accelerator : Bootstrapping, Scaling Workplace Culture and the Transition from SaaS Founder to CEO
EventMobi is the #1 event app platform in the world, reaching thousands of event planners and millions of attendees across 40 countries. The company’s story is one of bootstrapping, creating workplace culture where there was none, scaling and transitions. EventMobi is the #1 event app platform in the world, reaching thousands of event planners and millions of attendees across 40 countries. The company’s story is one of bootstrapping, creating workplace culture where there was none, scaling and transitions.
EventMobi is a fully bootstrapped company that has learned that in order to grow, sometimes that means going slow. Being a bit more intentional and staying the course has worked out really well for EventMobi and for CEO, Bob Vaez.
We sat down and chatted with Bob recently about his company’s origin story, what he feels are some of the biggest challenges that SaaS companies face as well as what he’s most looking forward to at this year’s SaaS North.
Can you tell us a little bit about EventMobi’s origin story?
My background is in computer engineering — I studied at the University of Toronto. Back in the day, when the startup community was pretty much non-existent, I launched three startups and they all failed. Every single one of them.
After that, I moved to Silicon Valley and worked with Nvidia. It was at this time that I saw the wave of smartphones coming out and I truly saw it as the new era of computing and light bulbs went off with the possibilities and immense opportunities that were coming down the pipeline. You have to remember; this was a long time ago so the smartphone wasn’t what it is today.
It was also during my time in Silicon Valley that I attended a lot of events. I loved connecting with new people and every event I went to was a new experience. I remember thinking to myself, “Why am I still carrying around paper tickets and why can’t I do all of this from my smartphone?” The days of e-tickets and online schedules didn’t come until much later.
So, in true entrepreneurial spirit, I saw a need and began to fill it. My brother and I began building an app together and over time, became the best beta tester possible by testing out the app at events in the Valley. We rode the wave of mobile technology and it worked out really well for us.
On the flip side, 2009 was also the height of the financial recession. It was almost impossible to raise money, no one would take my call and we were merely at the idea stage at the time. However, I was convinced that this was the future and that mobile would take off so I quit my job in the Valley and moved back home to Toronto. Both my brother and I moved in with our mom so we could put everything into building this app.
With no funding opportunities available, we began to understand the value of “cash flow is king.” So, we bootstrapped the company, leveraged the runway we did have, learned as much as we possibly could about startups and building experiences and marketing and most importantly, we spent a lot of time with our customers to really develop the right product at the right price. Thankfully, we generated revenue really quickly and never had to raise money. The company currently generates over $10M in revenue, we have 10,000 customers and we are still in a position of not needing outside funds.
Sometimes, the story of “buying time” to understand the tech and your customers is key. Understanding your product/market fit is key. Understanding the business’ value is key. When you don’t have funding, you need to learn to live within your means as a company. There were times that I wished we had more money to work with but I truly believe that the journey counts more than the success. We had a great time hiring people and growing the company.
Tell us a little more about the problem that EventMobi solves.
We’re an end-to-end event technology platform. We sell to event planners and event marketers that want to put on exceptional event experiences. The technology is an important piece across everything we do. Here are two of the main solutions for these groups:
- We modernize the event planning workflow. Event planners can curate their content and create digital experiences, using the app, to engage and inform attendees on site.
- We enhance the event experience for attendees. We know that providing them with tools will create a better networking and learning opportunity and they can become better educated about sponsors, etc.
Our product has a lot of features but the main differentiator, from other products like it in the marketplace, is that the platform brings all of the tools together in one place. We realized, in spending time with our demographic, that an event planner doesn’t have a lot of time and they don’t want to be spread thin across multiple tools. This solves that problem.
Our solution is exciting for us, of course, but it requires a fundamental change in behavior across the industry before true adoption occurs. A lot of our event planners are still using an Excel spreadsheet or a paper agenda or an attendee list. They aren’t necessarily adopting the technology as rapidly as other SaaS verticals may. However, once they are exposed to it and see how easy it is to use, they get on board in a big way.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges that SaaS companies face?
Cash flow is always a challenge. We are constantly asking ourselves, “How can we live within our means?” This has been extremely helpful. Founders are often over-evaluating which product it makes sense to build, where to spend money, etc. but once those pieces are figured out, it all feels a lot easier.
We scaled up over time and went from a bootstrapped company to a full-service software company that builds an enterprise solution that Fortune 500 companies rely on. That comes with its own set of challenges, too. For example, becoming a CEO can sometimes be a difficult transition.
Why do you think that is?
Most founders start their companies and have their hands in everything. In the startup world, that’s pretty common – it’s often an “all hands on deck” effort – but when you scale up and have to shift from a “doer” to a CEO, that can be challenging sometimes. When I made the transition myself, I went from doing everything to focusing in on hiring executives that could execute on my behalf in different areas of the company. Offloading the tasks, getting those individuals on board with the culture and priorities… those were difficult things to do.
The other challenge that I see amongst my friends who have also transitioned to the role of CEO is that you need to become the visionary and leader for the company. Creating this vision, holding it for everyone and communicating out its changes can also be difficult sometimes. When we were a 10-person company, it was all fun and games but when you get to 25, 50 or a 100 people, things need to change dramatically. You need departments and managers and a more rigid structure and all of that can bring forth unique challenges.
For me personally, I didn’t notice the shift from “doing” to “managing” until I was deep into it. There were critical moments through the journey where that transition was very difficult. Looking back it became clear to me that we may not have the right team structure. You need to hire the best talent you can so that letting go is a much easier process.
I’m in a CEO group and we often talk about the fact that for many of us, we didn’t “choose” to be a CEO. We all came into this with our own areas of expertise – I was a computer engineer for example – and as a CEO, you’ll never be happy unless you’re finding ways to do what it was you loved doing initially. When I build a company, I’ll always make sure that I can be involved in the pieces I love. For me, that’s product design. For others, that may be marketing or growth or coding but it’s a mistake to be completely hands-off. I’d recommend finding a way to do both.
The tricky part is finding a way that you are not doing the work but enabling your team for success while adding value in the process.
I look at it this way – if 70% of your job is something you enjoy; you have a great job. For a CEO, that can be a lot harder as there’s no one else to do the other 30% as the buck stops with you. That can be challenging, especially if they don’t have the money to hire that out.