Ascentis CEO Brian Provost on what’s to like about an IPO and Eden Prairie
Brian Provost is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Ascentis Corp., a growing maker of human resources software that recently moved its headquarters from California to Eden Prairie. Earlier this month, the company completed an acquisition that will nearly double the size of the business. Before taking the helm of Ascentis, Provost was an entrepreneur in residence at private equity firm Summit Partners, which owns Ascentis. He previously led Minnetonka-based Convey Compliance, a tax-reporting and compliance tech company that private equity firm Vista Equity Partners bought in 2014, and was chief operating officer at expense-reporting tech company Gelco, which was sold to Concur Technologies. He sat down with the Business Journal to talk about his latest venture and why he brought it to Eden Prairie. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you get into the tech industry?
A: I was a marketing major in college and jumped right out of school to RoboDyne, a startup robotics company that automated the assembly of circuit boards. It was the founder, a couple contractors and myself, so I assumed the lead on marketing and sales. I took a different path than a lot of people who went to larger organizations and it was a great experience. We grew to about 30 contract sales people and opened a manufacturing facility in North Dakota. I got an early tech MBA, if you will, working for an angel-investor-backed business that scaled. I got to be inside a lot of the technology organizations across the country and it really sparked an interest for me.
Q: You’ve led several business software companies that won big-company customers. What’s your advice for other tech entrepreneurs who want to land those big customers?
Enterprise customers are nervous about security, scalability and repeatability. You have to earn trust and understanding. You also need to be able to push back and charge them money. If you are just a welcome mat for these organizations, that can pose some issues. You need to hold to your values and stick to them. You can’t change everything for one organization because that allows you to become a one-trick pony for one organization.
Q: How did you get involved with Summit Partners and what drew you to Ascentis?
A: I’ve known Peter Rottier of Summit Partners for years and they asked me to come on board and we started looking for deals. We wanted to find a company headquartered in Minnesota. We looked hard for a business that fit our profile, but we just couldn’t find one with the size and scale and total addressable market we wanted. We ended up finding a Bay Area company and moving it here.
Q: Why move Ascentis’ headquarters to the Twin Cities?
A: It’s the work ethic and the culture. There are a lot of organizations that feel like they need to have headquarters on the West Coast or tech on the West Coast, but there’s a great tech community here in Minnesota with a lot of talent. People want to work hard and they want to please customers. It’s far more scalable and repeatable here with the tenure of talent and just culturally.
Q: How big can Ascentis get?
A: We can be a $1 billion company. That’s really the goal we have.
Q: A lot of tech companies are selling to private equity firms these days. Is that your plan or would you consider an IPO?
A: An IPO is definitely on the docket.
Q: Why an IPO?
A: For one, I’ve never taken a company public, so there’s some excitement around that. I also think there’s a different level of opportunity for employees of the business with an IPO. I think it’s going to provide us with a different level of capital that may allow us to go global. I think there’s an awareness that comes to a company through a process like that and that can be powerful from a go-to-market perspective.
Q: A lot of tech companies are flocking to areas like downtown Minneapolis and the North Loop. Why did you go with Eden Prairie?
A: All my businesses have been in Eden Prairie. I like it because you’re able to draw from people and cast a good-sized net on talent. I think downtown’s awesome, but at the same time, there’s congestion, there is construction, you’ve got to pay for parking and the rents are higher. We like to stay a little bit outside and provide more benefits to employees. A lot of time we are hiring people out of college, but we’re also hiring people starting families and sometimes living in a downtown apartment isn’t the ideal situation. We tend to find a lot of good service and support people in this area who have worked in high-tech organizations.
Q: You talk a lot about building a strong company culture. What’s the most important component of a strong culture?
Transparency, direct, open and honest communication. It’s said a lot, but I do think it’s all about trust. You build trust with people by saying what you’ll do and doing what you say. You get wins with people by saying, “Hey, we’re going to do this,” and then doing it.
Hobbies: Playing hockey, hunting and fishing
Family: Wife, Lisa; children, Samantha and Ben
Education: Bachelor’s degree in marketing, Bethel University