Outreach nabs $50M at a $1.33B valuation for software that helps with sales engagement

CRM software has become a critical piece of IT when it comes to getting business done, and today a startup focusing on one specific aspect of that stack — sales automation — is announcing a growth round of funding underscoring its own momentum. Outreach, which has built a popular suite of tools used by salespeople to help identify and reach out to prospects and improve their relationships en route to closing deals, has raised $50 million in a Series F round of funding that values the company at $1.33 billion. 

The funding will be used to continue expanding geographically — headquartered in Seattle, Outreach also has an office in London and wants to do more in Europe and eventually Asia — as well as to invest in product development.

The platform today essentially integrates with a company’s existing CRM, be it Salesforce, or Microsoft’s, or Kustomer, or something else — and provides an SaaS-based set of tools for helping to source and track meetings, have to-hand information on sales targets, and a communications manager that helps with outreach calls and other communication in real-time. It will be investing in more AI around the product, such as its newest product Kaia (an acronym for “knowledge AI assistant”), and it has also hired a new CFO, Melissa Fisher, from Qualys, possibly a sign of where it hopes to go next as a business.

Sands Capital — an investor out of Virginia that also backs the likes of UiPath and DoorDash — is leading the round, Outreach noted, with “strong participation” also from strategic backer Salesforce Ventures. Other investors include Operator Collective (a new backer that launched last year and focuses on B2B) and previous backers Lone Pine Capital, Spark Capital, Meritech Capital Partners, Trinity Ventures, Mayfield, and Sapphire Ventures.

Outreach has raised $289 million to date, and for some more context, this is definitely an upround: the startup was last valued at $1.1 billion when it raised a Series E in April 2019.

The funding comes on the heels of strong growth for the company: more than 4,000 businesses now use its tools, including Adobe, Tableau, DoorDash, Splunk, DocuSign, and SAP, making Outreach the biggest player in a field that also includes Salesloft (which also raised a significant round last year on the heels of Outreach’s), ClariChorus.aiGongConversica, and Afiniti. Its sweet spot has been working with technology-led businesses and that sector continues to expand its sales operations, even as much of the economy has contracted in recent months. 

“You are seeing a cambric explosion of B2B startups happening everywhere,” Manny Medina, CEO and co-founder of Outreach, said in a phone interview this week. “It means that sales roles are being created as we speak.” And that translates to a growing pool of potential customers for Outreach.

It wasn’t always this way.

When Outreach was first founded in 2011 in Seattle, it wasn’t a sales automation company. It was a recruitment startup called GroupTalent working on software to help source and hire talent, aimed at tech companies. That business was rolling along, until it wasn’t: in 2015, the startup found itself with only two months of runway left, with little hope of raising more. 

“We were not hitting our stride, and growth was hard. We didn’t make the numbers in 2014 and then had two months of cash left and no prospects of raising more,” Medina recalled. “So I sat down with my co-founders,” — Gordon Hempton, Andrew Kinzer and Wes Hather, none of whom are at the company anymore — “and we decided to sell our way out of it. We thought that if we generated more meetings we could gain more opportunities to try to sell our recruitment software.

“So we built the engine to do that, and we saw that we were getting 40% reply rates to our own outreaching emails. It was so successful we had a 10x increase in productivity. But we ran out of sales capacity, so we started selling the meetings we had managed to secure with potential talent directly to the tech companies themselves, who would have become their employers.”

That quickly tipped over into a business opportunity of its own. “Companies were saying to us, ‘I don’t want to buy the recruitment software. I need that sales engine!” The company never looked back, and changed its name to work for the pivot.

Fast forward to 2020, and times are challenging in a completely different way, defined as we are by a global health pandemic that affects what we do every day, where we go, how we work, how we interact with people, and much more. 

Medina says that impact of the novel coronavirus has been a significant one for the company and its customers, in part because it fits well with two main types of usage cases that have emerged in the world of sales in the time of COVID-19.

“Older sellers now working from home are accomplished and don’t need to be babysat,” he said, but added but they can’t rely on their traditional touchpoints “like meetings, dinners, and bar mitzvahs” anymore to seal deals. “They don’t have the tools to get over the line. So our product is being called in to help them.”

Another group at the other end of the spectrum, he said, are “younger and less experienced salespeople who don’t have the physical environment [many live in smaller places with roommates] nor experience to sell well alone. For them it’s been challenging not to come into an office because especially in smaller companies, they rely on each other to train, to listen to others on calls to learn how to sell.”

That’s the other scenario where Outreach is finding some traction: they’re using Outreach’s tools as a proxy for physically sitting alongside and learning from more experienced colleagues, and using it as a supplement to learning the ropes in the old way .

Like a lot of sales tools that are powered by AI, Outbrain in part is taking on some of the more mundane jobs of salespeople. But Medina doesn’t believe that this will play out in the “man versus machine” scenario we often ponder when we think about human obsolescence in the face of technological efficiency. In other words, he doesn’t think we’re close to replacing the humans in the mix, even at a time when we’re seeing so many layoffs.

“We are at the early innings,” he said. “There are 6.8 million sales people and we only have north of 100,000 users, not even 2% of the market. There may be a redefinition of the role, but not a reduction.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Bonusly, the platform for employee recognition, raises $9 million Series A

Bonusly, a platform that involves the entire organization in recognizing employees and rewarding them, closed on a $9 million Series A financing round led by Access Venture Partners. Next Frontier Capital, Operator Partners, and existing investor FirstMark Capital also participated in the round.

Bonusly launched in 2013 when cofounder and CEO Raphael Crawford-Marks saw the opportunity to reinvent the way employers and colleagues recognize and reward their employees/coworkers.

“I knew that, in order to be successful, companies would be shifting their approach to employee experience and I thought software could enable that shift,” said Crawford-Marks. “Bonusly was this elegant idea of empowering employees to give each other timely frequent and meaningful recognition that would not only benefit employees because they would feel recognized but also surface previously hidden information to the entire company about who was working with whom and on what and what strengths they were bringing to the workplace.”

Most employers use year-end bonuses and performance reviews to motivate workers, with some employers providing some physical rewards.

Bonusly thinks recognition should happen year round. The platform works with the employers on their overall budget for recognition and rewards, and breaks that down into ‘points’ that are allotted to all employees at the organization.

These employees can give out points to other coworkers, whether they’re direct reports or managers or peers, at any time throughout the year. Those points translate to a monetary value that can be redeemed by the employee at any time, whether it’s through PayPal as a cash reward or with one of Bonusly’s vendor partners, including Amazon, Tango Card, and Cadooz. Bonusly also partners with nonprofit organizations to let employees redeem their points via charitable donation.

In fact, Crawford-Marks noted that Bonusly users just crossed the $500K mark for total donations, and have donated more than $100k to the WHO in six weeks.

Bonusly integrates with several collaboration platforms including Gmail and Slack to give users the flexibility to give points in whatever venue they choose. Bonusly also has a feed, not unlike social media sites like Twitter, that show employees who has received recognition in real time.

The company has also built in some technical features to help with usability. For example, Bonusly understands the social organization of a company, surfacing the most relevant folks in the point feed based on who employees have given or received points to/from in the past. In a company with tens of thousands of employees, this keeps Bonusly relevant.

Bonusly has also incorporated tools for employers, including an auto-scale button for employers with workers in multiple jurisdictions or companies. The button allows employers to scale up or down the point allotments in different geographies based on cost of living.

