Ahmad Ibrahim is the co-founder and CEO of neo.tax, a firm that develops tax filing and automation software to help businesses apply for R&D tax credits. Ahmad's professional background includes studies in economics and philosophy, work as a product manager at Intuit, and building two startups in the space of tax tech.
We talk about how studying philosophy can benefit a founder's career and the lessons acquired from Ibrahim's first startup venture, Unleash. We also talk about how developing an accounting software product within the limits of Intuit influenced Ibrahim's decision to launch another startup endeavor in that field.
Ibrahim discusses his "lightbulb moment," which inspired him to create neo.tax, and talks about the difficulties of developing tax automation software, his co-founders and their roles, and the future of legal and accounting services.
Greg: So, you recently, it's been about six months now, you recently sold your company, RemoteTeam, to Gusto. So, how do you feel now, six months later?
Sahin: Yeah, you directly jumped to the point. Thank you. I am an entrepreneur. I was born doing an entrepreneur. I started doing small businesses, selling things, when I was five, six years old, doing coding when I was in the high school, had my first company when I was 17 years old. So I never worked in a company, in my life. This is my first real job.
And during the process, I was so lucky to meet with people in Gusto. I really fall in love with the culture. I feel like Gusto is more like a community of people, who are really trying to help small businesses. They genuinely do that with an amazing, collaborative environment. I really fall into that. I really enjoy working in Gusto.
I was worried at once, because I have so many friends who works in Google and other companies. They really don't do anything. I actually work harder now, than being a founder. I seriously enjoy working in Gusto.
G: How did Gusto get interested in buying RemoteTeam?
S: When you look at startups... I watched a TED talk about this. They researched 1,000 startups, and they looked at what is important. Is it the founder? Is it the team? Is it the market product fit? Is it the funding, or is it the timing? RemoteTeam is such great timing, we started to build a remote work platform, just before COVID. The timing cannot be that great. We were building a very robust, international payment solution for contractors as one of our products, and that product, the thesis there was, there was really no one great payment rails in the world to send money to everywhere.
G: Well, it's expensive to send money internationally.
S: It's also when you are sending low amounts, is very inefficient. When you want to build a really robust payroll, let's say to make payments to 10 different countries, because one of the interesting things happening in Silicon Valley, me, you, there is a lot of entrepreneurs who are sort of immigrants or first time Americans, right? And then what happens is, when you raise $3 million, you end up starting to hire from the country that you know the language. So a French founder ends up hiring people from France or someone from Spain, Spain founders end up hiring people from Spain. We started to see this trend started like few years ago, now it's like very obvious that's a full trend right now. So the companies are really becoming fully remote when they just launch. Right? So, and they start to have teams in Pakistan, India, Europe, south America, Canada, US, Europe.
And then unfortunately you cannot use Wise for the whole world coverage. So we end up doing in RemoteTeam is, we find five, six different payment rails partners and combine them into more like an international payment engine to really build one of the most cost efficient ways to send money. This was one of our product and that was few more products that we were working, like building a fully remote tool set, HR tools for international companies. One example is: okay, you want to do time off in US? Most of the payroll software has all the holidays, right? But if you have someone in Kenya, in Turkey, in Pakistan, you have no idea of their upcoming holidays. So we build a great time off product paid time of a normal time of request product that covers all the countries, all the holidays, all the official holidays, including even some religious holidays.
So we had things like that and Gusto was looking into increasing their products around remote work and they were talking with companies. This is very funny. One of our investors, Adam Nash, is also an investor in Gusto and an investor in RemoteTeam. He actually connect me to the Gusto and said "ah, Gusto is looking into these products", and once they accelerate their work, Gusto is an amazing company. They always built the best user experiences, whatever they are building. And they said, they are really looking to build a robust international payments and remote work tools. And we actually start our conversation more like a partnership, like can we provide CASAA and API for international payments? And then when we see both of our visions for remote work is really very similar. We turn in that conversation into M&A.
G: Yeah. It's interesting. A lot of partnerships end up turning into acquisition conversations.
S: And they didn't know this, but it was always in my heart. I always wish Gusto to buy this. I didn't run a whole process; I didn't have multiple bidders; I didn't call a banker or the people, this was very natural. I had no desire to sell as well, as a founder. I really wanted to build this as a billion dollar business and really go really big on this. Because I'm a serial founder, I already did many startups. So I was really looking to build this really, really big. So one thing that I really liked about Gusto is that they already have the scale. So I don't need to wait five years to reach a hundred thousand customers, Gusto already has it. So that was really one of the selling points for me, that Gusto already has the scale so we can instantly reach thousands of customers and they can start to use our tools to build international teams actually.
G: So take us back to the very beginning. How did you get interested in startups and technology? You were selling other things, why did you become a startup entrepreneur?
