Business Builders to Know: Barbara Jones’ Journey to Success
Barbara Jones always knew she would launch her own business one day. What she couldn’t have predicted was the wild ride her entrepreneurial journey would entail.
The Founder and CEO of Lillii RNB and creator of Freeing Returns, a SaaS returns management application, identified a problem that needed fixing and had the passion and team to deliver it. However, launching a startup never comes without both highs and lows.
Here Barbara talks about the challenges she faced, how partnering with Salesforce helped her fast-track her vision and build connections, and what she wishes she’d known when she was just starting.
Can you tell us how Lillii RNB was born?
I started Lillii RNB back in 2013. It was an evolution of the one-woman consulting firm (RNB) that I had been running for a couple of years. After the company I’d been working for got acquired, I decided to go out on my own and after having lots of great success with RNB, I brought on more consultants which became Lillii (Let’s Imagine Life with Ladies In IT) RNB.
The first couple of years were amazing, we had so many projects coming in and saw great revenue. Then in year three everything seemed to fall apart; we faced lots of hurdles and I had to stumble and find my way. This was when I really realized how much work it takes to run a business. It was a wake-up call, but I learned so much in that third year and by year five it started to feel like we were over the hump. Then we really started to scale and grow.
Being a black woman-owned business comes with its own set of challenges, too. I struggled to get funding and even had trouble getting into large accounts because they presumed I wasn’t the owner of the business. We overcame a lot of these issues and showed people what we could do. Now we have lots of very loyal clients that have stayed with us to this day.
What made you choose the Salesforce Platform to grow and develop your business?
Although Lillii started off as a consultancy firm, we had started creating an enterprise SaaS product based on the need that we saw working with retailers every day. We identified the pain points of managing returns and fraud for these companies and felt we could build something better for them. That’s how our product Freeing Returns was built.
It was actually one of our clients who suggested the Salesforce platform to us. They were moving onto Salesforce themselves and they thought it could be beneficial for our solution. I could see that it would be a huge opportunity for Lillii RNB to be featured on the Salesforce AppExchange marketplace, and I was put in touch with the Account Managers of the ISV program.
Things snowballed from there. A real need for our product was identified in the ecosystem and then we were fast-tracked onto the Business Builders program which really helped to take the business to a new level. It was exciting to see how well Salesforce’s vision aligned with our own; it all just fell into place, and we’ve had a great relationship since then.
How has the Salesforce Platform helped you innovate and overcome challenges?
It’s all about the combined power of the partnership and seamless integration of our application. Plus, Salesforce’s Commerce Cloud and core management system have enabled us to do things that we were not able to before.
Now we have built this great application that we believe will not only generate more business but also bring a whole new vertical of people into the Salesforce ecosystem who didn’t think Salesforce was for them. It’s been amazing for us to realize the full extent of what we could achieve within this partnership. It’s been an exciting, wild ride.
How do you stay one step ahead of the curve as a founder?
We are always looking at our competitors and talking to retailers about what they need. The question we’re always looking to answer is, where is the retail technology industry going in the future? What are the stores of the future going to look like in 2035 or 2045?
We are also part of retail associations such as the National Retail Federation, the Retail Innovators and Leaders Association, and the Loss Prevention Research Council. These associations are constantly doing studies and surveys to find out what the market needs and where the industry is going. It’s a brilliant source of knowledge for startups to help us get ahead of the market and create products that we know retailers are going to need a few years from now. We always need to be thinking ahead in order to add value for our customers.
What motivates you as a founder in 2021?
I always wanted to be an entrepreneur; I can’t remember not wanting to have my own business. I’ve worked with some great companies but the whole time I just kept thinking I could do this. I kept watching and learning as these companies scaled or got acquired, and although I was just a developer at the time, what I saw motivated me to go out there and do it myself.
It’s the entrepreneurial journey — building something from nothing and watching it grow — that really excites me. I was striving to create something that hopefully would be a legacy, and because of my strong background in retail, it’s retail technology that became my passion.
Can you share with us a customer success story?
One of the things we do is help retailers identify theft or fraud in their stores by showing them visually what their organized retail crime rate looks like. Mostly, our customers have been using spreadsheets which are full of data, but hard to identify what’s really going on. Sometimes it can take months before they realize that they’re being defrauded.
Our software shows them visually what crime is taking place, in what location, exposing the actors involved down to the transaction and item. We’ve heard from our clients that this reduces the time they normally spend trying to investigate issues by 50%, saving them time and money. Also, the integration with our system has been seamless, helping them innovate when managing their returns.
How has the Salesforce partner ecosystem been a source of support throughout your journey?
The ongoing one-to-one support we get from our Account Managers is exceptional. They have introduced us to some big partner development organizations that we couldn’t have connected with on our own, and that have helped us build our application that’s now part of AppExchange.
We are also in a network of like-minded startups that Salesforce brings together, through dinners and events for partners in the same city. A recent event, AfroTech, sponsored by Salesforce, brought together black, underrepresented founders for drinks and networking.
It’s a wonderful ecosystem that has helped us to imagine things we didn’t think we could do before, and create an application beyond anything we expected. Being given access to Salesforce’s network of connections has opened a lot of doors for us. Being part of such a powerful company that’s excited to be working with us, too, really validates what we are doing.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Take time to plan what you’re going to do. If you have an idea of what the first three years will look like and a rough strategy, that will put you in a strong position.
Also, have some money. It’s easy to think that because you have a great idea, people are going to throw millions of dollars at you, which isn’t always the case! If you’re thinking of starting a business, I’d advise saving up at least six months of your personal expenses beforehand.
The last thing I’d recommend before launching a business is custom discovery. You want to make sure when you open your doors you have people waiting. So, speak to people about your idea or product and find out what they think of it. Would they buy it? How much would they pay for it? Having this interest and awareness around your startup in advance will get you off to a flying start.
Freeing Returns is a SaaS returns management application that empowers retailers to manage returns and reduce total retail loss. Discover more about the solution here.