There are also privacy controls on Bonusly that allow high-level employees and leadership to give each other recognition for projects that may not be widely known about at the company yet, like say for an acquisition that was completed.

Bonusly says that peer-to-peer recognition is more powerful than manager-only recognition, saying its nearly 36 percent more likely to have better financial outcomes.

The company also cites research that says that a happy workforce raises business productivity by more than 30 percent.

Bonusly competes with Kazoo and Motivocity, and Crawford-Marks says that the biggest differentiation factor is participation.

“We set a very high bar for how we measure participation and engagement in the platform,” he said. “You’ll see other companies claiming really high participation rates but typically if you dig into that they’re talking about getting recognition every six months or every year or just logging in, rather than giving recognition every single month, month over month.”

He noted that 75 percent of employees on average give recognition in the first month of deployment with an organization, and that number gradually increases over time. By the two-year mark, 80 percent of employees are giving recognition every month.

Bonusly has raised a total of nearly $14 million in funding since inception.


By Jordan Crook

Human Capital is an engineering talent agency and a VC fund all in one

Michael Ovitz didn’t invent the idea of a talent agency, but one might argue that he perfected it. He founded the CAA in 1975, and grew it into the world’s leading talent agency, serving as chairman for 20 years. Now, Ovitz is investing in a brand new type of talent agency called Human Capital.

Human Capital is a hybrid organization, one part VC fund, one part recruiting business, and one part creative agency. (Human Capital did not invest in its agency startup from its VC fund.) The Human Capital VC fund has $210 million in assets under management.

The Human Capital recruitment/agency company, founded by former General Catalyst associate Armaan Ali and Stanford grad Baris Akis, looks to provide for tech engineers the same services that Ovitz provided to actors and creatives back in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Engineers are some of the most sought-after talent in Silicon Valley and across the globe. And while big corporations and high-growth startups duke it out over these young engineers, the candidates themselves have little to no guidance around where they should go, what they should expect during the process, and, in some cases, what they should expect to earn.

Ovitz — alongside Qasar Younis, Founder of Applied Intuition and former Partner & COO of YC, Adam Zoia, Founder and Chairman of Glocap, Stephen Ehikian, cofounder and CEO of Airkit, and other financial institutions and LPs — recently injected $15 million into Human Capital, which is valued in the hundreds of millions according to the company.

Human Capital looks to pair the brightest engineers with the right company for them, while giving startups a new way to approach recruitment. Thus far, the company has 5,000 members (engineers) and has placed them at startups like Brex, Grammarly, Robinhood and more.

Human Capital starts by doing outreach on university campuses with outstanding engineering programs, setting up coffee with engineers who have been recommended or referred by alumni of the program. Once accepted as a member, the engineer explains to Human Capital what type of role they’re interested in, whether it’s at a big corporation, a high-growth startup, or an early-stage company where they have the opportunity to build something from scratch.

The recruitment team at Human Capital then coaches the engineer through the interview process and beyond, helping with decision-making around promotions, understanding equity, and negotiating new offers.

The org never charges the engineer, but rather takes a commission on the engineer’s annual income for the first year from the startup that recruited them.

Ali explained to TechCrunch how Human Capital is operating during the coronavirus pandemic, describing a situation in which the top talent that is in the market right now has a level of uncertainty about the future, leading them to seek positions at huge companies like Facebook and Google.

“Our hypothesis when we started this was that there are amazing businesses that are being run better at an earlier stage and have a proxy for that same type of stability [at a Google or Facebook] via their access to capital, alongside other foundational pieces of business security, such as their business model, unit economics, long-term vision for the company, gross margin rate, and growth opportunities for individuals at those companies.”

He said that Human Capital believed that, if a macro event occurred in the market place — we’re right in the middle of one of the least predictable and most impactful macro economic events ever — some of those ‘stable’ earlier stage businesses wouldn’t be hit in the same way as public companies who have to worry about short-term profitability.

“The issue is that you have to know a lot about those businesses in order to be able to discern that, and that’s our job,” said Ali. “And what we’ve seen is that a number of the companies in that position are actually ramping up recruiting right now.”

There is no mandatory link between Human Capital’s venture capital fund and their recruiting/agency entity, though the fund does like to invest in engineers who have gone through the program and move on to start their own businesses. Those types of investments include Brex, Bolt, and Qualia among others. Human Capital also invests in companies for whom they’ve recruited, such as Livongo, Snowflake, Clumio, Wildlife, and Trackonomy. Human Capital has a preference for leading rounds only for companies that are started by its engineer members.

The model isn’t unlike SignalFire or GloCap, founded by Adam Zoia (investor in Human Capital). The idea is that VC funds are great for capital injections, but with the cut-throat recruiting atmosphere and a finite number of engineers, that money can be relatively useless if it can’t be used to bring on the best talent. So firms like SignalFire (in the tech world) and GloCap (in the business/finance world) put recruitment front and center in their value proposition. (GloCap doesn’t invest, but is the premier recruitment platform in the financial sector.)

Human Capital is also starting to look at potential acquisitions that can beef up its agency business, recently acqui-hiring Khonvo Corporation, a recruitment agency founded by Archit Bhise and Andrew Rising.

Ovitz explained to TechCrunch that his ultra-successful career as an agent stemmed from his ability to make decisions about people and projects quickly. He sees the same type of intuition in Ali and Akis at a much younger age and with less experience than he had.

“It’s a checklist in your head,” said Ovitz. “It’s a combination of when your brain meets your stomach, your intellect meets your gut that lets you know you’ve hit a winner. The thing that’s allowed Ali and Akis to build a company that’s worth the hundreds of millions in such a short period of time is that they had that when I met them without having an enormous amount of experience.”

He added that access to the internet, which he did not have during his agency days, is an amazing learning tool and an ‘epic crutch’ that, when paired with good instincts, can accelerate the learning curve on building a business.

(It’s worth noting that this isn’t Ovitz’ foray into Silicon Valley. The entertainment powerhouse was one of the earliest advisors to Marc Andreesen and Ben Horowitz during the formation of the legendary VC firm A16Z, helping them model the firm after CAA itself. Ovitz has been quietly investing in and advising tech startups for the past 15 years.)


By Jordan Crook

A former chaos engineer offers 5 tips for handling online disasters remotely

I recently had a scheduled video conference call with a Fortune 100 company.

Everything on my end was ready to go; my presentation was prepared and well-practiced. I was set to talk to 30 business leaders who were ready to learn more about how they could become more resilient to major outages.

Unfortunately, their side hadn’t set up the proper permissions in Zoom to add new people to a trusted domain, so I wasn’t able to share my slides. We scrambled to find a workaround at the last minute while the assembled VPs and CTOs sat around waiting. I ended up emailing my presentation to their coordinator, calling in from my mobile and verbally indicating to the coordinator when the next slide needed to be brought up. Needless to say, it wasted a lot of time and wasn’t the most effective way to present.

At the end of the meeting, I said pointedly that if there was one thing they should walk away with, it’s that they had a vital need to run an online fire drill with their engineering team as soon as possible. Because if a team is used to working together in an office — with access to tools and proper permissions in place — it can be quite a shock to find out in the middle of a major outage that they can’t respond quickly and adequately. Issues like these can turn a brief outage into one that lasts for hours.

Quick context about me: I carried a pager for a decade at Amazon and Netflix, and what I can tell you is that when either of these services went down, a lot of people were unhappy. There were many nights where I had to spring out of bed at 2 a.m., rub the sleep from my eyes and work with my team to quickly identify the problem. I can also tell you that working remotely makes the entire process more complicated if teams are not accustomed to it.

