With an MBA from Stanford GSB and an investing background from Blackstone, Soumya Nettimi doubled the team at PracticePanther, a Paradigm subsidiary, before forming Paradigm with the addition of three companies: Bill4Time, MerusCase, and most recently Headnote. As CEO of Paradigm, a rapidly growing platform of legal software products, she shares insights about shifting from an investing to operating mindset, her thoughts on the Alpine model, and lessons she’s learned along the way.
Alpine is a middle market private equity firm focused on software and services businesses up to $500m of EV. We closed our seventh fund at $1 billion in November 2019. Our CEO-in-Residence (CIR) model allows proven operators to step into leadership roles within our portfolio while our CEO-in-Training (CIT) program has helped more than 20 newly graduated MBAs from the world’s top business schools accelerate into the CEO chair. Alpine has deployed 35 CEOs in total since 2013.
ASG buys, builds, and operates market-leading vertical SaaS companies. Paradigm is its leading platform of rapidly growing legal SaaS products that allow lawyers to automate and streamline their firms.
How did you start your career? Did you always know you would become a CEO someday?
After studying applied mathematics at Harvard, I had very little exposure to the business world and I wanted a job that would give me the most experience, exposure to multiple industries, and an analytical bend. Working in Blackstone’s private equity group was exactly what I wanted—it provided a crash course in strategy, analysis, and various lines of business.
Blackstone also helped me figure out what I wanted next. While the majority of my job was analyzing new investment opportunities, I loved working closely with our portfolio companies. One company in particular, Pinnacle Foods, left a lasting impression on me. After helping Pinnacle with add-on acquisitions, refinancings, and much more, I was lucky enough to help them prepare for an IPO. I watched CEO Bob Gamgort rally his team of thousands—from line workers at a factory to analysts in HQ. While an IPO is easy to get excited about, it was how he celebrated each individual employee that made it clear he valued every single member of the team. I give Bob a lot of credit for inspiring me early on and showing the true impact potential of a portfolio company CEO.
While an IPO is easy to get excited about, it was how he celebrated each individual employee that made it clear he valued every single member of the team.
A few years later, a managing director from Blackstone decided to start a new fund called Protea Investments. He offered me a path to a high-impact operating role. A few months in, we invested in a company called Serena & Lily. I packed my bags and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where the company was based. While Blackstone was my crash course in analysis and strategy, Serena & Lily was my crash course in “getting things done.” I got to dip my toes in everything from marketing analytics to product positioning, but one of my favorite projects was helping to open our first few retail stores. I crunched data on our customers and competitors to help establish locations, managed relationships with brokers and other key stakeholders, and ultimately helped open three new stores. After two years at Serena & Lily, I knew I wanted to be an operator—the combination of strategy and execution work, getting to work with diverse teams, and ultimately having a tangible impact on customers—it was incredible and so much fun.
After working at Blackstone, Serena & Lily, and later AWS, what drew you to Alpine?
Within a couple of months of starting business school at Stanford, a friend introduced me to Jim Tormey, a GSB alumnus and CIT at the time. Jim had just started his role at MidAmerica and was already a raving fan. I was captivated by his ownership of both strategy and execution—he was running sales, but also dipping his toes into strategic initiatives across the entire business. I was also drawn to Alpine’s PeopleFirst™ philosophy—the understanding that people are the backbone of businesses. Many companies talk about putting people first, but from talking to Jim and later others as well, it felt like it was truly in the DNA at Alpine.
I also give a lot of credit to [Alpine partner] Mark Strauch. He interviewed me for the position and inspired me to envision not only how much I’d learn and grow immediately, but what we could build and the impact we could have over five or 10 years.
How did your journey with Alpine begin?
Mark and the Alpine team approached me about the CEO role at PracticePanther. I distinctly remember Mark positioning it as both the “perfect” and “least perfect” fit for me. On the “perfect” side, my investor brain agreed. The company itself was really compelling—an incredible product that helped law firms streamline operations, an industry with a lot of whitespace, and a passionate and fast-moving team. On the less than perfect side, the timing was six months off since I was still in business school at the time, and the company was based in Miami, while my fiancé and I had just committed to a longer-term home in New York City.
I spent a few weeks learning as much as I could. I went to Miami to meet the founders and the team, I attended ABA Techshow, a big legal tech conference in Chicago, to learn more about the industry, and I spent hours at the Alpine office pouring through all of their diligence on the deal. Pretty soon I realized just how hard it would be to say no to this opportunity.
I ramped up from afar until I graduated, then I started my role as CEO of PracticePanther in September 2018, committing to split time between New York and Miami. A few months later, we expanded our suite of product solutions. We brought Bill4Time, an existing ASG company, into the fold to officially form Paradigm, and soon acquired MerusCase. We also recently acquired Headnote, expanding our platform into the world of online payments.
How did you manage the integration process once you started as CEO of Paradigm?
The first few weeks were definitely a lot of ups and downs and fighting fires. In the early stages, I focused on understanding the people, the business, and the industry. I did one-on-ones with the entire company, and multiple rounds with teams that were more nervous about the transition. I remember one week where I had 40 individual conversations, filling an entire work week with one-on-ones! When I started at PracticePanther, we were growing 200 percent year over year, so it was also critical to dive into the data on things like customer acquisition to quickly understand how to maintain and accelerate growth.
