in the top nav bar. Plus, you can also download a copy of Growing Without Borders the Unicorn CEO Guide to Communication and Culture from Tyto website as well. It’s a great overview of the first 15 of our unicorn interviews. If you are a unicorn leader yourself and you’d like to be part of this series, please do get in touch via the contact form on the website at csuitepodcast.com. Plus, of course anyone can get in touch with any feedback you may have. And of course, you can also reach me via Twitter using @russgoldsmith. Or you can find me on LinkedIn. But for now, thanks for listening and goodbye. 

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