There are many articles about best practices aimed at a general audience, but engineering teams have specific challenges as the ones responsible for keeping online services up and running. And while leading tech companies already have sophisticated IT teams and operations in place, what about financial institutions and hospitals and other industries where IT is a tool, but not a primary focus? It’s often the small things that can make all the difference when working remotely; things that seem obvious in the moment, but may have been overlooked.

So here are some tips for managing incidents remotely:

There were many nights where I had to spring out of bed at 2 a.m., rub the sleep from my eyes and work with my team to quickly identify the problem… working remotely makes the entire process more complicated if teams are not accustomed to it.


By Walter Thompson

Torch & Everwise merge into affordable exec coaching for all

While companies might pay for a CEO coach, lower level employees often get stuck with lame skill-building worksheets or no mentorship at all. Not only does that limit their potential productivity, but it also makes them feel stagnated and undervalued, leading them to jump ship.

Therapy…err…executive coaching is finally becoming destigmatized as entrepreneurs and their teams realize that everyone can’t be crushing it all the time. Building a business is hard. It’s okay to cry sometimes. But the best thing you can do is be vulnerable and seek help.

Torch emerged from stealth last year with $18 million in funding to teach empathy to founders and C-suite execs. Since 2013, Everwise has raised $26 million from Sequoia and others for its peer-to-peer mentorship marketplace that makes workplace guidance accessible to rank-and-file staffers.  Tomorrow they’ll official announce their merger under the Torch name to become a full-stack career coach for every level of employee.

“As human beings, we face huge existential challenges in the form of pandemics, climate change, the threats coming down the pipe from automation and AI” says Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough. “We need to create leaders at every single level of an organization and ignite these people with tools and human support in order to level up in the world.”

Startup acquisitions and mergers can often be train wrecks because companies with different values but overlapping products are jammed together. But apparently it’s gone quite smoothly since the products are so complementary, with all 70 employees across the two companies keeping their jobs. “Everwise is much more bottom up whereas Torch is about the upper levels, and it just sort of made sense” says Garry Tan, partner and co-founder of Initialized Capital that funded Torch’s Series A and is also a client of its coaching.

How does each work? Torch goes deep, conducting extensive 360-interviews with an executive as well as their reports, employees, and peers to assess their empathy, communication, vision, conflict resolution, and collaboration.  clients’ executives do extensive 360-interviews. It establishes quantifiable goals that executives work towards through video call sessions with Torch’s coaches. They learn about setting healthy workplace boundaries, stay calm amidst arguments, motivating staff without seeming preachy, and managing their own ego.

This coaching can be exceedingly valuable for the leaders setting a company’s strategy and tone. But the one-on-one sessions are typically too expensive to buy for all levels of employees. That’s where Everwise comes in.

Everwise goes wide, offers a marketplace with 6000 mentors across different job levels and roles that can provider more affordable personal guidance or group sessions with 10 employees all learning from each other. It also provides a mentorship platform where bigger companies can let their more senior staffers teach junior employees exactly what it takes to succeed. That’s all stitched together with a curated and personalized curriculum of online learning materials. Meanwhile, a company’s HR team can track everyone’s progress and performance through its Academy Builder dashboard.

“We know Gen Z has grown up with mentors by their side from SAT prep” says Torch CMO Cari Jacobs. Everwise lets them stay mentored, even at early stages of their professional life. “As they advance through their career, they might notch up to more executive private coaching.” Post-merger, Torch can keep them sane and ambitious throughout the journey. 

“It really allows us to move up market without sacrificing all the traction we’ve built working with startups and mid-market companies” Yarbrough tells me. Clients have included Reddit and ZenDesk, but also giants like Best Buy, Genentech, and T-Mobile.

The question is whether Everwise’s materials are engaging enough to not become just another employee handbook buried on an HR site that no one ever reads. Otherwise, it could just feel like bloat tacked onto Torch. Meanwhile, scaling up to bigger clients pits Torch against long-standing pillars of the executive coaching industry like Aon and Korn Ferry that have been around for decades and have billions in revenue. Meanwhile, new mental health and coaching platforms are emerging like BetterUp and Sounding Board.

But the market is massive since so few people get great coaching right now. “No one goes to work and is like ‘man, I wish my boss was less mindful’” Tan jokes. When Yarbrough was his coach, the Torch CEO taught the investor that while many startup employees might think they thrive on flexibility, “people really want high love and high structure.” In essence, that’s what Torch is trying to deliver — a sense of emotional comradery mixed with a prod in the direction of fulfilling their destiny.


By Josh Constine

$75M legal startup Atrium shuts down, lays off 100

Justin Kan’s hybrid legal software and law firm startup Atrium is shutting down today after failing to figure out how to deliver better efficiency than a traditional law firm, the CEO tells TechCrunch exclusively. The startup has now laid off all its employees, which totaled just over 100. It will return some of its $75.5 million in funding to investors, including Series B lead Andreessen Horowitz. The separate Atrium law firm will continue to operate.

“I’m really grateful to the customers and the team members who came along with me and our investors. It’s unfortunate that this wasn’t the outcome that we wanted but we’re thankful to everyone that came with us on the journey” said Kan. He’d previously founded Justin.tv which pivoted to become Twitch and later sold to Amazon for $970 million. “We decided to call it and wind down the startup operations. There will be some capital returned to investors post wind-down” Kan told me.

Atrium had attempted a pivot back in January, laying off its in-house lawyers to become a more pure software startup with better margins. Some of its lawyers formed a separate standalone legal firm and took on former Atrium clients. But Kan tells me that it was tough to regain momentum coming out of that change, which some Atrium customers tell me felt chaotic and left them unsure of their legal representation.

More layoffs quietly ensued as divisions connected to those lawyers were eliminated. But trying to build software for third-party lawyers, many of which have entrenched processes and older leadership, proved difficult. The streamlined workflows may not have seemed worth the thrash of adopting new technology.

“If you look at our original business model with the veritcalized law firm, a lot of these companies that have this kind of full stack model are not going to survive” Kan explained. “A lot of these companies, Atrium included, did not figure out how to make a dent in operational efficiency.”

Disrupting Law Firms Proves Difficult

Founded in 2017, Atrium built software for startups to navigate fundraising, hiring, acquisition deals, and collaboration with their legal team. Atrium also offered in-house lawyers that could provide counsel and best practices in these matters. The idea was that the collaboration software would make its lawyers more efficient than a traditional law firm so they could get work done faster, translating to savings for clients and Atrium.

Atrium’s software included Records, a Dropbox-esque system for keeping track of legal documents, and Hiring, which instantly generated employment offer letters based on details punched into a form while keeping track of signatures. The startup hoped it could prevent clients and lawyers from wasting time digging through email chains or missing a sign-off that could put them in legal jeopardy.

The company tried to generate client leads by hosting fundraising workshops for startups, starring Kan and his stories from growing Twitch. A charismatic leader with a near-billion dollar exit under his belt, investors and founders alike were quick to buy into Kan’s vision and advice. Startups saw Atrium as an ally with industry expertise that could help them avoid dirty term sheets or botched hires.

But keeping a large squad of lawyers on staff proved costly. Atrium priced packages of its software and legal assistance under subscriptions, with momentous deals like acquisitions incurring add-on fees. The model relied less on milking clients with steep hourly rates measured down to six-minute increments like most law firms.