S: I was very lucky, my father went to MIT and we had a computer at our home, IBM PS- 30, 20 megabyte hard disk, 86 CPU, and a floppy drive of 144, I think, megabytes. So what I really liked about the computers is you can really build a product for other people. And I have a very high empathy, I always want to build products to help other people to help myself as well. So I started to build cracks for computer games.
G: That's very early in how I learned programming was cracking Command & Conquer: Red Alert or something.
S: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Same years. Yeah. Command & Conquer: Red Alert was my last game I think that I ever played. But before that, there was Mortal Kombat, there was Deal, there was Sim City... And at that time in Turkey, we didn't have GameStop kind of environments. There's no stores you can go and buy, it was all downloading from the internet or you buy the computer games from small shops. In the streets, actually they were selling computer games.
G: Well, in the late nineties, mid nineties in Poland, most people didn't have a super fast internet connection.
S: Yeah, it was modem.
G: You had this flea market, and there would be a booth with a guy with a floppy copier and you would pay by the floppy. That's how I got my first copy of Photoshop for Amiga, was I paid by the floppy for some dude to copy it.
S: Yeah, it's that. So I was really one of the guys. I moved back to Turkey when I was six years old. So I had this BBS download games and you have the master copy thing, and then I started to really enjoy this and also start to build computers for companies actually. But I was very young, I was in high school, most businesses don't want me. They always tell me "you are a kid, you have no idea what you are doing", but I was really good. So I started selling computers, when I was 17 years old. I didn't have a lot of money and I wanted to buy a secondhand phone. At that time we had Nokia 3310 phones. And in Turkey, in '99, we didn't even have a big eCommerce website and we didn't have anyone at that time to sell, sort of a marketplace, to sell secondhand phones.
So, when I was 17 years old, I built like one of the first eCommerce websites plus a secondhand store for selling phones. And it was very funny. I really go to maybe 50 stores, try to get investment, free inventory. And nobody, just like, "are you guys kidding with me? Who will buy phones from internet? What is internet? What is eCommerce?" And then at the end of it, I think after two days knocking a lot of doors and getting a lot of nos, one guy said, "oh my God, I believe in this. I believe people will buy phones from internet and people will buy things from internet. So let me give you guys $50,000 and I want to own 90% of your company", and we say yes, we were 18 years old. So, I really got one of the first angel investments in Turkey. It was really, really early.
G: A guy who was selling, had secondhand phone shops?
S: Yeah. The guy was a big distributor, very smart guy, no English. It is a big thing in Turkey to know English in the 2000s. So he really solved this, and I started my career and startup-founder life by building the first, one of the first, eCommerce shops in Turkey selling phones. And what we did there was a growth technique. It's very interesting, at that time, Google SEO was really easy, so we end up really building the perfect title, the perfect description for every phone in the market that is actively selling or it's not sold. And then we built a website in Ajax mode, so the website is really fast because people were using 33.6 kilobit modems. So we actually built a technology to make the website really, really fast.
Our investor was making a lot of money and we were very young. We said, we will be the cheapest place people can buy their phone. And we said, we are going to check all of our competitors. And I wrote, we had Windows at that time, a Windows app that checks all the competitors, and we were always one Turkish Lira, which is, let's say 20 cents cheaper or $1 cheaper than all of our competition, dynamically, real time. So, we said, we will build the cheapest place and the best place, and we are going to win the market after five, six years. That was the idea. And it ended up being really successful. one of the fastest growing electronics, phone, eCommerce websites in Turkey, that is how I started.
G: So what did you do from there? Did you move to Silicon valley?
S: No, no, no, I wish. I stayed in Turkey for 10 years. The next company, because it wasn't a fully a startup, we didn't have the board and we were very young. I started when I was 17 and finished probably when I was 23. So our investor bankrupt, so it means our supplier bankrupt. Right? And then I had some founder issues at that time. I said, okay, I will not continue this. But what I was able to do is, at that time, there was also no accounting software and no fulfillment software or eCommerce websites. And in Turkey, we have a very interesting dynamic that was there, and it still doesn't exist in the US, which is our credit cards can automatically have installments. So every card in Turkey, every bank, has their own card.
Even if they are Visa, MasterCard, they can do installments dynamically. In the website you select, like now Amazon Prime cards, you can select, "I want to have this 5% discount" or 12 months, six months installments. So we have that in all of our cards. So, when you have that, there was no accounting software in Turkey that can calculate how much money will come to your bank account in six months. So I build an eCommerce accounting software, eCommerce website generator, and eCommerce fulfillment technologies. And they were all ASP.net, because ASP.net was the most popular language in Turkey that time. So, I take this and build a software as a service business out of it. And I was charging two minimum wage per company. Because I was telling them, if you use my software, you will save at least five people's work so I'm charging you two minimum wages. And it also became widely successful. And I continue to do that business for, I think, three years.
