The October blog interview is with Endeavor Entrepreneur's and LeaseQuery co-founders, George Azih and Chris Ramsey. LeaseQuery is a cloud-based lease accounting software that enables businesses to simplify accounting for leases and easily comply with the new GAAP lease accounting guidelines. In the last 12 months, LeaseQuery has grown from 8 employees to almost 90 and recognized as one of the fastest growing companies in Atlanta — all of this without raising any outside capital.
George, tell us a bit about your journey founding LeaseQuery. At what point did you realize you needed to bring Chris in as a co-founder? Chris, why did you ultimately decide to join George on this entrepreneurial journey?
George: We started LeaseQuery because there was a problem with accounting for leases at the last company I worked for. I worked for a large fortune 1000 company doing technical accounting and accounting research. Part of my duties centered around industry research and how to handle any upcoming pronouncements. In that role, I learned the accounting standards would be changing where all business leases, from office space to coffee machines, need to be on the balance sheet.
Around this time, the company hired new auditors who wanted to take a deep dive into the financials. The auditors decided to test our lease accounting, and the first 10 leases they tested were accounted for improperly. They tested another 10 leases, and those 10 were also wrong. So the Chief Accounting Officer tasked me to teach the controllers how to properly account for leases. I began creating a presentation for our controllers when I thought I could likely find software to automate this process. I went searching for software and what I found were lease management solutions as opposed to lease accounting. There’s a very distinct difference. I figured if there was no solution out there now while the accounting is simple, there wasn’t going to be a solution when the accounting became more difficult. That’s when I decided we should consider building it.
As it relates to Chris, I never had to sell anything in my life as an accountant. I started going into meetings with prospects and realized I had no sales experience. I didn’t know what questions to ask, who were the decision makers in the room and that’s when it became apparent I needed someone like Chris.
Chris: George and I originally met years ago at the University of Georgia. We became good friends and kept in touch out of college. He took the accounting path and I took the “I don’t know what I’m doing” path, which landed me in sales. I was fortunate to be a decent sales rep and joined a couple companies with great training programs. Over time I graduated into selling technology products; hardware, software, and eventually into larger ticket items. I had broad experience with sales cycles, working with enterprise companies, small companies and was effective at following a sales process. At the same time, I was always a student of sales and studied what the best sales teams do. I really wanted to learn why and how high performing teams functioned so well. I probably annoyed my bosses as I always asked questions, but I truly wanted to understand more.
Fast forward to when George was building LeaseQuery. He would call me to bounce ideas off of and eventually started taking me on sales meetings with him. I was really in the room to help George understand the sales process and buying behaviors of the prospects. At the same time, I started to realize I needed a change from my full-time gig as I was selling a commodity and didn’t feel like I was adding value. I decided I can either sit there and complain or I can step into an opportunity with George to build something in a market that was a ‘need to have’ instead of a ‘nice to have’.
Once you were sure the accounting changes were coming, you decided to start LeaseQuery as a side project. Do you recommend other potential entrepreneurs do the same before jumping full time into their start-up? Any recommendations on how to pull this off?
George: I would absolutely recommend this, especially if you are building something that is uniquely tied to what you are doing. If it’s tied to your current position then you know the problem intimately. It allows you to create a purpose-built solution.
When I decided to start LeaseQuery the first thing I did was reduce my personal spend. I also started putting almost everything into my 401k as I knew I would need it eventually. I think entrepreneurs today go out and fundraise off the bat as opposed to getting an MVP to market and getting some traction. I see press clippings about pre-revenue companies raising money as if it’s a huge accomplishment, but all that tells me is that you’re a good presenter. Especially in the earliest days, you’re selling investors on a dream versus actual traction.