Yet eliminating the busy work for lawyers through its software didn’t materialize into bountiful profits. The pivot saught to create a professional services network where Atrium could route clients to attorneys. The layoffs had shaken faith in the startup as clients demanded stability lest they be caught without counsel at a tough time

Rather than trudge on, Kan decided to fold the company. The standalone Atrium law firm will continue to operate under partners Michel Narganes and Matthew Melville, but the startup developing legal software is done.

Atrium’s implosion could send ripples through the legaltech scene, and push other entrepreneurs to start with a more focused software-only approach.


By Josh Constine

Refocusing on relocation, Jobbatical launches new offices in Spain and Germany

I’ve been following Estonia-headquartered Jobbatical and its founder, Karoli Hindriks, for years. Part of the vanguard of startups working on infrastructure for digital nomads, the startup has been building the base platform to help global job seekers hire and fire their governments.

As Jobbatical has worked with more and more companies and governments though, it has learned that the friction here is not just finding employment globally for talented individuals, but rather the actual process of applying for immigration and work permits, ranging from forms that must be filed in person to the hours of labor it can take to fill out an application.

“What started to happen was that the relocation part… became something that the clients came back to us and said, ‘Can you do relocation for everyone and not just those coming through Jobbatical?’” Hindriks explained.

Last year, Jobbatical began to refocus its platform on powering relocation for workers at companies, and now its new strategy is coming into focus with the launch of the company’s new offices in Spain and Germany, announced on stage earlier today at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

In the process, the company hopes to not just make the immigration process easier — but also much faster.

“How much time are government officials doing dummy work?” Hindriks asked. “30-40% of the consulate’s time is spent on answering the question of ‘what is the status of my visa?’”

The problem is that feedback in the immigration system is not available to all the players involved. Immigration process agents at companies who handle their workers’ visas have to constantly search around to make sure they are moving each of their cases forward. Managers have no idea when their workers may move, while employees are kept in the dark about their current status, inducing anxiety.

Hindriks’ vision is to help each of these three sides use a “TurboTax for immigration” to streamline the process. Jobbatical now can handle immigration applications in Estonia, Germany, and Spain and hopes to add Finland early next year.

But the more ambitious vision is ultimately to help governments drive their processes faster. Similar to how, say, the U.S. tax agency the Internal Revenue Service offers eFiling, Hindriks sees a future where Jobbatical can help facilitate immigration filings and massively speed up the efficiency of governments around these processes by allowing workers to directly submit applications to the government. She is working with two countries today to create exactly these sorts of digital submission systems.

It’s a space that has heated up in recent years as immigration continues to flow across the world. Boundless, for instance, helps individuals apply for U.S. green cards. Jobbatical is focused on the B2B market, focused on companies with global workforces.

Despite the deep debate in many countries over immigration, the reality is that every country has skills deficits that can be helped with smart and efficient immigration. Jobbatical is one company that may make the system more fair and relaxing for stressed workers looking to build their international careers.


By Danny Crichton

A startup factory? $1.2B-exit team launches $65M super{set}

Think Jack Dorsey’s jobs are tough? Well, Tom Chavez is running six startups. He thinks building businesses can be boiled down to science, so today he’s unveiling his laboratory for founding, funding and operating companies. He and his team have already proven they can do it themselves after selling their startups Rapt to Microsoft and Krux to Salesforce for a combined $1.2 billion. Now they’ve raised a $65 million fund for “super{set}”, an enterprise startup studio with a half-dozen companies currently in motion.

The idea is that {super}set either conceptualizes a company or brings in founders whose dream they can make a reality. The studio provides early funding and expertise while the startup works from their shared space in San Francisco, plus future ones in New York and Boston. The secret sauce is the “super{set} Code,” an execution playbook plus technological tools and building blocks that guide the strategy and eliminate redundant work. “Our belief is that we can make the companies 10x faster and increase capital efficiency by 5X,” says Chavez of his partnership with {super}set co-founders Vivek Vaidya, who acts as CTO, and Jae Lim who manages the fund.

Superset Team

The {super}set team (from left): Tom Chavez, Jae Lim, Jen Elena and Vivek Vaidya

Perhaps the question isn’t whether the portfolio startups can scale, but if the humans behind them can without breaking. It’s stressful running a single company, let alone six. Even with the order of operations nailed down, each encounters unique challenges and no plan is one-size-fits-all. But after delivering 17.5X returns to their past investors, Chavez et al. have proven their power to repeatedly recognize what enterprises need and build admittedly boring but bountiful products in customer data management, and advertising yield.

The studio’s playbooks cover business plan formation, pitch strategies, go to market, revenue, machine learning, management principles, HR processes, sales methods, pipeline measurement, product sequencing, finance, legal and more. There’s also shared engineering code it provides, so each startup doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. “I don’t think you can systemize it but I do think you can accelerate and de-risk the path,” Chavez explains.

Superset Code 1

{super}set Code

Today, the first {super}set company is coming out of stealth. Eskalera helps enterprises retain top talent by tracking diversity and inclusion stats of employees to engage them with career growth and community programs. Chavez is the CEO, but plans to install a new one shortly so he can focus more time on founding more startups. There are 55 employees across the first six companies, with two already generating revenue and most ready to emerge in the next nine months.

The funding for Eskalera and other {super}set companies comes with unique terms. Because Chavez and the team aren’t just board members you hear from once a quarter but “shoulder to shoulder with the entrepreneurs” as he repeats several times in our interview, the startups pay more equity for the cash.

The hope is having seasoned leadership aboard is worth it. “We’re product people first and foremost,” Chavez tells me. “What are you going to build? Who’s going to buy it? Why? What’s the technical moat? We’re not people doing jazz hands.” The {super}set team has plenty of skin in the game, though, given Chavez himself put in a big chunk of the $65 million, and the fund sticks to a standard management fee.

Eskalera

Eskalera

To supercharge the companies, {super}set brings in expert staffers in artificial intelligence, data science and more, who then align with the most relevant companies in the portfolio. They get equity grants to incentivize them to work hard on the startups’ behalf. “The worry I have about these larger funds is that they have an incentive disconnect where they work for the fees” Chavez says. His fund hopes to win through follow-on funding of its winners.

Tom Chavez Superset

{super}set co-founder Tom Chavez

If portfolio companies hit hard times, Chavez says {super}set will stick with them. “My first company had multiple layoffs and a major pivot. We had an enterperenur that walked away. They lost conviction, but we brought that company to an $180 million exit after people said there was no effing way and that felt really good,” Chavez says of staying the course. “The good entrepreneurs have that demonic energy.” But if everyone involved agrees a project isn’t working, they’ll shutter it. “It comes back to opportunity cost of people’s time.”

Chavez has respect for studios taking different approaches, like Atomic in consumer startups, Science in e-commerce and Pioneer Square Labs, which maintains a larger fund staff. “What excites me is moving entrepreneurship a step forward. Why couldn’t we franchise this in other cities?” He hopes {super}set can attract top talent that “just want to work on cool shit” rather than getting sucked into a single company.

Can {super}set keep all the plates spinning and really lower their risk? “If we’re wrong there will be a giant orange plume streak across the sky. The early returns are promising but we have to prove it,” Chavez says. But after accruing plenty of wealth for himself, he says the thrill that keeps him in the startup game is seeing life-changing outcomes for his teams. “I have spreadsheets showing the wealth generated by employees of companies I’ve built and nothing makes me happier than seeing them pay for tuitions, property, or retiring.”