G: So tell us how you ended up in Silicon Valley and how you ended up working on RemoteTeam and raising money in the Valley.
S: So what happens is, when you look at is as a founder, when I look at myself, I really have a lot of ideas. I think one of the things about founders is, you sort of need to be an idea generation machine. It can be about your own product, or it can be about anything. Right? And I had many good ideas and I solved them, turning into a billion dollar businesses. And when I was 30 years old, I decided I'm too late, I should go to Silicon Valley as soon as possible. And I made the decision that, sorry, when I was 29 years old, I will travel the world for a year and then come to Silicon Valley. And because I was born in the US, I had the citizenship, so I didn't have a visa issue or anything.
So I traveled the world. I spend a lot of time in Europe, Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and then after one year exactly, close to 10 years ago in 2011, September 2nd, I landed in Silicon valley. And I had exit in Turkey as well. So I had some money to spend and to start my life in Silicon Valley. But when I was traveling the world, I go so wild and I spent nearly all of my money. And when I come to Silicon valley, seriously, $5,000 in my bank account. And I didn't know anyone. Then I realized somehow one of my classmates was in Silicon Valley. We became friends and housemates, and were able to find a place in San Francisco. This is how I came. I always build products that is trending. Then I build a company called MovieLaLa, which was a social network around movies.
And the idea, the smart thing there was, now it's very obvious but at that time nobody was doing this in 2012, when you watch a movie trailer or when you watch something online, you see a black screen, right? Our idea was, and we apply for patents for this, when you watch a movie trailer, you will see a call to action at the end of it, like notify me when this movies in the movie theaters, notify me when there is a new movie from this movie studio. So, we build a very smart dynamic call to action technology, and we were able to work with a lot of movie studios. We were able to raise money from very cool investors. And that was my first startup and we sold it to GfyCat. So I was also very lucky to have my first exit. And then I built another company, a sticker company, an augmented reality company.
And while I was doing this, I realized that I always had a remote team. And around 2019 summer, I was sitting in Stanford and I realized that, talking with founders, I realized that there is so many companies that are looking to hire people internationally. And because I had international teams in all of my companies, and I remember this really clearly, in my early days in Silicon Valley, when I was telling my investors or my advisors that I had remote teams, they always say, "no, no, no, remote work will not work. You need to have a local team. You're going to get acquired for your local team", you need to have a local team. But I always had an international team.
So in 2019 summer, I was in the Stanford startup accelerator, which is a great, great accelerator and a great community. And I was sitting with 20 founders and they were mostly international founders and they all raised a few million dollars. Some of them raised $10, $20 million, and they're all looking to have international teams, or they already have international teams. Then I said, "oh my God, time to build", RemoteTeam arrived. So I actually start to work on RemoteTeam to solve my problem, and companies like mine, try to solve their problems as well. This is how I started.
G: What are some things that you wish you'd known when you were first getting started that you know, now after having done a few companies gone through exits and so on...?
S: Yeah. That's a great question. I always get question asked, but I will give a very weird answer. I have no regrets in my life. I never look at past and I never compare my past version to my current version or my future version. So I really don't care that I had something in the past I know. But I believe if you are asking what is the best skills that a founder should have? I really think they should have charisma. They should have the passion. And there's a book that I really like, Chris Voss, I think it's "The Art of Negotiation" or this. Never split the difference for founders who are starting near. I will really become really good on convincing people because at the end of the day, the startup equals to growth and startup equals to constantly trying new things. You make an assumption and you need to test that assumption.
But, everything else, when it comes to partnerships, when it comes to raising money, when it comes to hiring people, you are always going to people that are stronger, bigger, and you need them, they don't need you. So you need to be really good at convincing people. And I didn't know this when I was very young, because you need to be a really good visionary, but they said, "okay, you are a good visionary". So what? I'm a great visionary. That person has great vision, but doesn't mean anything to me because I believe the underlying feature that the founders should have, the attribute that the founder should have is that they really need to convince people. Because when you are working with a partner, that partner is a hundred X bigger than you. They have no reason to work with you, but in reality, you need to convince them. You need to build that business development relationship, you need to tell them our partnership together will bring you something cool, right?
Or you are talking with an investor, you need to convince them. That is a conviction that people need to do. You want to build a team or you want to hire someone? Great. You need to convince them. You need to make them believe in your idea that you will become a great company and together you can do this faster. They have to believe this. So you need to be a really good person to sell your vision and convince people to believe in your journey. This is what I wish I knew.
G: Well, thanks for joining us on the show and thanks for sharing your story.
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