I always say that a business takes on the personality of its Founder, for better or worse. It’s a huge part of why “Founder fit” is a big thing for us when we’re deciding whether or not we want to buy a SaaS.
When I think about Vitay, which just recently joined the SureSwift portfolio, it’s really evident to me that its incredible sales strategy and growth is a reflection of Founder, Poya Farighi. Poya had a sales-related background, and had worked as a partner at a recruitment firm, so he was both intimately familiar with the audience he built Vitay for, and able to build a killer sales strategy that created a snowball effect.
Poya also decided to build a team instead of going with a contractor hiring strategy. If you’re curious about direct sales, how to leverage reviews and testimonials, or whether building a team might be right for you as a Founder, this interview’s a must read.
An Interview with Vitay Founder, Poya Farighi
Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to found Vitay?
So, my background is actually in investment management — that’s where my early career started. From that I transitioned into being a partner at a recruitment firm in London (it was my brother’s company actually).
While I was there, I found myself wanting to marry what I had learned in recruitment and what I wanted to do in tech. And that really evolved into building Vitay. We had seen that there was a gap in the market regarding processes for references and job candidate verifications. So we started building a platform in that space.
I decided to move to Canada at that time as well to change up my environment, and built the first MVP of the product around a couple of small recruitment firms there. We got a lot of feedback from those initial customers and from that we massaged the product into what it is today — but really that evolution happened over a long period of time.
In the early days we had a few things we were building but when we were out chatting to recruiters, they were always most interested in a specific feature set that would save them a lot of time. We listened to that and doubled down on the reference checking and feedback features.
And was it something where from the beginning, you saw a gap in the market and you thought, ‘This could be huge,’ or did the potential become apparent over time?
It was pretty clear from the conversations I was having with recruiters that the quickest way of making money was this product. So, we did see a huge opportunity just given how many recruitment firms, staffing agencies, and employers were doing things the old school (and very time consuming) way. There were a few competitors in the space, but we knew we could produce something better, and the market was so big that we could easily get in and slowly chip away, which we did, relatively quickly.
What did the day-to-day look like for you as a Founder? What were you working on, what were you worried about? What was amazing, and what was stressful?
Ha, everything was stressful! Obviously in the early stages of building a company there’s a lot going on and a lot of uncertainty. So there’s a lot of stress, but there’s also a lot of excitement around it and a lot of future opportunity.
And what we were trying to build towards was having a small team that was quite close knit. We really did achieve that and it helped us work hard and have a focus. I really enjoyed that part of it.
There are challenges that come with bootstrapping a company, and those were all true for us, too — we had very limited funding to try and grow it against much bigger competitors. Working our way up from being a very small player to competing with them was difficult. But then again, it was part of the challenge that we enjoyed — as they say, the journey is the fun part, right?
I know our team has been delighted to work with the folks you hired who joined us after the acquisition — we’ve just been really impressed. I’d love to hear more about how you hired for some of those key positions. How did you find the right people, and what did accomplishing that do to change the trajectory of the business?
In the first year, we actually had about seven developers. So, when we were first building out the product, my burn rate was pretty aggressive.
Once the product was more built out, we found a developer who was always the most motivated, the most keen, and he always got the best out of the team. His work ethic was just next to none — it’s amazing.
He was always someone I could throw anything at, and he’d just go work it out. There was never a time he’d say, “No, I’m not doing that,” or “I can’t.” That became a quality we looked for across the whole team. We all had to be comfortable with the idea that we may not always know what we’re doing, but we’ll go work it out.
Being able to come up with ideas yourself rather than being spoon fed was always a key thing, too. We tried to be really clear in interviews that you needed to be comfortable working on your own to do well on our team, and that people who needed a lot of structure weren’t an ideal fit for us.
I think all startups are similar in those ways and you need people with that mentality — they’re excited to figure things out, and they don’t need a lot of structure to do it.
We definitely look for similar traits — being independent and getting things done are actually two of our company values. You mentioned interviewing. Did you feel any pressure to have a ‘perfect’ interviewing and hiring process since Vitay is in the HR space?
Yes and no. Personally, I have a particular hiring style where I don’t always focus on just purely skillset or experience. For me, hiring has a lot to do with people’s motivation.
Money is only the most basic motivation for any particular job. Usually there’s something beyond that. Maybe they want to step up in their career, or they want to get more opportunity in a specific area. Or they want to be in a more autonomous working environment.
I always found that knowing someone’s motivation was the best way to hire — if it aligns with what you want in the business. If those two married together, what they’re motivated by is what you’re offering them, and it’s probably going to be a good hire.
On the flipside, you can hire someone with experience for the role, but maybe it’s not quite the right fit for them, and over time they’re going to get frustrated and then not be a good employee.