By Josh Constine

How to move from VP of Sales to CRO with leading exec recruiter David Ives

It wasn’t so long ago that sales meant just showing up with a deck and a smile. These days, it seems that sales leaders almost need a PhD in statistics just to get through the typical day managing a sales funnel. From SQLs and MQLs to NDRR and managing overall retention, the roles of VP of Sales and Chief Revenue Officers (CROs) are evolving rapidly in tandem with the best practices of SaaS startups.

Few people know this world better than David Ives, who is a partner at True Search, one of the top executive recruiting firms in the country where he co-leads the go-to-market practice. David has led countless CRO and VP of Sales searches, and in the process, has learned not just what CEOs and boards are looking for, but also the kinds of skills that candidates need to shine in these important career inflection points.

In our conversation, we talk about the evolving nature of the sales org, how leaders can best position themselves for future advancement, what companies are looking for today in new executive sales hires, and compensation changes in the industry.

This interview has been extensively edited and condensed for clarity

Introduction and background

Danny: Why don’t we start with your background — how did you get into recruiting?

David: So my background was definitely unique. I started as an enterprise sales rep of the truest form selling subscription-based data analytics and systems into capital markets, so into investment banks, trading desks, hedge funds, asset managers, portfolio managers — you name it. Then I drifted purposely, intentionally away from capital markets and did about four different growth technology companies. I landed at NewsCred, and it was a neat time — it was really the birth of the startup landscape with the whole Flatiron district in New York.

Later, I was looking for my next CRO opportunity and was networking with some of the investor folks that I knew. I had a friend of mine who was a talent partner at a private equity firm who said to me, “I’ve always thought that you’d be really good at this and we’re starting to push for our search firms to have operators.” I went and met with Brad and Joe [founders of True], and three weeks later I was in the seat.

Danny: That’s great. And what do you do at True?

David: Well, we moved to a specialization model right when I got here. I don’t know if I was the test case or not, but I didn’t know search, so my skillset was that I knew the role. I run our go-to-market practice with another partner, and we have probably 40, 45 people in that group. We focus exclusively on sales, marketing, customer success, we’ll do biz dev. I probably skew more to CRO than anything else, but I do CMO and VP of marketing as well, and then I do a handful of business development, chief client officers, and VPs of customer success a year. That’s my mix basically.

What is the skillset of a modern CRO?

Danny: You’ve been in the sales leadership space for a long time, and you’ve been in the recruiting space for a couple of years. What are some of the changes that you’re seeing today in terms of candidates, skills, and experiences?

David: I think a big change has been from what I call a backend pipeline manager to what I would call a full funnel manager.


By Danny Crichton

‘The Operators’: Experts from Airbnb and Carta on building and managing your company’s customer support

Welcome to this transcribed edition of The Operators. TechCrunch is beginning to publish podcasts from industry experts, with transcriptions available for Extra Crunch members so you can read the conversation wherever you are.

The Operators features insiders from companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Carta, Slack, Uber, and WeWork sharing their stories and tips on how to break into fields like marketing and product management. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs on how to hire and manage experts from domains outside their own.

This week’s edition features Airbnb’s Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products, Andy Yasutake, and Carta’s Head of Enterprise Relationship Management, Jared Thomas.

Airbnb, one of the most valuable private tech companies in the world, has millions of hosts who trust strangers (guests) to come into their homes and hundreds of millions of guests who trust strangers (hosts) to provide a roof over their head. Carta, a $1 Billion+ company formerly known as eShares, is the leading provider of cap table management and valuation software, with thousands of customers and almost a million individual shareholders as users. Customers and users entrust Carta to manage their investments, a very serious responsibility requiring trust and security.

In this episode, Andy and Jared share with Neil how companies like Airbnb, Carta, and LinkedIn think about customer service, how to get into and succeed in the field and tech generally, and how founders should think about hiring and managing the customer support. With their experiences at two of tech’s trusted companies, Airbnb and Carta, this episode is packed with broad perspectives and deep insights.

image1 2

Neil Devani and Tim Hsia created The Operators after seeing and hearing too many heady, philosophical podcasts about the future of tech, and not enough attention on the practical day-to-day work that makes it all happen.

Tim is the CEO & Founder of Media Mobilize, a media company and ad network, and a Venture Partner at Digital Garage. Tim is an early-stage investor in Workflow (acquired by Apple), Lime, FabFitFun, Oh My Green, Morning Brew, Girls Night In, The Hustle, Bright Cellars, and others.

Neil is an early-stage investor based in San Francisco with a focus on companies building stuff people need, solutions to very hard problems. Companies he’s invested in include Andela, Clearbit, Kudi, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, Solugen, and Vicarious Surgical.

If you’re interested in starting or accelerating your marketing career, or how to hire and manage this function, you can’t miss this episode!

The show:

The Operators brings experts with experience at companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Carta, Slack, Uber, WeWork, etc. to share insider tips on how to break into fields like marketing and product management. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs on how to hire and manage experts from domains outside their own.

In this episode:

In Episode 5, we’re talking about customer service. Neil interviews Andy Yasutake, Airbnb’s Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products, and Jared Thomas, Carta’s Head of Enterprise Relationship Management.


Neil Devani: Hello and welcome to the Operators, where we talk to entrepreneurs and executives from leading technology companies like Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and Carta about how to break into a new field, how to build a successful career, and how to hire and manage talent beyond your own expertise. We skip over the lofty prognostications from venture capitalists and storytime with founders to dig into the nuts and bolts of how it all works here from the people doing the real day to day work, the people who make it all happen, the people who know what it really takes. The Operators.

Today we are talking to two experts in customer service, one with hundreds of millions of individual paying customers and the other being the industry standard for managing equity investments. I’m your host, Neil Devani, and we’re coming to you today from Digital Garage in downtown San Francisco.

Joining me is Jared Thomas, head of Enterprise Relationship Management at Carta, a $1 billion-plus company after a recent round of financing led by Andreessen Horowitz. Carta, formerly known as eShares, is the leading provider of cap table management and valuation software with thousands of customers and almost a million individual shareholders as users. Customers and users trust Carta to manage their investments, a very serious responsibility requiring trust and security.

Also joining us is Andy Yasutake, the Global Product Director of Customer and Community Support Platform Products at Airbnb, one of the most valuable private tech startups today. Airbnb has millions of hosts who are trusting strangers to come into their homes and hundreds of millions of guests who are trusting someone to provide a roof over their head. The number of cases and types of cases that Andy and his team have to think about and manage boggle the mind. Jared and Andy, thank you for joining us.

Andy Yasutake: Thank you for having us.

Jared Thomas: Thank you so much.

Devani: To start, Andy, can you share your background and how you got to where you are today?

Yasutake: Sure. I’m originally from southern California. I was born and raised in LA. I went to USC for undergrad, University of Southern California, and I actually studied psychology and information systems.

Late-90s, the dot com was going on, I’d always been kind of interested in tech, went into management consulting at interstate consulting that became Accenture, and was in consulting for over 10 years and always worked on large systems of implementation of technology projects around customers. So customer service, sales transformation, anything around CRM, as kind of a foundation, but it was always very technical, but really loved the psychology part of it, the people side.

And so I was always on multiple consulting projects and one of the consulting projects with actually here in the Bay Area. I eventually moved up here 10 years ago and joined eBay, and at eBay I was the director of product for the customer services organization as well. And was there for five years.