I learned a few key items going the route I did. The first thing is to not go seeking a partner at the onset. You should focus on getting the product to a point where you can bring it to market. The entrepreneur should be the business analyst writing the requirements and initial tech specifications. From there you can outsource the initial development. The second thing I learned is that when you outsource you should use a development company as opposed to paying someone hourly. Individuals look at this type of work as a “gig” work whereas a company will look at it as their job. More importantly, if the outsourced company isn’t delivering you have layers of management you can apply pressure on. Another important reason I used outsourced development is that it allows you to properly plan and budget for the future. You’ll know exactly how much you need to save in order to get the beta completed. You can then negotiate to give them a small amount upfront and pay the rest in chunks based on an agreed upon timeline. If you’ve built your requirements on the frontend you will have project phases clearly crafted and don’t pay until it’s completed to your liking.
The reason I was putting everything into my 401k is because I started to borrow against it as a source of funding. Most accountants or financial professionals would call me crazy for doing that and they are right! If you’re going this path you have to know the dynamics of your 401k plan. Some plans will only allow you to get one loan, others will allow you to take multiple loans. I really should stress that this isn’t sound financial advice, but then again, neither is starting a company!
In a world where fundraising creates headlines, you’ve decided to bootstrap. Tell us why you haven’t taken money? Any advice for entrepreneurs out there contemplating whether or not they should bootstrap?
George: I fully believe the amount of money you’ve raised is a vanity metric. The more important factor is consistency. What matters to us is the fact that we win 47% of the deals we’re brought into. That means our competitors have to share the other 53% of deals. For me, I’m more concerned with customer traction and revenue than raising a certain dollar amount.
Here’s my piece of advice: don’t let the industry fool you into thinking that you aren’t successful unless you raise money. We contemplated it in the early days but came to the realization that no company should raise money unless they are crystal clear that $1 invested creates multiple times more value. We have been very lucky that we haven’t needed to raise outside capital. In fact, our working capital alone gives us enough runway for well over a year. That is better than most funded companies!
Chris: Similar to George’s point, the goal when starting a company shouldn’t be to make a fancy slide deck, guess at metrics and growth rates, and sell that to an investor. That becomes disingenuous. As an entrepreneur, if you can’t confidently articulate a plan of attack and what an investor will get in return, then you shouldn’t raise money. We were fortunate to build the right processes that generate enough working capital to fund the business so we can focus our energy on building a great company versus fundraising. If we didn’t have these processes in place we likely would have raised.
The entrepreneurial journey comes with plenty of ups and downs. Any good or funny war stories you can share from building LeaseQuery?
Chris: The funniest one is about having expectations as the company grows in the early days. I think it’s important to note that George started this company working out of a Starbucks at night. So when I started to build the sales staff I literally had to pull him out of Starbucks and convince him it was necessary to have some semblance of an office. I told him sales people needed a place to make phone calls and run demos. They flat out cannot do inside sales from Starbucks. So we landed at a local co-working space but usually had to get to the office five minutes before they opened so we could lockdown enough space for our team. The team finally grew big enough to where I told George we needed to get individual offices. George was not interested in going this route. It took some convincing but we finally landed on a space that was similar to Regus. George, still not sold on the move proceeds to tell the sales team, “Listen, the office space was Chris’ idea. If it was up to me we’d all work out of Roam or a Starbucks and use this money to go on a Caribbean cruise for two weeks. But because Chris wanted an office you guys are stuck here and don’t get to go on a cruise!” Still to this day our earliest employees give me a hard time for that one! That one was a really funny moment.
George: On the flip side we’ve had our fair share of tragedies that turned out to be blessings. The biggest one was the time I sold 10% of the company for $12,000. I’ll never forget the date - September 14th, 2013. I was going to watch the Floyd Mayweather fight. On my way there I received what I thought was the worst phone call ever. The person I sold 10% of the company to wanted their money back. I was devastated. I told this person that they’re killing me and killing the company. They didn’t budge so I negotiated a way to pay $1000 per month instead of a lump sum of $12,000. Once we agreed I made a promise to this individual that, for the rest of their life, they would regret the day they asked for their money back. To my surprise, this person’s response was, “I hope so because that means you are successful.” I thought the company was over that day in 2013. But it turns out we were only just beginning.
When we first met you last year your team was about 8 people. Now you’re close to 90 employees. What have you learned growing the team 11x in one year?