So, for me, it was always that motivation factor. And to get to that I always ask in an interview, ‘What are you going to get out of working for us?’ instead of ‘What are we going to get out of you?’
That’s a great interview question. We may steal that.
Sometimes I think bootstrapped Founders go the all-contractor route, and they don’t really develop talent. You seem to have really been focused on developing your team. Was that intentional? Or was that driven first by budget, and then you sort of realized, ‘Hey, this is the right way to go?’
In my heart, I always wanted to find the people who really wanted to be a part of this thing long-term and wanted to grow with the company. That’s different than having contractors. And it does take a lot of interviews, and a lot of conversations. And of course, we also had a couple of hires where we ended up letting people go within a few weeks because it just wasn’t the right fit. So it wasn’t like we were always perfect, but when we found the right people it was great.
For me, the core thing of having my own company was always looking back at the things that motivated me when I was starting out in my career, as well as the things I really hated.
I knew that you could have this great name on your resume, but realistically, you hated the job. In working for a small company — a startup — it’s usually the other way around. No one knows the company you’re working for or what you do, but you probably end up enjoying the job a lot more because of the freedom and opportunities you have. That was something I wanted to create for our team.
I want to switch to talking a bit about your sales strategy. Most of Vitay’s sales came from direct sales outreach, is that right? And I want to point out that at the time we bought the business you were growing 300% YoY, so that’s some impressive outreach!
Well, part of our sales and marketing strategy was just built on the fact that we were relatively limited on budget, so spending a lot of money on advertising aimlessly that we weren’t getting a great result from wasn’t something I wanted to focus on.
And coming from a sort of sales background before, I knew that focusing on direct sales works quickly. And that’s also a spot we saw where we could stand out compared to our competitors because we were constantly doing direct sales, rather than trying to fish for customers with ads.
There’s obviously opportunity and ways of making ads work too, but you need to have time and a budget. And in the early days, having no budget there just made us say, ‘Okay, let’s just hit the phones, hit the emails, do the direct approach.’
I always say that a business takes on the personality of its Founder, and that really comes across in what you just said about having a sales background, and how much success you had with focusing on sales. A lot of bootstrappers we talk to are coming from the technical side, so direct sales aren’t necessarily a strong suit or a comfort zone for them. Do you have any tips for other Founders for how to get started there?
Build a process. Initially I built out the decks and the narrative about what people should say to sell the product. So basically, scripts. I used my experience from what I’d done in sales in the past, but I also used YouTube videos, books, and other things to educate myself on how to craft the perfect script, and hit the right points to explain the benefits of the product rather than features.
With all that work I was able to craft something I could hand off to any salesperson. And then when they came in, the first thing was just to learn the script, and pretty much say that on the phone to potential customers.
As they got more familiar with the product and had more calls and sales under their belts, they could put their own spin on it and adapt it over time. But we always had a script as a solid starting point.
If you just can’t do sales, I’d say bring in someone who has that skillset.
One of the other things that jumped out to us was your product reviews, and how you were leveraging those to get your next customers. When we bought the business you were already at a point where you were starting to knock down nearly all of the Canadian health care industry. How did you think about reviews as part of your overall marketing and sales strategy?
So with reviews, initially it’s like a giant snowball you’re trying to push — it’s really, really hard to get it rolling. But once you get one review and then another, you can leverage those to go to the next sale.
And again, some of the trainings I did and the various books I read when I was working on our deck had taught me that having testimonials and reviews is probably the biggest thing for a purchaser. So from the beginning, as soon as we could get reviews, we got them and we made sure they were good.
We didn’t have a very large client base in the beginning, but they were all happy. So luckily, they were also more than happy to write really positive reviews. We never had any bad ones. And they were genuine — the people who wrote them were happy to be references as well.
So, for example, if we sent a review to someone and they read it but wanted to call the person up, they were happy to pick up the phone and confirm what they had said.
That’s a trust thing, and it makes a big difference. So we really did bake that into that sales process and it did turn out to be a key thing for us.
And you mentioned the healthcare system in Canada, and those clients all know each other, right? So if this Province is using it, that’s immediate validation for the next Province or the next. The same thing was true in other client areas, like U.S. healthcare recruitment firms. We were able to land a client with a really recognizable name in the industry, and that made every other sale after it easier.
So with all the growth, what ultimately made you decide to sell the business?
I was ready for a bit of a break and I wanted to focus on a couple of other projects that I’m interested in. I know we could have kept growing, but I was also moving back to London, and I wanted to start a new product in London and be based here. And it was a good timing — revenue was growing pretty rapidly.
I’ve heard that before from other Founders, that lifestyle changes — whether it’s a physical move, a baby coming, or a new home — can be a trigger to sell.