I left for Linkedin, so another rocket ship that was growing and was the senior director of technology solutions and operations where I had all the kind of business enabling functions as well as the technology, and now have been at Airbnb for about four months. So I’m back to kind of my, my biggest passion around products and in the customer support and community experience and customer service world.


By Arman Tabatabai

Grasshopper’s Judith Erwin leaps into innovation banking

In the years following the financial crisis, de novo bank activity in the US slowed to a trickle. But as memories fade, the economy expands and the potential of tech-powered financial services marches forward, entrepreneurs have once again been asking the question, “Should I start a bank?”

And by bank, I’m not referring to a neobank, which sits on top of a bank, or a fintech startup that offers an interesting banking-like service of one kind or another. I mean a bank bank.

One of those entrepreneurs is Judith Erwin, a well-known business banking executive who was part of the founding team at Square 1 Bank, which was bought in 2015. Fast forward a few years and Erwin is back, this time as CEO of the cleverly named Grasshopper Bank in New York.

With over $130 million in capital raised from investors including Patriot Financial and T. Rowe Price Associates, Grasshopper has a notable amount of heft for a banking newbie. But as Erwin and her team seek to build share in the innovation banking market, she knows that she’ll need the capital as she navigates a hotly contested niche that has benefited from a robust start-up and venture capital environment.

Gregg Schoenberg: Good to see, Judith. To jump right in, in my opinion, you were a key part of one of the most successful de novo banks in quite some time. You were responsible for VC relationships there, right?

…My background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Judith Erwin: The VC relationships and the products and services managing the balance sheet around deposits. Those were my two primary roles, but my background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Schoenberg: Square 1 was purchased for about 22 times earnings and 260% of tangible book, correct?

Erwin: Sounds accurate.

Schoenberg: Plus, the bank had a phenomenal earnings trajectory. Meanwhile, PacWest, which acquired you, was a “perfectly nice bank.” Would that be a fair characterization?

Erwin: Yes.

Schoenberg: Is part of the motivation to start Grasshopper to continue on a journey that maybe ended a little bit prematurely last time?

Erwin: That’s a great insight, and I did feel like we had sold too soon. It was a great deal for the investors — which included me — and so I understood it. But absolutely, a lot of what we’re working to do here are things I had hoped to do at Square 1.

Image via Getty Images / Classen Rafael / EyeEm

Schoenberg: You’re obviously aware of the 800-pound gorilla in the room in the form of Silicon Valley Bank . You’ve also got the megabanks that play in the segment, as well as Signature Bank, First Republic, Bridge Bank and others.


By Gregg Schoenberg

Tara.ai, which uses machine learning to spec out and manage engineering projects, nabs $10M

Artificial intelligence has become an increasingly important component of how a lot of technology works; now it’s also being applied to how technologists themselves work. Today, one of the startups building such a tool has raised some capital, Tara.ai, a platform that uses machine learning to help an organization get engineering projects done — from identifying and predicting the work that will need to be tackled, to sourcing talent to execute that, and then monitoring the project of that project — has raised a Series A of $10 million to continue building out its platform.

The funding for the company cofounded by Iba Masood (she is now CEO) and Syed Ahmed comes from an interesting group of investors that point to Tara’s origins, as well as how it sees its product developing over time.

The round was led by Aspect Ventures (the female-led firm that puts a notable but not exclusive emphasis on female-founded startups) with participation also from Slack, by way of its Slack Fund. Previous investors Y Combinator and Moment Ventures also participated in the round. (Y Combinator provides an avenue to companies from its cohorts to help them source their Series A rounds, and Tara.ai went through this process.)

Tara.ai was originally founded as Gradberry out of Y Combinator, with its initial focus on using an AI platform for organizations to evaluate and help source engineering talent: Tara.ai was originally that name of its AI engine.

(The origin of how Masood and Ahmed identified this problem was through their own direct experience: both were engineering grads from the American University of Sharjah in the U.A.E. that had problems getting hired because no one had ever heard of their university. Even so, they had won an MIT-affiliated startup competition in Morocco and relocated to Boston. The idea with Gradberry was to cut through the big names and focus just on what people could do.)

Masood and Syed (who eventually got married) eventually realised that using that engine to evaluate the wider challenges of executing engineering projects came as a natural progression once the team started digging into the challenges and identifying what actually needed to be solved.

A study that Tara conducted across some 5,000 projects found that $66 billion dollars were identified as “lost” due to projects running past the expected completion time, lack of adequate talent and just overall poor planning.

“We realised that recruiting was actually the final decision you make, not the first, and we wanted to be involved earlier in the decision-making process,” Masood said in an interview. “We saw a much bigger opportunity looking not at the people, but the whole project.”

In action, that means that Tara.ai is used not just to scope out the nature of the problem that needed to be solved, or the goal that an organization wanted to achieve; it is also used to suggest which frameworks will need to be used to execute on that goal, and then suggest a timeline to follow.

Then, it starts to evaluate a company’s own staff expertise, along with that from other recruiting platforms, to figure out which people to source from within the company. Eventually, that will also be complemented with sourcing information from outside the organization — either contractors or new hires.

Masood noted that a large proportion of users in the tech world today use Jira and platforms like it to manage projects. While there are some tools in Jira to help plan out projects better, Tara is proposing its platform as a kind of virtual project manager, or an assistant to an existing project manager, to conceive of the whole project, not just help with the admin of getting it done.

Notably, right now she says that some 75% of Tara.ai’s users — customers include Cisco, Orange Silicon Valley and Mower Digital — are “not technical,” meaning they themselves do not ship or use code. “This helps them understand what could be considered and the dependencies that can be expected out of a project,” she notes.

Lauren Kolodny, the partner at Aspect who led the investment, said that one of the things that stood out for her, in fact, with Tara.ai, was precisely how it could be applied exactly in those kinds of scenarios.

Today, tech is such a fundamental part of how a lot of businesses operate, but that doesn’t mean that every business is natively a technology one (think here of food and beverage companies as an example, or government agencies). In those cases, these companies would have traditionally had to turn to outside consultants to identify opportunities, and then build and potentially long-term operate whatever the solutions become. Now there is an opportunity to rethink how technology is used in these kinds of organizations.

“Projects have been hacked together from multiple systems, not really built in combination,” Kolodny said of how much development happens at these traditional businesses. “We are really excited about the machine learning scoping and mapping of internal and external talent, which is looking to be particularly important as traditional enterprises are required to get level with newer businesses, and the amount of talent they need to execute on these projects becomes challenging.”

Tara.ai’s next steps will involve essentially taking the building blocks of what you can think of as a very power talent and engineering project search engine, and making it more powerful. That will include integrating databases of external consultants and figuring out how best to have these in tandem with internal teams while keeping them working well together. And soon to come also will be bug prediction: how to identify these before they arise in a project.

The Slack investment is also a notable nod to what direction Tara.ai will take. Masood said that Slack was one of three “big tech” companies interested in investing in this round, and she and Syed chose Slack because from what they could see of its existing and target customers, many were already using it and some have already started requesting closer collaboration so that events in one could come up as updates in the other.

“Our largest customers are heavy Slack users and they are already having conversations in Slack related to projects in Tara.ai,” she said. “W are tackling the scoping element and now seeing how to link up even command line interfaces between the two.”

She noted that this does not rule out closer integrations with communications and other platforms that people use on a daily basis to get their work done: the idea is to become a tool to work better overall.


