Every journey in entrepreneurship includes at least one unexpected detour. But the unexpected changes in our paths sometimes lead us toward the greatest successes. AJ Bruno found himself faced with such a situation while scaling a rapidly growing startup company in Austin, Texas. The lessons he learned there turned one of the biggest challenges for his first company into the mission for his second company.
Today we’re talking about the business model that makes QuotaPath both unique and sustainable. AJ is confident that he has created a billion-dollar company and they are well on their way. It’s the story of QuotaPath on The Build.
[1:15] The challenge AJ faced in his first company that prompted the creation of QuotaPath.
[5:33] Evolving as a leader in various stages and roles with a rapidly-growing company.
[12:00] Building a second start-up company was shaped by lessons learned at the first one.
[14:49] Comparing contributing factors to the success of a product-led vs. sales-led company.
[18:20] How QuotaPath uses data-driven changes — and their instincts — to allow optimal implementation for their users.
[22:04] Protecting a start-up feature from being absorbed by more well-established companies.
[24:19] Building a team that is spread across the country means aligning everyone’s efforts.
[28:33] Managing the work-life balance for a young family and a young company.
[30:30] AJ’s vision for making QuotaPath a billion-dollar company.
Announcer (00:01): From 2820 Radio in Philadelphia. It's The Build. Conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs, and their challenges. Joe Taylor Jr. (00:15): Path. Every journey through entrepreneurship includes at least one unexpected detour. For AJ Bruno, the path for successful startup lead from Pennsylvania to Texas. There a slot in an incubator program turned into a five year residency for a startup that grew to over 250 employees. Getting closer to family meant moving back east. The long distance job wasn't on the roadmap for AJ. He turned one of the biggest challenges he encountered growing his first company into the mission for a second company. Charting another course for sustainable growth. It's the story of QuotaPath coming up next on The Build. Announcer (00:55): The Build is made possible with support from 2820 Press. Providing business consulting and content strategy services to customer obsessed companies nationwide. More information at 2820press.com. Joe Taylor Jr. (01:10): It's The Build. I'm Joe Taylor Jr, joined today by AJ Bruno Co founder and CEO of QuotaPath. Welcome to the show AJ. AJ Bruno (01:24): Thanks for having me, Joe. Appreciate it. Joe Taylor Jr. (01:26): Well, so, for folks that know us. The irony here is I'm on the road today and AJ and I are usually up the hall from each other at 1776 in Philadelphia, but we are remote so we don't get to be in the same room. But I'm fascinated by QuotaPath because this is one of those great cases where entrepreneurs often come on the show and tell us about how they came up with something that solves a very specific problem that they had. I know QuotaPath, and having taken a look at your roadmap, is solving some very particular problems that I know I have in my organization. So tell us a little bit about QuotaPath and the problems that you're solving for your customers. AJ Bruno (02:09): Of course. Thanks for having me. It is kind of funny being two doors down from your studio. QuotaPath is based off of my last six years of experience running a sales team and being so involved on a day to day sales. The basic idea behind it is that so many sales teams and sales leaders have these quotas that they have to hit these, targets that they have to hit. And to do that, when they do eventually hit those targets, they earn commissions off of the earnings that they've done and what we're doing is we're helping bring transparency for sales leaders, for managers, for sales ops, for finance teams on what people have earned and what they should be paid out. And then on top of that, we're allowing reps and managers to be able to forecast - but also gold track. So maybe they want to buy a house or take a trip to Cabo. How many deals would it take for them to be able to do that? And it's a B to BC App so it's completely free for the rep and for the managers to be able to use our product. Joe Taylor Jr. (03:15): So one of the things that you and I have talked about off mic and I wanted to get you onto the mic to spend a little more time with this. This is solving a problem that I know you were experiencing in a previous startup that you had launched. Tell me a tiny little bit about Trend Kite and what you learned over the course of the six years you spent there. AJ Bruno (03:33): Yeah. So Trend Kite was founded in 2012. We ended up in a DreamIt Ventures accelerator program, which I know has a big presence in Philadelphia, but they were running an Austin cycle at the time. So my cofounder and I, while we both had ties to Philadelphia being the area, we went down to Austin for three months and just got everything wrapped up into everything Austin. South By Southwest, what's going on and it was a lot of energy behind it and those three months we went from napkin idea to building a product. We actually have $20,000 in contract signed by the time we were done with the program. So really fast acceleration and we had this decision that we had to make. What do we raise? We're bootstrapping at the time, my wife and I were expecting our first child. So we had a lot of real world responsibilities coming our way. AJ Bruno (04:26): We wanted to end up back in Philadelphia but the investor we ended up signing the term sheet with, and raising money through, was based in Austin, Texas. And because of that they wanted their management team very close by. So we ended up moving the entire company from Philadelphia to Austin and starting in Austin. That was six years and still going on today. 