Tell us a bit about your background
What was your first startup job and why did you figure you wanted to stay on and create and work for startups?
I had a roundabout way of ending up in computing. I studied philosophy, economics, history, and a bunch of things in the humanities. I found computer science classes so boring when I took them at university that I decided to study something else. When I decided that being an academic, finishing a PhD and being a professor wasn't really what I wanted to do, I went back to computing.
My first full time job was actually working for an ad and marketing agency in Boulder, Colorado. I learned that agencies are very poorly run and technical standards are usually pretty bad. I very quickly realized I didn't want to stay at that job. I ended up applying to a job for a gaming startup in Boulder, Colorado and moving there. In part, because I wanted to go skiing and my brother lived there and I had this job offer which I didn’t really like but ended up taking.
Eventually I found this other startup which was backed by IACS Venture Fund - Primal Ventures. One of the CEOs of the company, Eddie Dombrower, is a fairly famous guy, both in computer graphics and making one of the first sports video games ever - Earl Weaver baseball.
I moved to Silicon Valley after that job in Boulder, and worked for a variety of startups, including My Likes which was a big ad tech startup. I also ran product data at a Kleiner Perkins backed startup.
Let's talk about your previous experience in ad-tech: was that a big influence when you were thinking and started your first company?
I was trying to solve a problem that I think was really the biggest pain point for people in ad tech. But it was a really generalizable problem, in fact. We had customers outside of ad tech, but the vast majority of the revenue came from ad buying platforms. The last company I founded was called Swarm and we developed a real time bot detection software.
We went through Y Combinator Fellowship which is a program for super early stage companies. Eventually we decided to sell at the end because valuations for any companies touching ad tech were super low. This was largely driven by the fact that investors had a lot of skepticism about the business model and they had a lot of zombie investments that weren't doing well in their ad tech portfolio. Because of that, the valuations we were getting for selling the company were comparable to what we could get for raising a seed round.
Even though we spent I think around 18 months developing pretty impressive technology, the go to market pathway wasn't super clear and we decided to sell. It definitely improved my financial security and taught me a lot of valuable lessons that are useful now for building Capbase and also inspired me to build this business specifically.
Do you remember anything in particular where you struggled with your last startup and how you were able to turn it around?
Yes. To give some background, both my cofounder and I had peripherally worked on this problem. Never as a full time capacity, but as a side project, a job, or a project for a month here and there. My other co-founder at Twitter, and me working in various ad tech companies. The thing that inspired us to start the company was that we realized most of the tools that were available and methodologies for identifying bots weren’t efficient or good at doing their jobs.
We had a bunch of ideas for solutions we thought would work really well but we soon realized how important it is to actually validate our solutions with the customer.
That was really the bottleneck. When we did it, all of our initial product hypotheses were pretty much thrown away.
There's an undeniable shift in the way companies are run with more and more processes being automated. What role can Capbase play there?
If you think about the larger picture, there's all kinds of tools that have been built for streamlining running a business. Think about cloud computing: you don't have the capital expenditure on data centers anymore because cloud computing allows companies to spin up servers and try different configurations of architecture effortlessly without the capital expenditure and huge cost. It's dramatically cheaper and faster to go to market today because of that. That's just one example, but then you also have sales and marketing automation.
If you think about the company itself, that entire process is still largely mediated by lawyers and accountants and maybe CFOs. It's something that most first time entrepreneurs get a crash course in only when they do it. There's not really a lot of reliable information on the internet or a comprehensive guide for all the stuff you need to know. Maybe you could read five books and some blog articles, piece things together all while you're trying to start a company.
This entire process of launching a company, issuing shares to employees managing your cap table, is something that ends up being informally taught to you through your investors, your advisors, and your friends who are founders. But most founders don't have access to that network.
When it comes to software solutions out there, you have point solutions for cap table management, point solutions for contract signing or point solutions for incorporating your company. If we give you stock in the company, just to do that that's like several manual processes, maybe six or seven that usually involve a lawyer, a CFO and the entire board and maybe an accountant. If you think about this, it's still really expensive to run a company, even if you have access to good lawyers
When it comes to these kinds of equity transactions, there's not a lot of automation there. Any way that stock changes hands in early stage startups is done in an inefficient way.
When you look at the landscape there, what we're really trying to do at Capbase is streamline and automate that whole process from the issuing and signing of contracts, the processing of transactions, and automating the record keeping both on the financial side with cap tables.
I'm sure if you talk to angel investors or even just read TechCrunch enough, you'll hear horror stories of lost contracts, completely inaccurate cap tables and shareholder lawsuits that result from this. The most notorious of these might be the two brothers and Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. There's also another co-founder dispute with founders at Snapchat.
Capbase integrates all these processes smoothly.
Yeah, we're trying to become a fully integrated solution, not just be a silo for this data. We're trying to integrate into all the other services that you an entrepreneur needs for running their company. That's why we've built an API integration with Gusto, Vouch, Mercury, and Slack. You can have everything you need to run the company and onboard people in one place.
So if I was an entrepreneur starting something today, Capbase would be the hub for me to deal with all my administrative matters without having to spend thousands of dollars?
You could save thousands of dollars in legal fees, avoid/delay hiring a CFO, a Chief of Staff or a Business Manager to manage things. Our goal is really to make it so that companies that are trying to run a lean company, distributed and remote, can set up their company in the US, issue stock to their employees, and be compliant with all of their business registrations at the State level and Federal level as well.
This frees up a lot of time and money for founders and entrepreneurs and give back their ability to focus.
One key thing to keep in mind is that many entrepreneurs, especially first time entrepreneurs will end up making costly mistakes and not even realize it even if they have a lawyer. They're often afraid to ask them a question because they get billed $840 per hour in six minute increments. Every single email is a minimum of $84 to be read.
Companies will end up taking an investment that has red flag terms that a later investor will say, no, during the diligence phase, or they'll give up so much of their company before even getting to a Series A that it poisons the cap table.
Greg now going to a lighter side of things, can you tell us a funny, unknown story about yourself?
That's an interesting one, but you have to give me some ideas. I have many interesting stories.
Dog related, please.
I don't own a dog, but I am an admin of a Facebook group that has more than 12,000 members where people post weird pictures of dogs. It's called Internet Dog Spotting.
I know. This is partially because I was sick of Instagram photos of people eating fancy food and I don't know, like, baby photos, so I just started following dog accounts on Instagram. I mean, dogs are the best, really curated set of good dog accounts, if you want any recommendations for some good Instagram dog accounts I can hook you up.
Written by Stefan Nagey
Serial entrepreneur, engineering & business leader who co-founded and led his last startup to a $14M Series A financing and a successful exit. Years of experience leading teams & building scaleable, secure software systems.
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