By Ingrid Lunden

Transitioning from engineering to product with Adobe’s Anjul Bhambhri

Many roles inside of startups and tech companies are clear: marketers market, salespeople sell, engineers engineer. Then there are the roles like “product manager” that seem obvious on the surface (product managers “product,” right?) but in reality are very fuzzy roles that can be highly variable across different companies.

A few weeks ago, TechCrunch editor Jordan Crook interviewed J Crowley, who is head of product for Airbnb Lux and was formerly at Foursquare. Crowley came up in the consumer product world without a technical background, and he spoke to overcoming some of his own insecurities to become a leading product thinker in the Valley.

This week, I wanted to offer another perspective on product from Anjul Bhambhri, who is Vice President, Platform Engineering at Adobe, where she and her team conceived Adobe’s new Experience Platform for real-time customer experience management.

Across Bhambhri’s more than two decade career straddling the line between software engineering and product, she has worked on deeply technical, enterprise projects at Sybase and Informix as startups, big data infrastructure at IBM, and now at Adobe.

We discuss the challenges and opportunities of moving from an engineering career into product (and management more generally) as well as the ways she thinks about building compelling products that are sold B2B.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity

Scaling out product after product

Danny Crichton: Anjul, thanks for joining us. One of the major initiatives that we’ve been doing as part of Extra Crunch is to interview experts in their fields, talking about how they go about doing their job, and how you think about the decisions that come up on a day-to-day basis in the work that you do. So to start, I would love to talk a little about your background.

Anjul Bhambhri: Very nice to meet you, and happy to share my journey, Danny. I have been in the software industry now for really almost 30 years. I’m an electrical engineer, and basically, my entire career has been in data, databases, and big data analytics.


By Danny Crichton

Verified Expert Growth Marketing Agency: Growth Pilots

Growth Pilots is one of the more exclusive performance marketing agencies in San Francisco, but they know how to help high-growth startups excel at paid marketing. CEO and founder Soso Sazesh credits his personal experiences as an entrepreneur along with his team’s deep understanding of high-growth company needs and challenges as to what sets Growth Pilots apart. Whether you’re a founder of a seed or Series D stage startup, learn more about Growth Pilots’ approach to growth and partnerships.

Advice to early-stage founders

“I think a lot of times, especially at the early stage, founders don’t have a lot of time so they’re willing to find the path of least resistance to get their paid acquisition channels up and running. If things are not properly set up and managed, this can lead to a false negative in terms of writing off a channel’s effectiveness or scalability. It’s worth talking to an expert, even if it’s just for advice, to ensure you don’t fall into this trap.”

On Growth Pilots’ operations

[pullquote align=”right” author=”Guillaume McIntyre, SF, Head of Acquisition Marketing, Instacart”]“They have good business acumen, move fast and work as an extension to your internal team.”[/pullquote]
“Something we pride ourselves on is working with relatively few clients at a time so we can really focus all of our team’s efforts and energy on doing the highest quality work. Each of our team members works on a maximum of two to three accounts, and therefore they’re able to get very invested in each client’s business and integrated into their team. We really try to simulate the internal team dynamics as much as possible and pairing that with our external capabilities and expertise.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup growth marketing agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Growth Pilots Founder and CEO Soso Sazesh

Yvonne Leow: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into growth.

Soso Sazesh: I grew up in northern Minnesota where there is no tech industry whatsoever and then after high school, I came out to Silicon Valley and got exposed to the epicenter of the technology industry. I became very interested in startups and hustled to find startup internships so I could get experience and learn how they operated.

After a couple of startup internships, I got accepted to UC Berkeley and that gave me even more exposure to the startup ecosystem with all of the startup events and resources that UC Berkeley had to offer. I worked on a couple of startup projects while I was at UC Berkeley, and I taught myself scrappy product management and how to get software built using contract developers.

[tc_premium_cutoff]

As I was graduating, I had just launched my second startup project and it was growing organically but very slowly, and I realized I didn’t know how to acquire users. So I joined an SEM agency and that’s where I learned and fell in love with digital marketing. I helped companies successfully acquire users at scale using Google AdWords and finally solved for the missing skills I needed. After a couple of years, I ventured off to try my hand at starting a company again, this time with more experience and a co-founder.

We went through the AngelPad accelerator and raised a small round of capital – what would be called a pre-seed round nowadays. It was an eye-opening experience. I gained a lot of appreciation for what it meant to be a startup operator hustling to build a product people wanted and trying to acquire customers.

Startups are a roller coaster and we had a lot of ups and downs. We ultimately we’re not able to raise our next round of funding due to lack of traction and decided to shut the company down. As we were winding down, people in my network started coming to me looking for help with their digital marketing channels.

I started consulting for a few startups and identified an interesting opportunity, which was that very few startups knew how to do paid acquisition well and very few agencies were well-suited to work with startups. There was a huge gap in the market.

Some of these founders would come to me after trying to get paid acquisition to work on their own, but they didn’t have the time or expertise to do it properly. Some of them would hire an agency and not see results, because most agencies don’t understand the needs and grow-or-die nature of fast-moving startups. These agencies wouldn’t allocate the time and resources needed to really understand these startups and work closely with them to make their paid channels work.

So that’s exactly what I did and I was able to achieve results for them. I combined my previous expertise as a digital marketer with my recent startup operator experience and this allowed me to successfully help the startups I was consulting for. Due to the network effects in the startup community, I soon had more companies who wanted to work with me than I could take on alone and that’s what led me to start Growth Pilots.

Yvonne Leow: Awesome. How does Growth Pilots differentiate itself from other agencies?

Soso Sazesh: Growth Pilots is “the” performance marketing agency for high-growth companies. We’ve worked with over 120 venture-backed companies over the past five and a half years, and we have really tailored our service offering around the unique needs and challenges of high-growth companies as they move from stage to stage. We’ve had this internal framework that breaks down paid acquisition needs based on company stage.

The first is what we call the early stage. At the early stage, companies are looking to establish and validate their paid marketing channels. These companies are typically seed stage or Series A startups looking to find channels that allow them to hit their metrics to achieve their goals for their next round of funding. These companies require a lot of time and attention, which is a bit paradoxical because their budgets are not very large.

The second stage is what we call the scaling stage. This is when companies are trying to achieve escape velocity and growth matters above everything else. This typically happens at the Series A through Series C stage. Their business model is working and ideally within sight of positive unit economics if not already there, but the main focus is acquiring customers at the fastest rate possible and less so on efficiency or profitability. This stage requires all hands on deck and non-stop testing and optimization to squeeze out as much velocity as possible from each channel. The stakes are very high at this stage and category-leading companies often emerge here.

Finally is the late stage. These companies are typically Series C or Series D and beyond and preparing for an exit or IPO. Growth often becomes slightly less important at this stage and the focus shifts to efficiency and improved unit economics. Optimization becomes even more critical at this stage and measurement and attribution get a lot more sophisticated to fully measure the impact of the paid channels.

The needs of companies are vastly different at each of these stages. Our focus is on helping companies achieve their goals within each stage and helping them move to the next stage.

Yvonne Leow: Cool. If I’m a founder and I’d like to work with Growth Pilots, what can I expect are our next steps?

Soso Sazesh: The first step is understanding the business and assessing if there’s a mutual fit. We’re very selective about the companies we take on because over the course of the five and a half years we’ve been able to establish which business models and verticals are conducive to paid marketing success.

For instance, marketplaces, e-commerce, B2B SaaS, mobile apps, and other business models where there is a transactional component is typically a good candidate for paid acquisition. We want to know what the goals are and we want to be able to confidently say that we believe we can achieve the goals at hand. If we can’t say that, we won’t take the company on.