250 people, 46 million in funding and it's grown really, really fast. And in fact to the point where we were the fastest B, to B SAS Company probably in all of the country, not just Austin or Texas, but overall nationwide. We got caught up into this B to B space where so many people were interested in our product and I got to be in the center of it because I ran the sales team, so you can imagine the growth during that time and seeing when we went from a head count of 8, to 20, I think 80 by the end of that fourth year. So very fast in terms of our growth. Joe Taylor Jr. (05:34): That is some fast growth. But the thing that strikes me, hearing those numbers, those are three very different kinds of organizations. And those are three very different kinds of skillsets that you would need to bring to lead that team. So tell me about how you evolved as a leader through those three stages of scaling out a large B to B sales operation. AJ Bruno (05:58): It's a fantastic question, Joe, because you don't really think about it as a first time entrepreneur that whether you're the CEO or you're running the sales team or any part of the business - at those early stage days you're doing everything - but as you scale it changes so much in what your role is. And in our series A, we ended on bringing in a CEO. My Co founder ran product and I ran sales. The conversation I remember having with our CEO at the time is, look I've never run more than a 20 person sales team. In fact, it wasn't more than 10 and my previous job. So I know that at some point I might not be the person to run this and scale it, but I'm willing to learn and I'm willing to put my head down and just focus solely on the growth. The growth of the company, whatever it is you need me to do. AJ Bruno (06:49): So many, many times we would have the conversation of- where am I failing to keep up with the process? Where do I need to get better and make sure that I'm trying to be proactive versus reactive. And so at the beginning it's very much the art. The art of sales is just figuring out the sales methodology. What's the A to Z, how do I replicate this? Because that repeatability is so important. When you're building a team, you're training people and you're your onboarding new folks. You need to make sure that they understand what you're seeing and how you're seeing it. So that was the next phase, was this repeatability aspect to our team. And then it started to become more of a science, because then you start to tie more to the financial plan and what the board expectations are, so then it became balancing act between the executive team and the board, and then all of your managers or directors and individual contributors that help day in and day out. I loved and thrive in that environment. Joe Taylor Jr. (07:46): So I love to learn a little bit more, even, about that because hearing that your lead investor at the time preferred the executive team to be fairly close. You built a board pretty rapidly. For a cofounder to switch into a functional role and not necessarily the CEO. How are you balancing your commitments between your role as a cofounder - getting the company off the ground, the commitments you've made to the board - versus the very functional tasks that you have to do in that sales leadership role. AJ Bruno (08:20): So I knew very early on that it wasn't going to be my last startup and that I was going to start another company, and eventually run another company. So I had the mindset from the very beginning that I was going to be learning all throughout. And that's how I just took it on and it is very rare for a founder, especially to take on the VP of sales role, from day one and run that through six years through 20 million ARR. AJ Bruno (08:41): But because I had the expectations that, that was what I was going to be doing, I didn't really get caught up in either a title or an issue that I didn't have control over the product anymore. And I just felt really tied to what I was doing. I felt tied to the team that I was building, and to the environment that was surrounding me. I really thought about the people and the people that I was hiring and coaching every single day. And that became, took on, more of what I embodied day in and day out and focused in. And so I think that was probably a big part of why I didn't feel like, bitter about whether we had a CEO come in, or whether we raised and now we had all these executives and all these different parts of the organization company had changed so dramatically over that time. And that was helpful because it kept me focused and grounded in what I needed to do day in and day out. Joe Taylor Jr. (09:39): So tell me a little bit about the moment that you realized that feeling in the back of your head that you were going to lead another startup one day. When did that start to creep up? What was the transition for you out of Trend Kite