I’d say it was kind of in tandem. It was always the goal to exit at some point. And then there was just a moment where I was ready.
I’d been in Canada for almost seven years and was ready to come back to London. I could have set up an office here, but I would still have been very tied to the U.S. and Canada since that’s where a lot of Vitay’s customers are.
I’d also just been working quite hard for quite a few years. I felt like it would be nice to have some money in the bank and get stuff settled so the next thing I build doesn’t have as much stress and pressure.
Everything I had was invested in the business, so that’s always a thing in the back of your mind. Even if you’re in a spot where you know things aren’t going wrong, you still worry about things hitting the fan and bringing you back down to zero.
As a buyer you had the resources and experience to take the product to the next level, so I think it’ll be great to see what it can do with a bit more behind it.
So there were really a lot of factors, but it all just combined to make me feel like pulling the chute now was the right choice, and then I can build from here.
When we started Vitay, we started with very minimal capital. So where I’m at now — after selling — puts me in a place where the next thing I build should hopefully be even bigger, because I’ll have more resources, more education, and more experience.
So once you decided it was the right time to exit, how did you go about selling, and how did you decide SureSwift was the right buyer for you?
We had actually started chatting with Chris two or three years ago — it was quite early on, actually. I think it was probably in our first year of revenue. We had an initial conversation and I said that we weren’t ready to sell, but let’s have a chat. And Chris said, “Cool. I’ll check in with you again, in X amount of time.”
I had an idea in mind of what we were aiming to get to, and when he reached out again we were right around that point. We had just started speaking to Corum as well, at that time to help us look at other potential buyers. We’d had a couple of other people reach out to us, and that piqued my interest. It felt like if there were multiple people reaching out to us, it was a good time in the market. So we decided we would see what else was out there.
In terms of choosing SureSwift — once we had engaged Corum and were talking to a few possible buyers, you just seemed to have the cleanest process. You got back to us a lot quicker and you weren’t nitpicking these little things, so it just felt right. It was a gut feeling really.
And what made you take that initial call even though you knew you weren’t ready to sell? I know there’s a school of thought in parts of the bootstrapper community that if you’re making money and growing you shouldn’t even take a call. I think it’s terrible advice, but I’d love to hear about your thought process from the Founder perspective.
I don’t know why anybody would give that advice. I was always open to discussions and the conversation with Chris was really just ‘these are the goals we want to get to. So if we get to those, maybe it’s interesting to you.’ And then we did get there, so it worked quite well and you already knew a bit about the business by the time we were ready to sell.
I think I got so open to conversations because you never know what will come from them. Somebody might ask, ‘Hey, did you try x?’ and it could be something I hadn’t thought of, so you can walk away from that with an idea to grow your business.
I know you’re still working on transitioning the business to us and that’s probably taking up most of your mental space, but do you have any immediate plans for what’s next?
We’ve got a couple of ideas at the moment, one of them is potentially doing something in web3 around the HR space — not crypto specifically, but more in the blockchain space. It could be something exciting, or it could be nothing. And there are some other ideas we had when Vitay was starting that I think people will understand a bit more now because the markets have progressed since then, so the timing may be better now.
Having exited one business successfully, do you think it’s more likely that you’ll raise money from other people for the next thing versus bootstrapping? Or do you still want to call the shots?
Initially, I think we’ll build the minimum product ourselves. And then once we have something to show, we may go raise money on this. And hopefully, part of having an exit under my belt will be making that conversation easier because I’ve got some sort of track record. Whereas with Vitay I had zero track record in tech, so it would’ve been harder to raise money if I had wanted to.
London’s network is a lot bigger compared to Vancouver too, in terms of outside investors. So ideally, yeah, on the next thing, I’m probably going to be more aggressive on the raising money side of things. I’d like to build something that’s more expansive than I could bootstrapping. But first we need to build it and see where we end up!
I love that. And I love that the bootstrapper mindset is less black and white than it was a few years ago. Bootstrapping often makes the most sense because of where the Founder’s at or what the product is going to be. But I also like that a lot of really successful Founders are figuring it out on their own first, getting the exit, and then figuring out a good way of using other people’s capital to build something bigger.
It also depends on the product as well, right? So for example, a SaaS product like Vitay — you build it, you pretty immediately sell it to customers, and you’re making revenue. If you’re building something with more of a network-effect type situation, you’re not going to make revenue from it until it’s built out and has various ways of monetizing.
That’s going to take a bit more time and money to kind of have the runway to build it out to a point where it starts making money. That’s more where my head is at on a new product — it’ll be a different kind of product than Vitay was. But again, we’re still really massaging the idea and seeing what’s going to work and what’s not.
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