The Northwest Tech Scene, Public Policy, and Collaboration: WTIA CEO Susan Sigl on Her First 100 Days & What’s In Store

Three months have flown by since Susan Sigl succeeded Ken Myer as the CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA). The 26-year-old organization is the largest statewide association of tech companies and executives in the world, representing some 1,100 members and 125,000 tech employees across Washington, with a staff of just 11. That’s quite a responsibility to inherit. After just a few months on the job, Sigl has settled in, and started talking about her big plans for the future.

Sigl joined the WTIA on April 5, bringing with her a background in venture capital as the co-founder (along with Tom Huseby) of Seattle-based SeaPoint Ventures. After cutting her teeth at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Sigl was recruited away to a Texas oil and gas startup, a sector she worked in for 18 years. She then became an entrepreneur, or as she put it, a “negotiator-a doer of deals,” supporting a number of a number of early-stage companies across the mobile, wireless, and software sectors. Her resume includes a stint as SnapIn Software’s interim CFO, and working with Zumobi, and Ground Truth as part of SeaPoint’s wireless initiative.

When Sigl was appointed to the position in March, she told Greg that she was struck by the mission of the WTIA: working to support, advocate for, and help tech companies across Washington state thrive. And to her own surprise, she’s found the job to be very close to the startup culture she’s so familiar with.

“It’s interesting, because I’ve never worked in a non-profit for salary before, but the mission and the opportunity is so dynamic. It is surprisingly very much like a regular company; in some respects it is kind of entrepreneurial,” she says. “For me that has been one of the biggest highlights—to walk into a door of a nonprofit and see the same kind of motivation and attitude that you see in a startup company.”

Given that I’m new to the local tech scene, I thought it would be nice to catch up with Sigl and hear more about her experiences and plans for the growing organization. I sat down with Susan last week to chat about her first 100 days on the job, and where she plans to take the organization in the future. Almost immediately the idea of change took hold. The WTIA was founded in 1984, around when Microsoft was preparing to go public, Sigl told me. Back then, the local technology sector was heavily embedded in the rise of the personal computer. Today, however, the industry is different, and the WTIA, in turn, has changed along with it.

“It’s morphed, as you can imagine in that period of time as a technology sector has morphed, so we now in the last three and a half or four years have moved from being an organization that represents the software industry in the state to really the whole tech sector,” Sigl says. “We cover mobility, and gaming, and entertainment, and digital media, and e-commerce, and cloud computing—you know, pretty much if you can label it, it’s under our umbrella. It’s huge, and that’s what makes it pretty fun.”

Sigl further discussed some of the biggest expansions in the tech industry, and how that has changed the role of the WTIA moving forward. Here are some of the highlights, edited for length and clarity as always:

Xconomy: When you spoke with Greg a few months ago, you mentioned that one of your primary goals in your new position would be to broaden the WTIA’s sponsorship and membership. The WTIA is already the biggest tech trade association in the U.S.—what would this widening entail?

Susan Sigl: We are the biggest in the country, however in terms of penetration within our own state for membership, we probably have about 10 percent of our market. And I don’t think it works like in a typical private company analysis where’d you say ‘who else has the other piece of the market?’ I think the market is out there—it just isn’t in the fold yet. So there’s a lot of upside. And then, of course, that doesn’t even account for other tech sectors. There’s just a lot of upside to grow the organization and that’s really exciting to me. And of course that’s not just the membership, but the sponsorships, and just the involvement. We have a very sizable board—we have a 40-person board—and it represents some of the top tech leaders in the state. And there are just so many powerful elements to the organization that really have the capacity to have it expand its mission and achieve its mission. And I think there’s no limit to it, really, because it’s all about, in the end, the economic viability for technology in the state of Washington. That includes education, quality of life, tax climate, all of the conditions that a state really needs to have in place to continue to promote entrepreneurship and make it a place where businesses can thrive. That’s a long-term proposition, and that makes it really exciting.

X: What does the WTIA need to do first in order to accomplish this?

SS: One of the first steps is retention. How do you retain the members that you already have? And my understanding is that is an ongoing challenge always for any member-based organization, because companies can join, and then if there isn’t proper follow-up, or messaging, or something helping them get value for what they’ve paid for, then it ends up showing up in retention. We’re doing a really good job in that respect. The one thing about the WTIA is that it’s been around long enough and the people that it employs are so competent in their functional area, that we have good systems in place to know what you need to do to make sure that these kinds of fundamental things that keep going quarter after quarter after quarter are covered. So we do a lot of outreach—we have systematic methods in which we reach out to them and check in with them. We don’t wait until the invoice is due annually. I mean, it’s not real sexy or anything, but it’s part of just being on top of your businesses. Retention is part of how you grow the membership, because you need those people to stay as members while you’re doing new acquisitions. And the new acquisitions, that’s a lot of the fun part of the membership drive, which is meeting new companies, getting referrals from companies that you already have in the fold, having the right reputations so that people kind of already have some familiarity with the brand and what it can do for you. So we try to stay on top of all of those things, given that fact that we still are a nonprofit with a limited budget.