and into what would become QuotaPath? AJ Bruno (09:54): So yeah, to understand that question, I have to go back to the beginning of Trend Kite. Because when we moved down to Austin, I promised my wife two to three years down there. I said, don't worry there's no way we're staying Austin long term or even past that three year mark. We'll be back in Philadelphia, we'll be back home with the family. We just had our first and during that time we eventually had a twin girls as well. So then I had a litter, I should say, of three. And so, I knew that we were going to be back. But basically at year five, my wife sat me down and she said, hey I'm going to move back. AJ Bruno (10:32): I know you're going to come with, but I'm moving back and I'm taking the kids. So while Trend Kite is this monstrosity in a good way. Monstrosity in a good way of a thing. You're going to have to figure it out how you're going to balance family and professional. And so that really started. And she told me this like a year before we ended up actually moving. So that started down the path of, okay, what am I going to do? I can't run 120 person team. I had honest conversations with the executive team, with my CEO and just said, this is what's going to happen. And we made a plan that we would go out and find the best sales executive we possibly could. So it made it an easier transition then. But even when we moved, I was commuting back and forth for a year. And that was a lot of wear and tear with three young girls at home and just with myself and the airport basically all the time. At the seven month mark, I was like- you know what, I don't think I can do this anymore. And not only that, I really just missed the startup days. I miss building a product and miss getting back to it. So where you hear a lot of founders take a break after that, kind of just reset, get their mind and body in a good spot. I didn't really think about that. I jumped right in. So in January of this year, I was already thinking about what I was going to do next and I wanted to jump right into it because I was so excited and so passionate about going back to the early days of founding a company. Joe Taylor Jr. (12:01): So getting fairly close together, the opportunity to hop back on the merry- go- round and build something new the second time. You're coming in with a different kind of model. What did you approach differently putting QuotaPath together in terms of the team you're recruiting and how you're bringing it to market? AJ Bruno (12:23): Yeah, that's another great question. There are a lot of factors that went into this. First off, the space that we operate in. I had come from 12 years in the PR analytics space and, while I really enjoyed having those conversations with customers at the end of the day, which was a little burned out from PR. I said I need to go and do something completely different. I knew sales in the sales space, especially as it related to technology really, really well, intimately well. And I felt that there was going to be an opportunity building a product for sales teams knowing the problems for how well I knew them. And so that led me down a path to have conversations with various folks. In the meantime, my director of revenue operations at TrendKite had just dealt with a headache of onboarding a commission tracking software that was very enterprise heavy. AJ Bruno (13:17): It took eight months to onboard. It was just a super big challenge to be able to do and even when we had it onboarded, the sales team themselves didn't use it. It was all made for the finance team. So we would talk about this, and he was really entrepreneurial spirit minded and wanted to do something as well. And he was actually the one to say, like look, I know you're going to leave. I'm leaving. Why don't we start something together? We both have this great mindshare. I have the back engine, back office part of it because I've done sales ops for the last 10 years and you have the front of the house covered. This would be just such a great opportunity for us to do this. And I said, okay. You know, I've learned a lot from TrendKite. I think one of the things I want to do differently, it's just a different type of business model. AJ Bruno (14:05): Something that's unique, something that's a little bit more inspiring. Rather than just going straight B to B, why don't we involve a consumer aspect to it. So that's what led us down the path of- let's build something for the sales team first that they can use that is free for them to use. And everyone talks about freemium, but we wanted to really create a value app product. So then that in turn took us thinking through, okay this has to be product led and this is a product and innovation company. Trend Kite a very sales led organization. So let's do that differently and let's focus heads down on the product. Get as much user feedback as we can. But before we launch the enterprise, we're going to know this thing inside and out and that's what we're doing today. Joe Taylor Jr. (14:50): Tell me more about that distinction between sales lead versus product lead. I'm sure there are advantages to both, but what, what are the factors that contribute to the success of one versus another? AJ Bruno (15:04): For TrendKite, we didn't really know any better. Both my cofounder and I had sales backgrounds and so we just assumed that you had to sell a product from day one and that