George: We were talking to another Atlanta-based entrepreneur last year who mentioned that 80% of his time is spent interviewing or in meetings. At the time I thought he was crazy. Fast forward one year and that is absolutely what I am doing when I’m in the office. There are days I can go to the office and not open my laptop until 5 pm. What we’ve learned is that as we grow, your problems grow with you. You have new challenges that arise. Once you cross over 50 employees, for example, you have to start dealing with Obamacare. There are different things that pop up that you would never expect. Especially HR related. Processes become super important. Fortunately, Chris is extremely process oriented because I’m not.
Chris: I have been a student of business and how to build a sales team for a long time. Fortunately what I learned on the sales side played out as expected. My biggest blind spot was around people skills. The ability to articulate a problem to your team or individual team members in the way they want it communicated. It takes time and effort to think about how an individual on your team is going to receive a piece of information. I think that’s been my biggest learning.
Lease accounting isn’t the ‘sexiest’ business topic, especially within companies that don’t have controllers, accountants or CFO’s. Why do companies, big and small, need to make this a priority?
George: Simply put, it ties directly to their audited financial statements. This is a compliance issue. This won’t increase sales or cut expenses. Every company around the world that issues GAAP financials has to do this. Period.
What have you seen as a benefit of building your business in Atlanta?
George: Being a B2B company in Atlanta has a huge benefit. There have been a number of great success stories in the B2B space which creates a phenomenal network effect. Atlanta has a very open entrepreneurial scene and by that I mean people are always willing to help. No matter what situation you’re going through, there is a company in Atlanta that has been through the same issue.
From your view, what are some of the challenges the Atlanta entrepreneurial ecosystem faces?
George: Our biggest challenge is around people resources. The sales, marketing and developer talent is fantastic. But finding executive talent that has seen this movie before is challenging. We’ve found the ones that have been through it aren’t usually looking to go through it again. That then limits our pool of candidates. As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of B2B companies who are going through this growth now, so hopefully, in 5-10 years this won’t be a challenge for the Atlanta community.
We borrow this question from Tim Ferris. If you could have a billboard with one piece of advice to entrepreneurs what would it be?
George: The easiest part of starting a company is starting a company. Building software and launching something is easy. But you don’t have an actual company until you have a paying customer. Now that is the hard part. Getting your first dollar is the hardest part.
Chris: Don’t build a product in search of a market. People tend to want to be an entrepreneur so they create problems out of thin air. This is what causes prolific pivots for startups. Plus if you’re not solving something that you had pain around or don’t believe in, are you truly going to stick it out when times get tough?
Why did you decide to go through the selection process and join Endeavor?
Chris: Simply put, we have gotten value out of every meeting we’ve had whether it was during the selection process and now after being selected. There were times when George and I would look at each other and ask if we should continue investing time in the process, but every single meeting delivered so much value that we would have been silly not to. Endeavor is truly one of the best-kept secrets in Atlanta.
George: I will frankly say this, if you are bootstrapped, you are at a significant disadvantage. Oftentimes you don’t have a board or advisory board and Endeavor solves that with an incredibly talented mentor network. We never would have access to these people without joining Endeavor.
Now that we’re selected, Endeavor has put together a tremendous advisory board focused on helping us grow. These advisory boards are a sweet spot for companies like ours who are bootstrapped but can also be hugely valuable to funded companies. Oftentimes when you raise money you may find that your interests, the boards' interests, and the actual company’s interests could be three different things. Endeavor’s process is the only organization I’ve seen where the mentor's interests and your interests are aligned. They don’t have a different agenda. Their sole focus is to support you as you grow and give you the resources to grow faster.
Last question, what book(s) are you reading? Or what are you playing in your car?
George: Venture Deals. This is a book about venture capital. I thought I knew a lot about financials being an accountant, but this book has changed my perspective. Even though we aren’t raising money it has taught me a ton.
Chris: I’ll go with what I’m listening to. One of my favorite podcasts is “Invest Like the Best.” They get people on with very diverse backgrounds and thought processes. I like to hear really smart people talk about how they think about things.