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Level 5

Scott Wolfe of zlien Untangles the Construction Payment Web

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scottwolfe (1).jpg


Name: Scott Wolfe Jr.

QuickBooks Community member name: scottwolfe

Business: zlien

Location: New Orleans, LA headquarters; Cairo, Egypt; Austin, TX

Launched: 2007


Originally from New Orleans, Scott Wolfe, Jr. hails from a family of entrepreneurs. His plan was to become a lawyer and help out his family’s retail business, but in 2005, Hurricane Katrina blew things in a very different direction.


The same year the massive storm hit, Scott opened a firm focused on construction law. He soon became troubled by the flood of contractors coming to him for help with getting paid. He couldn’t do much for them legally, so he took his experience building software for the family business and created a product helping with intricacies of getting paid in the construction business. Today, that software has become the company zlien, securing $1.78 billion in payments for its customers every month.


We spoke with Scott about how he’s continually adapted his business goals based on the needs he saw and the “pile of accidents” that led him to where he is today.

Scott, please explain what your company does.


The payment process in the construction industry is really intricate. There are lots of parties involved and a lot of custom paperwork. That creates many opportunities for things to slip through the cracks. And because there are so many layers of paperwork, it can cause a lot of friction on the job.


Zlien provides a money management software product. Our customers use our product to exchange and collaborate around payment documents such as lien waivers, pay applications and notices. We also provide insight about who else is on the job and who a customer needs to interact with around payment. It improves the process and makes payments faster.


The construction industry employs so many people who rely on their jobs to put food on the table and make ends meet. The faster they get paid, the better. This industry has the slowest payment time of any industry in the world. Because of that, there are a lot of bad outcomes -- think of Smokey the Bear and the fire danger level. The construction industry is always at “extreme danger” levels for payment and problems with working capital.



The construction payment web. The construction payment web.


How did your family’s history in New Orleans help shape you as an entrepreneur?


I was born an entrepreneur, and my family was full of entrepreneurs!


My parents had a retail business and a local chain of convenience stores -- a business they started because they were teenage parents who’d dropped out of high school and needed money quickly. I grew up understanding retail. After Hurricane Katrina, my parents shifted their business focus to property development. They cleaned up and developed all those convenience stores that had been damaged, and now they lease them out. My mom took that opportunity to go back to school. Now she has a master’s degree from Harvard and is a professor of theological studies. My dad owns a popular po’ boy restaurant, Melba’s.


I went to law school and then opened my own firm in 2005 focused on construction law. In 2007 I started zlien, a company I was incubating on the side. It really took off in 2012, so I sold the law firm and focused solely on zlien.


What was the tipping point that inspired you to focus only on zlien?  


There were a few forces that came together. First, it was actually what I couldn't do in practicing construction law. Contractors and suppliers were knocking on the door with problems I couldn't solve. Lawyers can drive a big legal case through litigation, but typically, that's not going to help a contractor or supplier who got shorted some cash. I always felt like my hands were tied. I couldn't really help these people who were in really tight, painful, and, oftentimes, unfair predicaments. It was frustrating, and I became passionate about helping them avoid these injustices.


Second, my little side business -- the construction payment software -- was starting to do well. It was just taking off. Those two things combined, and I thought, this is for me.


It sounds like Hurricane Katrina was one of those forces, too.


It was a major factor, actually. My intent after law school was to join the family business and do some legal-type work there. Hurricane Katrina flipped my plans upside down. My family ended up taking part of their company in the direction of property development, and then they scaled out to do more construction jobs as the city was rebuilding.


On my side, I opened up a construction law firm, which exposed me to these payment problems. After Katrina there was no infrastructure -- you couldn’t even plug in your computer to do your books because your office was flooded. I started building a web-based software tool for my family’s business, and those two worlds collided for me. I was focused on rebuilding and construction, as well as building a software product to make payment easier and to help people in construction avoid unjust situations.


The zlien team at their New Orleans office. The zlien team at their New Orleans office.


Would you say that your success was accidental in some way?


When you're successful and look back in time, you're going to see a pile of accidents and experiences that all smashed together to put you in the right time and place. Little things you learn and pick up along the way, that aren't obvious at the time, are all part of the success mix. It takes time, and it can't be hurried. Even if you wanted to hurry it, you can't, because it's all accidental anyway.  


Can you share a “pile of accidents” that happened to you?


Hurricane Katrina was an enormous direction change I certainly didn’t plan. But it planted the seed for developing a product I never would have thought about under different circumstances. That’s what I like about entrepreneurship -- and entrepreneurs: the willingness to smash experiences together in unconventional ways.


I grew up in retail, and I understood business. I became a lawyer, which exposed me to the struggles in construction payment. I had a friend in high school who was into software programming, and he taught me coding. I didn’t use it for anything back then, but it’s now become critical to my career. All those experiences make up parts of the business I brought into the world.


It was an alignment of accidents. My point is, it’s not a career ladder I put together or a life plan. It was me observing things that happened in my life and seeing cracks needing to be filled.


Who do you turn to for support, guidance or for getting you through a hard day?


Being CEO of a company is incredibly lonely and challenging. I don't know how I'd do it without the support of my patient, encouraging and wise wife. She always helps me to calibrate. And that’s another alignment of accidents! I met my wife on a high school trip to Washington D.C. when she was visiting from Seattle and I was there from New Orleans.


Do you have any sage wisdom for budding entrepreneurs?


You can't take a shortcut. Just like you need time for all the little things in life, so does your business. Put one foot in front of the other. Do the work, and love the work. Keep throwing energy at the flywheel, dedicate yourself to the discipline of turning that flywheel and, before you know it -- in 10 years or so -- it's going to be spinning.


What’s next for zlien?


We are a very high growth company, and we continue to be ambitious around the payment problem in the construction industry. We actually just closed a Series B round of funding, and we just opened our third office, a sales and marketing office in Austin. What’s next for us is continuing to help contractors to free them up to make payments faster and avoid bad outcomes.


Before you go

QB Community members, how have the unexpected events of your life helped shape you as the business person you are today?


Level 6


Zlien is a good thing that came out of the destructive  Hurricane Katrina. 

Level 7

@BillJohnston posted such a great thread about businesses recovering from disaster (in his case, the Sonoma fires). @scottwolfe's zlien is a fantastic example of a new business that evolved in the wake of disaster.

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