that's how it worked and everyone tells you to get in front of your customers as much as you possibly can. But the thing that I think we missed out on, Joe, is that we were doing a lot of fake it before you make it. And that unfortunately caused a lot of issues. Sure, our growth and our new user new, a new business acquisition was a monstrosity. But the fact that matter is on the flip side, when we got to renew those clients and the retention side of it, it became challenging and we didn't have great retention numbers all throughout, unfortunately. AJ Bruno (15:53): So when thinking about it, I wanted to build a company that was customer centric. The company that was the sales lead was great. We had some great times because we hired two interns that did a lot of lead gen right off the get go. But I remember it being so much downward pressure for financial planning and expectations for us and when we missed on those, it was because of us not being able to figure out the sales process well enough. Versus here it's the expectation of, if we fail it's because we haven't lived up to the value that our customers expect us to. Those are very different in how you create those organizations. Joe Taylor Jr. (16:32): I think too, tell me about the challenges of selling to sales people. I feel like you've probably taken on some hall of fame level conversations with, don't play a player level conversation. AJ Bruno (16:48): I've gotten that feedback so many times over the last eight months and, being sales minded myself, anytime I hear an objection to what QuotaPath does my first instinct is to like, no that's ridiculous. But the fact of the matter is, you know, don't be BS a BSr. Right? So I know a lot of the tricks that happen in sales and I think I come into this with just an open mind and more of a - I really do have a genuine product conversation with these folks. Today uur product is servicing individual contributors and sales managers and we're working our way up the chain to a VP or even a CRO. So when I have conversations with them from the standpoint of like, look, I don't have this figured out 100 percent yet, but I want to build this product for you. And I want to make sure we get it right. AJ Bruno (17:41): It was a bit more disarming then the conversations that they have day in and day out from a sales standpoint. Anyone we do that, it just becomes an honest conversation and I'm able to get the feedback better. When we're talking to individual contributors it's all focused on the value. And yes, I totally agree that there's like a little bit of back and forth that we both know the game when we're having this conversation. And I think that that's gonna follow us through as we build out the company and get larger and larger. But at the end of the day, if it adds value to the end user, then it doesn't matter who you're selling to and that's what we're trying to achieve. Joe Taylor Jr. (18:22): It strikes me as interesting that your on a path that's similar to software as a service companies like BaseCamp or Box where the adoption is happening from the bottom end of the org chart up. So there's less risk involved when you're selling to folks in the low to mid level of the org compared to selling into the c suite. What are you doing to make sure that you can give your users a clear path to adoption, especially inside larger organizations? AJ Bruno (19:02): Right. I mean, that's still part of it that we're going to have to figure out. I think the customer engagement metrics are things that we look at every single day and how the platform is used. You mentioned BaseCamp, Dropbox or Box. Those are perfect examples. Slack is how we liken it. Slack is a great analagy because in our application, we'll have a hierarchy where you can share compensation plans and different paths so you can get that gamification all in one spot. We're thinking about it at the individual level and then we'll continue to build levels on top of that. But it's something we're always talking about in our standups or our weekly check-ins in terms of adoption and how people are using it. What users we've spoken to, what are we actually getting from it. So that absolutely drives our roadmap. And while we've made a lot of assumptions, like you do in any startup at the beginning, we're always validating the data. And I always want our guys, our folks, when they're coming into a meeting, if they're going to make a change about how we're doing it to make it a data driven change. That's the most important thing when you're building a startup because you're just making a lot of guesswork. And yes, you should have that billion dollar idea and you should go focus after it. And it doesn't matter what anyone says that that data doesn't matter on that. But when you get to the user level, the data absolutely matters. Joe Taylor Jr. (20:29): So when thinking about your roadmap, I would imagine that, in some ways, it's easier to respond to customer feedback when you have a smaller, more nimble team. How do you make sure that you're making the right decisions based on that blend of data and customer feedback? Where do you trust the gut, versus where do you look at the spreadsheet? AJ Bruno (20:55): Yeah, and both my co founder and I have a lot of conversations about this because we know the industry almost too well and we don't want to just narrow what our focus is based off of our own gut instincts