Endeavor Atlanta is publishing a monthly blog where we interview great entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors in the Atlanta ecosystem. Dave Keil, CEO of QASymphony and Endeavor Entrepreneur, kicks off our interview series. Dave has a diverse background leading early stage companies as well as large enterprises (e.g., ChoicePoint). Under his leadership, QASymphony has grown from a few employees in 2014 to a team of 100 generating significant revenue. In 2017 alone they opened a European office, grew revenue by 113% and raised a $40M Series C from Insight Venture Partners.
We sat down with Dave to get his perspective on leading a high-growth company and the entrepreneurial scene in Atlanta.
You joined QASymphony at a very early stage but your early career included stints as a consultant and investment banker. What made you want to take that jump from steady enterprise to high-growth startup?
I've had a diverse career. I've worked at later stage companies and I've worked at earlier stage companies. When I was introduced to QASymphony, the business had fairly low revenue. I was initially skeptical, but when I studied the business and talked to customers and others in the market, I could see that the market was really ready to explode. That's what got me very interested and excited. I was very happy to learn that the product had received significant investment over the previous two and a half years, so it was very well built and ready for the primetime.
When you took over what were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
I started in June of 2014. We had a very strong product but there had been a minimal investment in sales and marketing at the company. We were pretty open and honest with ourselves that there was very little sophistication in this area. It was clear to me that this was the first challenge we needed to tackle. We needed to beef up the sales side so that it could catch up with the incredible capabilities of the product. In the first couple of months we interviewed a lot of folks and hired a great leader in Jordan Rackie who had a lot of success at Pardot. I could tell that he had the ingredients to build a great team and also construct a disciplined and scalable sales process. As soon as we brought him on the first priority was to round out this team and provide the necessary resources to ensure success.
Any funny start-up stories you want to share as you got off the ground?
Well, most of the good stories you know I can't share, but I will say there was one funny story that sticks out. We have a large development team in Vietnam, about 40 employees. I went there very early on in the summer of 2014. I had never been to Vietnam before and was really impressed with the team. They put a big emphasis on showing me the country and getting to know me, so they put together a trip up to a fishing village. We spent the day on this dock with a whole bunch of other companies that would do these things for the day. We basically sat around drinking beer on the dock, eating great seafood and singing songs. It was a really fun experience and I was getting to know everybody. On the bus ride home I got them all to learn and sing "Meet the Mets" which is one of the few songs I actually know the words to*. It was quite humorous and I wish I had recorded it. Still to this day my colleagues in Vietnam remember the words to the Meet the Mets song.
*If you hadn’t figured it out, Dave is a HUGE New York Mets fan.
What do you think Atlanta does well as a startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem?
What I found when I moved down from Boston was a sharp contrast in terms of how collaborative executives and other business leaders are in Atlanta. Boston is a fantastic tech city but I didn't find Boston to be as open. I think Atlanta has an unusual mix of senior leaders that are willing to spend time and pay-it-forward. Many of them have had good mentors and realize that, which is why they're willing to take time to help many of the emerging tech executives.
I know things like the Atlanta Tech Village have been a huge catalyst as have several other organizations in Atlanta. I've been involved with the Techstars program where they pull in 50 or 60 mentors to assist with 10 companies every year. I've been a mentor the past two years. As most know, Techstars is also replicated in other cities but I think it's done really well in Atlanta.
You also hear it often, but having Georgia Tech here is a tremendous advantage and highly differentiated relative to what you see in most cities.
What are some of the biggest areas of opportunity for Atlanta to better support its entrepreneurs?
I've thought a lot about this. When you think of other cities that are really strong tech cities - and I put Northern California on a different planet - but if you think about Seattle or Austin or Northern Virginia, I think we're behind in having some of the premier public tech companies remain public. If you look at Seattle you have Microsoft and Amazon creating a base of talent other local companies can lean on. They can pull from the network there to start up and scale other businesses. I know we had some great successes from ISS when they were public. I know Dun & Bradstreet Software, the old MSA, was a very strong software company that was a part of a public entity. These successes spawned lots of other great entrepreneurs. I'm not sure of the reason, but in general I think it's disappointing that a lot of Atlanta companies that get to a certain size end up getting acquired. Take Airwatch and their billion dollar acquisition as a good example. I think if the marquis companies remain public it creates a better overall ecosystem. Successes like Manhattan Associates or Global Payments, both happen to be great customers of ours, are two that come to mind, but I had trouble identifying any recent successful public technology companies in Atlanta that have remained public. I think that's something that could really be a positive change over time.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs that are scaling quickly and hitting an inflection point in their business?
Three things are at the top of my list and I've learned a lot of this from having made these mistakes in my career. First: over-invest in A-players. The returns are always highly accretive to give a little more equity or pay a little more for the real top performers. Second, raise more capital than you think you need. And lastly, always have the discipline to keep "top-grading" your talent as the business goes from one phase to the next. An executive when the business is at $2M dollars may be perfect, but may not be the right fit when you get to $10 million. I think having the discipline to do that is tough but very important.
Why did you decide to apply to Endeavor?
Well, as you guys know, I didn't know anything about Endeavor when I was introduced through Frank Dalton . I've known Frank for many years and he is one of the partners at Fulcrum Equity who were a close partner of ours that led our Series B a few years ago. To be honest, out of respect for Frank, I took the meeting. Again, I didn't know anything about Endeavor and wasn't interested in joining a place for startups but as Aaron (Managing Director of Endeavor Atlanta) explained and as I eventually learned, Endeavor is very different. The "scale-up" emphasis aligned well with where QASymphony is in its lifecycle. I was really sold on the opportunity to take part in this Global Network. Everyone I've met in this organization and network is second to none and truly wants to help you grow.
We've done really well in the United States but there is a huge opportunity for QASymphony to create similar success in Europe, South America and Asia. I'm convinced Endeavor can add tremendous value there.
What are you reading right now and what music are you playing in your car?
I actually try and read two books at the same time so I can go back and forth when I get bored reading one. I'm going to Russia this summer for the World Cup in Moscow and to make sure I'm not a completely ignorant American, I'm reading a book called "A Concise History of Russia". It's a 500-page book and I'm only up to year 1820 now. It's really fascinating.
And then for a little light reading, I'm reading a book about a guy I knew at Bain, his name is Bill Browder. Bill was a successful investor in Russia and ran into some conflict with the government officials there, and was able to escape to London while his lawyer was jailed and later killed. He wrote a book called "Red Notice" that one of my colleagues gave to me. I just started to read that. Also very interesting.
In terms of music, I listen to satellite radio all the time. I'm an old-school guy. Classic rock. Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Grateful Dead. A lot of the old stations. You won't catch me listening to any of the new stuff unless one of my teenagers had control of the radio.