Step two is determining what stage of our framework the company falls into and what the opportunity looks like. If it’s an early stage company, it’s more about assessing the product, the market, and how reachable their target customers are online.

For scaling-stage and late-stage companies that are already up and running, we’ll dive into their current accounts and assess what the opportunity looks like and put together a strategy proposal based on our findings and outlook.

Yvonne Leow: What’s the typical length for each project or partnership?

Soso Sazesh: We’re not project-based so when a company comes to work with us we effectively become an extension of their marketing team. There’s no set duration. We’ve worked with some companies for five years and some companies we’ve worked with for 12 months.

If we work with a company less than 12 months, something is wrong and we probably shouldn’t have taken that company on as a client but you don’t always know how things will play out. Overall our goal is to work with companies in a long-term capacity as an integrated partner.  Something we pride ourselves on is working with relatively few clients at a time so we can really focus all of our team’s efforts and energy into doing the highest quality work.

Each of our team members only works on a maximum of two to three accounts, and therefore they’re able to get very invested in each client’s business and integrated into their team. We really try to simulate the internal team dynamics as much as possible while balancing and pairing that with our external capabilities and expertise.

Yvonne Leow: Are you at the point in your experience that you can apply certain growth strategies and guarantee success?

Soso Sazesh: Guarantee is a tough word, but having worked with more than 120 startups we are definitely at the point where we have enough data points where we can look at a given business and assess the viability of whether they’ll likely see success on paid channels. Success being a combination of scale and efficiency.

Yvonne Leow: Can you talk a little bit about how you and your team assess that?

Soso Sazesh: The first things we look at are business model, product quality, and whether or not product market fit exists or is likely to be achieved. Even a great business model in a large market combined with a poor product or lack of product market fit is unlikely to succeed with paid acquisition. In the absence of having a live product, or if a company is too early to assess product-market fit, we look at other data points that we have found to be good indicators of viability. Some of these include competitor success with paid marketing, the founders’ backgrounds, amount of capital raised, and who their investors are.

Yvonne Leow: What were some of your greatest lessons learned when you started Growth Pilots?

Soso Sazesh: In the early days of Growth Pilots, there was so much activity and growth that we ignored important things like team infrastructure and people operations. We saw the effects of this in the form of team morale taking a hit and people not seeing a future with us. We eventually took notice and course corrected by investing heavily in people operations and employee development. In an ideal world, we would have done this much earlier.

Another interesting reflection is how critical the work we do is. I think this is what a lot of agencies get wrong. You need the commitment to work with startups. You can’t be one foot in and one foot out when a company may live or die by the work you are doing. A lot of the companies that we work with explicitly outline what goals they need to hit in order to raise their next round of funding and it becomes very clear what part we play in that.

Yvonne Leow: What advice would you give to early-stage founders who are deciding whether or not to work with an agency?

Soso Sazesh: When you work with an agency it’s really important to have clear goals and expectations established up front. A lot of times early-stage companies hire agencies, and agencies will gladly take their money, but the agency isn’t really investing the time that’s needed to get results. So asking “What does it look like to work with your agency? Who’s going to be working on my account? How much attention can I expect to receive?” Those types of questions are really important to clarify and especially at the early stage.

Yvonne Leow: What’s a common mistake you see founders make when it comes to growth?

Soso Sazesh: The most common mistake I see is not doing the upfront work and investment required to get optimal results with paid acquisition. A lot of times you see the founder mentality of move fast and figure things out later kicks in, but this can be dangerous when it comes to paid marketing when you’re directly paying for traffic and customers. This leads to companies not seeing the performance and scalability that they actually could and it contributes to the negative perception of channels like Google Ads and Facebook Ads. VCs, for example, love to bash paid marketing channels as being too expensive or too saturated. There is certainly some truth to the channels getting more crowded but at the same time, you would be surprised how poorly setup and managed some of the accounts are that we look at, including companies that have raised tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yvonne Leow: Thanks for sharing. Last question: what is your payment structure?

Soso Sazesh: We charge based on a tiered percentage of ad spend managed with a monthly minimum retainer fee of $10,000 at the lowest level. Our minimum fee is frankly much higher than a lot of other agencies and that’s by design. This goes back to what I was saying before about early-stage companies requiring a disproportionate amount of work relative to their budgets in order to be successful with paid acquisition. We apply a lot more focus and resources than other agencies and this allows us to achieve success where other agencies can’t. The tradeoff is that we need to charge more to deliver this higher quality of service.


Founder Recommendations:

“They helped me raise $5M+ and ran one of the most successful pre-order campaigns in 2017.” – Roderick De Rode, Venice, CA, Founder & CEO, Spinn, Inc.

“They have helped us dramatically accelerate our growth and act as an extension of our internal team.” – Digital Advertising Manager in Corte Madera

“They helped us establish a low customer acquisition cost before we were even able to ship product and help us convert site visitors to customers when we had influxes of traffic from press we received.” – Stephen Kuhl, NYC, Co-founder & CEO, Burrow

“Largely instrumental in the way we optimize and measure success of our mobile app install campaigns.” – User Acquisition & Growth Strategist in Denver

“Growth Pilots is a great partner. I on-boarded them to build out, optimize and scale all paid search and social campaigns for Instacart. In a few months, paid search and social became some of our best performing channels. They have good business acumen, move fast and work as an extension to your internal team.” – Guillaume McIntyre, SF,  Head of Acquisition Marketing, Instacart


By Yvonne Leow

How we scaled our startup by being remote first

Startups are often associated with the benefits and toys provided in their offices. Foosball tables! Free food! Dog friendly! But what if the future of startups was less about physical office space and more about remote-first work environments? What if, in fact, the most compelling aspect of a startup work environment is that the employees don’t have to go to one?

A remote-first company model has been Seeq’s strategy since our founding in 2013. We have raised $35 million and grown to more than 100 employees around the globe. Remote-first is clearly working for us and may be the best model for other software companies as well.

So, who is Seeq and what’s been the key to making the remote-first model work for us?  And why did we do it in the first place?

Seeq is a remote-first startup – i.e. it was founded with the intention of not having a physical headquarters or offices, and still operates that way – that is developing an advanced analytics application that enables process engineers and subject matter experts in oil & gas, pharmaceuticals, utilities, and other process manufacturing industries to investigate and publish insights from the massive amounts of sensor data they generate and store.

To succeed, we needed to build a team quickly with two skill sets: 1) software development expertise, including machine learning, AI, data visualization, open source, agile development processes, cloud, etc. and 2) deep domain expertise in the industries we target.

Which means there is no one location where we can hire all the employees we need: Silicon Valley for software, Houston for oil & gas, New Jersey for fine chemicals, Seattle for cloud expertise, water utilizes across the country, and so forth. But being remote-first gives has made recruiting and hiring these high-demand roles easier much easier than if we were collocated.

Image via Seeq Corporation

Job postings on remote-specific web sites like FlexJobs, Remote.co and Remote OK typically draw hundreds of applicants in a matter of days. This enables Seeq to hire great employees who might not call Seattle, Houston or Silicon Valley home – and is particularly attractive to employees with location-dependent spouses or employees who simply want to work where they want to live.

But a remote-first strategy and hiring quality employees for the skills you need is not enough: succeeding as a remote-first company requires a plan and execution around the “3 C’s of remote-first”.

The three requirements to remote-first success are the three C’s: communication, commitment and culture.


By Arman Tabatabai