X: How many staffers do you currently have?

SS: There are a total of 11 people.

X: Oh, wow! It’s much smaller than I thought.

SS: No kidding! One of our—they’re not competitors because they’re in a different state—but one of the associations that we know well on the East Coast, they’re smaller than we are, and they, for instance, have 35 people on their staff.

The thing that is so wonderful is the competence of the people in here. We have two people in membership, one person in sponsorship, one person on events—we almost have a one-man functionality for each department, whether that be accounting and finance, or government affairs. And those people are so competent, and so driven, and so just positive. We get a ton done with an 11-person staff.

X: Is your staff something you’d like to see expand to meet growing needs in the future?

SS: Yeah. Like any good business person, if you’ve got goals that you want to achieve and they’re big in nature, you definitely want to think about how you resource to get there. But right now I can jump fast forward and tell you where we’re at in terms of the strategic part of the business. We have made the decision for the next 12 months that the goal is to do what we currently do a lot better— and just make sure that we’re doing the best possible job that we can with what we’ve got. So this particular year will not necessarily be a year of expansion outward. It’s going to be more of an in-depth look at whether the events that we do are the right events for us. Do they add the value and the message that we want to communicate? The partners that we currently have—and when I refer to partners, I mean, we’ve got organizations in Bellingham and Whatcom county, because there’s tech companies there. In eastern Washington, there’s kind of a little bubble going on of companies over there because of the Yahoo facility and other [things]. There have been some policy initiatives that have cut favorable deals, if you will, by the government for encouraging companies to go over there for data storage. So there’s a lot going on over there, and we have relationships—we have partnerships—over there, and we’re going to figure out how we can bring more offerings to those groups. After all, we do represent the state even though 75 percent of the tech sector resides right here in Puget Sound. So it’s about just looking deeply at what we have and making sure that we’re doing the best job that we can with what we have. And maybe the next 12 months after that it will be more a look at some expansion. One of the reasons for that is because we did a pretty big expansion deal in the fourth quarter of 2009. There is an organization, it’s a national organization, called TechAmerica, and it basically represents the engineering, electronics, advanced manufacturing sector. And they had a chapter in Washington, and we merged their chapter in the WTIA. And that’s been something we want—to get really good at representing those companies. So we absorbed about 100 technology manufacturing companies in that acquisition, and I think we’re just now really getting to the point where we’re refining the offering to them—the value proposition and why it was a good thing. And that’s another piece of this next 12 months: to service those folks.

X: What have been the biggest challenges, lessons, and ‘aha’ moments you’ve faced in your first three months?

SS: I found myself in the very fortunate position of walking into an organization that was already established and successful. Nothing was broken, and the WTIA did not need to be reinvented. So the beauty of that—and sometimes people that have my background of 25, 30 years of entrepreneurial experience, dream about this situation. They dream about being in a situation in which it isn’t like hair on fire, trying to fix six things immediately. So the benefit of walking into something that’s already established and running well, is that you have the ultimate luxury of two things: taking the time to learn deeply what the organization is about and all of its component parts, and then truly getting to be strategic. Then the whole proposition becomes: everything is working, it’s got a good brand, and the challenge is how do I continue that? How do I grow that? How do I leverage that? And that even becomes much more, in some respects, esoteric than if you’re walking in and you’ve got to hire 16 people immediately, and you’ve got to get a new website up, and you’ve got to get new systems in place. It’s a different set of challenges, but it’s almost like the dream scenario.

X: And the ‘aha’ moments?

SS: The ‘aha’ moments. When I signed up for the job, I knew that it was a 40-person board. And coming from a small company culture, that sounded like it might have a lot of inherent challenges. Whenever I tell people we have a 40-person board, everybody has the same reaction: “Wow.” To my surprise and delight, it’s actually been so far nothing but a benefit, because I have a situation in which there are a couple of key committees—the ones that you would really want—that are functioning at a really high level and totally involved. So that’s an executive committee, and a nominating committee. There is a finance committee that does a good job too, but I guess where I’m going with this is that I don’t have all of these multiple, multiple committees that have to be managed, and have board involvement or not. We have the luxury of running the organization so that the staff basically does everything. We’re not dependent so much on volunteers. So that becomes even much more strategic. You’re really drawing on people that are on your board for their strategic input—it becomes very, very powerful.

