What CIOs need to know before becoming a SaaS CEO

CIOs who aspire to be CEOs might want to explore managing a Software as a Service (SaaS) organization or startup. Here's a quick overview of what to expect in the new role.


Almost every CIO who has risen through the IT ranks one day dreams of being a CEO, but the chances of this happening are slim in companies where IT is seen as a support function.

Recently, however, some companies are spinning off for-profit Software as a Service (SaaS) organizations to recoup internal investments in their technologies; they do this by selling an IT service on the outside. In other cases, independent SaaS startups are seeking IT-savvy individuals who come from the industry verticals they hope to sell to.

All of this is welcome news for CIOs who aspire to become CEOs, but there are certain things CIOs need to consider in preparation for a CEO role that is decidedly different from what they deal with when they run an internal IT function. Here are four expectations of a SaaS CEO.

1: Deal with a board

Most CIOs have never had to prepare full board reports with financials. They have not had to deal with the politics of both "friend and foe" board members, nor have they had to collaborate often with board members on strategic initiatives.

It's absolutely necessary to be politically savvy in these situations. Persuasive communications skills are also important, because it will be impossible for you to move forward with key initiatives for your company if the board doesn't support them. Coming from a logical and fact-based discipline, this can take a little getting used to for most CIOs.

2: Deal with customers and service

I once accepted a SaaS leadership position from a company that was already in deep in trouble with its clients because of delays in deliverables. I spent the first six months of my tenure flying coast to coast for personal visits with clients, and I listened to clients vent their ire. My goal was to win client trust back with the promise of new and cooperative management.

During this period, I seldom had the opportunity to sit down with my internal development staff to get into the details of products and projects; it was frustrating and disappointing, but I understood how important it was for me to visit clients, so we could hopefully correct relationships that had become strained.

3: Forsake the focus on technology

Board and client relations will keep most SaaS CEOs busy, leaving very little time for technology innovation sessions, and that can be one of the hardest things for CIOs to give up. Some CIOs recognize this and turn themselves instead into Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) who still earn lucrative livings, but can also stay close to the technology.

4: Become a business strategist

Being a SaaS CEO is all about understanding your customers' businesses and their needs, and how well your business model lines up with filling those needs. SaaS CEOs must be business-savvy. For most CIOs, more preparation time is needed to understand clients' business issues that the SaaS solution addresses than would be needed to understand the SaaS technologies.

At the end of the day, SaaS CEOs must be able to objectively view the SaaS technology and service offerings through the eyes of their clients. They must also understand the competitive environments and pressures that their clients are under, and how the SaaS offerings can relieve these pressures. Finally, when things go wrong, it makes an impression on clients when the CEO sees or calls them directly.

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