on things. There's a lot of conversations where we'll have and we're like, let me just send out a message. Here's what the message is going to look like. There are some times where would you pretty formal surveys. Actually, we just sent one out to our network to about 50 sales leaders asking very specific questions and we have a group conversation on that. But sometimes it's a little bit more off the cuff in what we're thinking about. It's definitely a delicate balance when you're building a company where you don't want to go too far down without making sure you test it out, but at the same time you want to make decisions that say, you know what? I know that there's gonna be slight education in this feature, in this product, but I'm okay with it because I feel strongly that the intuitiveness of the rest of the product is going to make sense. But when they get there, okay, I get it. That makes sense. And then they're going to carry on with what they're doing. Joe Taylor Jr. (22:07): Now you're playing in a space that's dominated by software providers that come from both the very traditional enterprise sense. Even companies like Intuit and Quickbooks has become adopted far and wide. And then you have Freshbooks at the other end. Guys like Michael Mcdermott that were like, you know, sleeping on his parents' couch to be able to cover the first couple of years of that company. What do you do to insulate QuotaPath so that you can continue to grow and build this product out in a way that your feature set does, doesn't just show up as a new feature from somebody else's product. AJ Bruno (22:50): You learned from them. I mean, I think lean product playbook is actually built a book was written by the guy that built Turbo Tax. And we liken what our product does as a Turbo Tax for sales reps to onboard themselves. Those providers that you mentioned are more integrated with what we're doing. And the funny thing is, when you think about sales compensation, it's not a bank. So there's always mistakes that are made. Unfortunately that's the way that this industry is handled that at the end of a quarter of sales ops leader might come to the sales manager and say, here's your spreadsheet. This is what it looks like when they go like, oh, don't you remember this exception or this issue? It was a lot of back and forth. The guys that you just mentioned are much more structured and locked down than that. So there's a little bit of catching up actually in our industry where we will integrate with Salesforce, we'll integrate with Quickbooks, and net suite to help bring the data that they already have at a company level all the way down to the indivual. So the competitive space is actually pretty fascinating because a lot of these guys are siloed in what they're actually doing where, we feel like we can bring a few industries, commission tracking gamification, a leader boards and metrics together and help bring transparency for the entire organization. We feel strongly that that doesn't exist anywhere today. Joe Taylor Jr. (24:22): Now shifting gears a little bit, thinking about how you're building out the team for QuotaPath. Hearing your own story from TrendKite and that you were all in Austin At QuotaPath, you've got folks distributed in a couple different places. So tell me a little bit more about how you're approaching building a team that's not all in one place. AJ Bruno (24:45): Yeah, we're not a remote team either. It's split between Austin and Philadelphia and, for the time being, that's where we're going to stay. It's an interesting dynamic that we have. So most of our products and deaf folks are actually in Philadelphia and sales and marketing will be in Austin Joe Taylor Jr. (25:03): Now you would've thought it would've been the other way around. For how cities usually market themselves. AJ Bruno (25:09): Add to the fact that I would be running the sales team, and my co- founder that's in Austin is going to be running product. The reason we thought about it this way, first off, when I came back to Philadelphia, I wasn't 100 percent sure of what the start-up community was like. I've seen PSL - Philly Startup Leaders - grow through this past year, actually. They have a fantastic executive director, Kiera. Bob Morris has done a great job. Overall, Rick Nucci as well. It's a really emerging community, has been emerging for a few years, but I feel like it's gotten its legs under it. So I wasn't really sure what to expect. But what I found is that there are some really talented technical folks, engineers here for sure. Our technical co founder came from Monetate and we've hired some great people. I mean they're the top of the top. Yes, there are some folks that, you know what, they've ended up going to New York, they've graduated from Wharton or they've gone to so many other universities. But we really feel strongly that we have a great pool of talent for our engineering here in Philly. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to keep that exclusively in Philadelphia. AJ Bruno (26:24): We're pretty agnostic when it comes to the two cities. We're interviewing folks in Austin for engineering talent as well. So my co founder is in Austin and no plans to move, but that's completely fine because our investors, our seed investor's actually in Austin as well. And I have such a network of people that were in sales and marketing that I want to work with again, that we'll hire a lot of those folks as well. But just like the engineering talent, if we find some great people here in Philadelphia, we'll keep it here too. Joe Taylor Jr. (26:57): Tell me a little bit more about the distinction between a working remotely versus coming in to a physical space, knowing now that you've been located at 1776 in Philadelphia. What does having a space like that mean to a company like yours? AJ Bruno (27:13): Yeah, and I'm a big proponent of having a space and not having everyone work from home. There's just so much collaboration that happens in the office. I know a lot of flack has given to open floor plans, but I really enjoy it. I've just seen so many great things come out of it. I mean, we have a challenge that we have a space in Austin and space in Philadelphia. I think the biggest challenge is actually just the time difference. Even though it's just an hour, when we have our daily standup at 9:00 AM, 8:00 AM. The guys in Austin or taking it from a car. But it's worked really well. My cofounder and I were very hesitant about that. If someone asks us what's gonna be your biggest challenge going into this? I would have said Austin and Philadelphia. But today I would say that those two cities, in what we're doing is so aligned. It's been great because I think there's a lot of people that I'll hire in Austin that are actually going to move to Philadelphia. And I have a really good friend, she was actually Trendkite's first employee. She moved to Philadelphia and is working for Bob Morris Company. So I'm seeing a lot of people actually come up to the northeast and check it out. Philadelphia is a great, livable city to be in and so that's been a big plus for what we're doing today. Joe Taylor Jr. (28:35): Now bringing it full circle, knowing that your wife put the shot clock out there for coming back to Philadelphia. How has it been for you to manage that work life fit, especially with three little girls? AJ Bruno (28:51): Yeah. And it's something my wife and I talk about a lot. She's actually starting her own business. She is starting to drop in daycare on the main line where you can drop your kids off, run errands, go on dates, which is very unique. This exists in Texas. It's the first of its kind in this area. So we have a pretty crazy household going on today. My work life balance is very, very straightforward. I actually heard Jeff Wiener talk a few months ago and one of the things that just really stuck out to me was he talks about happiness is that happiness is being excited to go into work in the morning, but being excited to go home at night. And I think that has always stuck with me. And I continued to say that that's something I try to live by. I leave the at 4:30 every day to take the train back. AJ Bruno (29:45): But I'm in the office early in the morning. Seven to nine is two golden hours for me to get stuff done. I think about it this way. People normally work a 9-5. Traditionally I've worked 7:00 to 5:00, 5:30. That's seven to nine, two hours. That's 10 hours a week. That's 40 hours a month. That's three extra months in any given year that I'm afforded back to me. That I'm getting ahead of whatever I need to get and I really, really enjoy that. But at the same time my wife and I keep nights pretty sacred to us. So no phones at the dinner table. Friday afternoons we actually have off as a company, so I make sure to get back early as well. And then on the weekends we have a ton of different things going on with the Kiddos. Joe Taylor Jr. (30:30): That's fantastic. So wrapping up, tell me your dream for QuotaPath. How big does it get? Does it remain a standalone company? Do you, do you envision an exit or an acquisition? Where do you think this goes? AJ Bruno (30:43): I have no hesitation when I say that QuotaPath will be a billion dollar company. I know that that sounds jarring to maybe some of the listeners that are out there. But I know what a company that's doing 30, 40 million in revenue looks like and I think I can do 10 times better than that. I think we, as a group, can do 10 times better than that. So the question gets asked pretty frequently in recruiting. What's your exit strategy for QuotaPath? AJ Bruno (31:15): You know, what? That doesn't really matter at this point. I think if we recruit and hire people that care so much and are so passionate about the businesses that the exit is going to take care of itself. A lot of other questions I could ask about this is, is Salesforce going to buys you guys out sometime down the road. And I don't think Salesforce will we be big enough to be able to do this if we execute correctly. So I'm really looking big for this and I'm really excited to do it as my second time Joe Taylor Jr. (31:45): AJ Bruno, QuotaPath. Thank you so much for joining us on The Build. AJ Bruno (31:49): Thanks, Joe, for having me. Joe Taylor Jr. (31:51): Thanks again for listening to this episode of The Build. Our producer is Katie Cohen Zahniser. Our production coordinator is Nicole Hubbard. Our production team for this episode included Amelia Lohmann, Jess Ryan, Faiza Samreen, Giana Seeney and April Smith. Podfly productions manages our post production, and our theme music is performed by Arrows and Sound. I'm Joe Taylor Jr. Announcer (32:15): Thanks for listening to this episode of The Build. We hope you'll share this series with your friends and provide us with feedback on the itunes store.