One of the surprises was that when you hold the title, because of the representation involved—so you’re the CEO of the largest tech trade association in the state—you have reciprocity almost with other organizations and associations in terms of sitting on their boards. So it was like in the first couple of weeks I began to realize that sitting on the Puget Sound Regional Council board, the Tech Alliance board, [etc.] was part of the proposition, which is all a good thing. But every additive thing is time. But it’s good because they really all sort of feed together in the same mission and strategy. Everybody in these groups is working for the purpose of enhancing the state, and enhancing the state’s technology sector, so it’s all good.

It was a little bit different being in a long-term partnership role. In a venture capital scenario you’re usually a partner, versus a CEO. And surprisingly enough there are some very distinct differences about those two roles, neither good nor bad, they just operate differently. In a partnership, it’s pretty much you’re with your peers, and you’re making peer-related decisions about operations and investment decisions. In a CEO role, the buck stops here. So you aren’t in your partner’s office next door working through necessarily to the bitter end what you’re going to decide as a cohesive group. At some point in the CEO role, you are the party that makes the final call. So that’s neither good nor bad, it’s just a different experience. I like it. And in a way it’s a good thing to bring to the table coming from the partnership side to the CEO side, because in a partnership you are forced to be collaborative—I mean, you have 15 years of collaboration, because in most partnerships there isn’t any room for split decisions, so most partnerships operate so you have to have a unanimous decision. And so when you come from that perspective, collaboration is just something that’s wired in you. So I think that’s a good thing to bring to the table, but you’re not going to collaborate right down to the finally decision. Somebody at some point, the CEO, is going to say that this is the way you’re going to go. You’re actually driving the bus.

And when you look at the sheer number of constituents in the WTIA, it is staggering. If you’re not collaborative, you’re not doing the job. Because you’ve got board members, you’ve got partner organizations, you’ve got sponsors, you’ve got members, you’ve got people who you’re targeting for board participation, for membership, for sponsorship, and you have your staff. It just goes on and on. And so really, almost my first two months, were spent meeting the constituents at the high level. And that was somewhat overwhelming just because of the sheer number of the people involved in the WTIA. And then, of course, that also includes the politicians, because they’re very interested in staying close to the organization and knowing what the tech sector is thinking about particular issues.

X: You’ve said you plan to focus the next year improving upon what the WTIA already does—what does this entail?

SS: So our No. 1 strategic initiative is to be more influential in public policy. And that’s part of this year of doing what we do better. It’s going to involve a lot more collaboration with other tech organizations in town around developing positions on policy that impacts the tech sector here in Washington, and also developing strategies by which we systematically stay in front of the whole policy setting mechanism. What does that translate to? It translates to something more than being visible during a session when the policy makers are in Olympia. I think the standard practice is really that you go down there, you have opinions, you meet with people, you express opinions on specific issues that you’re looking to promote. And this initiative is going to be much more about building a collaborative group that represent tech that are going to consistently stay after the policy piece whether sessions are in or session are not in. And I think that’s really a critical piece of what we’re up to.

X: Who are the other players in this group?

SS: Right now we are talking with the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Associationand the Tech Alliance about this initiative.

X: What are the big policy issues for the tech sector that are coming up in the next session?

SS: Of course we’ve got this I-1098, Washington state income tax initiative, in front of us. And we’re doing fact finding right now. So the WTIA hasn’t taken an official position. We are on the discovery of both the pro and cons of that issue. But our No. 1 consistent policy issue is going to be around K-12 public education and higher education, because that has such a tremendous impact on the tech sector. And we are actually in collaboration and in the process of discovering which other organizations are already way down the path of delivering on that, and how we can assist and join in the efforts to do that.

X: And what about after the next 12 months? What’s next? Any plans to expand the sectors you represent?

SS: At this point in time we have not specifically said what target industries might come under the WTIA umbrella in the longer term. But as the tech sector evolves, I think that is something that is also a dynamic. Ten years ago, or 15 years ago, we probably wouldn’t have even been talking about cleantech, or gaming, or some of the things that are now so pervasive and are sectors that we serve—like cloud computing. And I think that’s what will continue. Because we are a dynamic industry, as sectors bubble up and get more mature, that will inform what we want to do, as well as will proactively look at sectors that might be underserved.

X: Have you worked with the Washington Clean Technology Alliance, or any other local tech organizations?

SS: We have a really good relationship with Byron McCann, who preceded Tom Ranken. And so we have cross-promoted their events. In fact we actually, the WTIA, this year did a three-part series on cleantech that was really well received. They were half-day events, mainly educational and networking. The first one was on the smart grid, and then we did one on biofuels, and then we did one on renewable energies. But we actually invited Byron to come and promote his Cleantech Alliance events at those. So there’s a lot of collaboration there. In the end, we’re all in the same general sector, and we want tech to succeed, and we’re here to support it. And we have a great relationship with the WBBA as well, so we do a lot of partnering with them, and are here to support them in any way that we can. And it will be the same thing with the Cleantech Alliance.

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