Next was hiring and managing founder transitions. In many cases, the founders wanted to retire once we acquired their company. I spent a lot of my time and energy in the first year hiring and back-filling as quickly as possible. At one point we had more than 20 open roles, including four on the leadership team itself. It was an arduous process; we needed people in the door, quickly, but we also needed the right people. And hiring always takes longer than I expect, especially when you want to make sure you get the right people for the business. That’s the PeopleFirst mentality.
Every time we added a new business, we asked ourselves how we wanted to structure the organization. We questioned whether we wanted to integrate or if each business should function independently. I’m proud of where we’ve landed today. We have integrated key functions where shared best practices are most impactful—like finance and marketing—but have maintained separate product teams to allow us to continue to be nimble and innovate at a fast pace.
The first year was a lot of defense. Now that we have a lot of these foundational elements set, we’re having a lot of fun playing offense.
You successfully aligned four companies. What did you learn about yourself in the process?
Alignment was something I really grappled with. PracticePanther, Bill4Time, and MerusCase were disparately located, scattered across Miami, Seattle, and the Bay Area, respectively. The personality of each business was unique, and my leadership team and I were both curious and worried about how they would mesh together. Six months in, we hosted a full team offsite in Colorado for our 60 or so employees to come together for the first time. The most powerful thing we did was a value-setting exercise where we collectively created six values for our organization.
The last value we created was “We are optimistic, adaptable, and embrace change.” This has been crucial in navigating 2020. I believe an ability to embrace change is one of the core reasons our team has been able to adapt and continue growing through these challenging times. Coming out of that offsite, we were one team. I also learned an important lesson: there is an important distinction between culture and personality. Culture is a set of norms around how you behave and make decisions—and needs to be aligned—but having disparate personalities between offices or products is completely fine and likely always going to be the case.
How has Alpine supported you in your journey to becoming CEO of Paradigm?
I have felt a ton of support from the Alpine community. I have friends running companies outside of Alpine, and it can be incredibly lonely for them. In the CIT program I was part of a class of folks taking on similar CEO and leadership roles. Now I’m part of a group of Alpine CEOs across all of the software and services businesses in the portfolio. We are all in similar high-impact roles, facing similar challenges. I have a trusted community I can turn to for professional support and camaraderie.
I have gotten incredibly helpful thought partnership and mentorship from Alpine Partner Mark Strauch and ASG President Steve Reardon. During the period where I had a lot of open roles and couldn’t hire quickly enough, they recommended that I look within the Alpine community and hire a CIT to run sales & marketing. I ended up bringing Colin Li, a current CIT, into our business. Hiring Colin has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in the past two years. When we decided to expand into payments with our acquisition of Headnote, both Steve and Mark helped me think through how to integrate the new team and customer base, and how to lead the team through the most rigorous product and technology integration we’ve done to date.
Finally, we work closely with an Alpine coach and facilitator who has helped us construct our own version of Alpine’s PeopleFirst program. We hold quarterly Renewals (full company offsites), as well as regular training sessions, professional development opportunities, and team-building activities. Given the complexity of our organization, these events have been critical in keeping the team informed and aligned towards our common goals. For example, during last week’s Renewal, we shared the full impact COVID-19 has had on our business, both qualitatively and in the numbers. I haven’t been a part of many other organizations that have been this transparent, and I’m proud that we’ve found a way to do so systematically.
What has surprised you most about the Alpine experience?
Alpine lives up to its PeopleFirst mantra. I mentioned earlier that the first few months in this role were full of ups and downs—we went through a founder transition, the team was acclimating to me, a new CEO, and we kicked off a number of new initiatives to accelerate growth. In the midst of all of that transition, we had a number of cultural and people challenges. During that time, my one-on-ones with Mark were 99 percent focused on people. While I’m sure he wanted to talk about the numbers or performance, he constantly emphasized that people were the foundation of everything. Getting the team excited and aligned was the most important thing I could do in my first 90 days. That realization felt both surreal and inspiring.
What advice would you give current or incoming CITs or CEOs?
We’ve been hiring a lot recently and I gave this piece of advice to an interviewee yesterday: Embrace your current role, title, and company, but avoid tunnel vision. Keep your eyes open to other opportunities for impact. Colin, our chief growth officer who I mentioned earlier, started his role running sales and marketing. Within months, he saw the opportunity to add significant value to our M&A strategy and helped lead the diligence on Headnote, our newest acquisition. This is one of a million examples where he didn’t let a project outside of his role stop him from diving in. Stay curious and humble, but if you see an opportunity outside of your lane to have an impact on your team or customers, jump on it.
It’s been an exciting and busy few years at Paradigm. We acquired three leading legal software platforms—PracticePanther, Bill4Time, and MerusCase—and integrated the teams to create one company working toward the same goal. We also most recently acquired a fourth business, Headnote, which allowed us to bring online payments capabilities in-house. We are heads down integrating Headnote’s payments technology into our other platforms at the moment and couldn’t be more excited for this new chapter of our company’s growth and service to our customers.
Given we provide software that allows lawyers to operate more efficiently and work remotely, we have continued to grow significantly through COVID-19. As we look ahead, we want to continue to be the most trusted software partner to our customers coming out of this crisis. We will continue to look for opportunities to grow both organically and inorganically. I’m having a blast, and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.