From Roommates to Co-Founders: The Story of Building & Selling a Successful Toronto-Based Tech Company
Let’s rewind all the way back to 1997. Two guys just enrolled at the University of Waterloo to study Computer Science. They became roommates. What eventually took place is a series of exciting and challenging moments, cool experiences, and invaluable lessons that anyone can learn from. Below is the story of Ravin Shah and Tishan Mills and their successful start-up QuickTapSurvey.
Ravin and Tishan graduated in 2002, shortly after the dot-com bubble had burst. Given the volatility in the economy, most people in their cohort took shelter in secure jobs with stable companies. For Ravin and Tishan, the excitement of starting something on their own took precedent, but getting to that point took some time, and some trial and error.
Ravin moved to Chicago and started working as a consultant for Accenture. He then worked for Lehman Brothers for a year before coming back to Toronto. Tishan did his Masters of Applied Science after finishing his bachelors and then worked for companies like IBM, Sapient, and RBC in their technology divisions.
They were always entrepreneurs at heart, but were just waiting for the right idea and the right time.
In 2009-2010 both Ravin and Tishan began seriously exploring the possibility of starting something. The mobile revolution was taking off, specifically with the introduction of the iPhone and later the tablet. And then, there was a defining moment. One day, as Ravin and Tishan were walking down the street, they were stopped by someone holding a clipboard asking if they could be surveyed on a topic. Noticing the hassle of using a paper-based technique was the tipping point both of them needed to ignite the spark of creativity. This exact moment gave birth to TabbleDabble (aka QuickTapSurvey).
To uncover the story of QuickTapSurvey, I sat down with Ravin and Tishan to learn about how they met, why they started the Company, what they did to grow the business, and their eventual decision to sell/exit.
Making it through the Valley of the Shadow
Reid Hoffman, internet entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and author (Co-Founder of LinkedIn) said “entrepreneurs can have, as part of their plan, the desire to become famous, cool or rich, but they do have to be driven by something more. 99.99% of all startups go through a Valley of the Shadow – where they think why did we think this was a good idea? Why did we think this was going to work?”
[George]: Did you go through the shadow?
[Ravin/Tishan]: Oh yeah. We felt that shadow every month for the first year! It was a deep shadow and even though you see the light, it’s definitely difficult for start-ups to get over that hump – especially ones that are bootstrapped. Funding was much more difficult to secure 8 years ago than it is now so not only did we have to get over that shadow, we had to do it in a very resourceful way.
[George]: What was the most difficult part of that experience?
[Tishan]: What made it difficult was the fact that we were investing our own money into this company, our own savings. On top of that, we were both not getting a salary in the first 2 years. To make things more interesting, my son Nathan was born – so I had a child, a mortgage, a family, and being an entrepreneur didn’t make it comforting at first. That was my personal shadow.
[George]: So what made you stick with it?
[Ravin]: Optimism. Time isn’t on your side when you’re building a business from scratch, so we had to keep pushing it on and what made a difference for us were small wins. During the journey, we had small wins that would provide the necessary motivation and money to unlock the next month…a few of those happened in succession to buy us enough time to stick with it.
[Tishan]: The other thing that was challenging is when we launched our product in 2012, we had little revenues at first, but the ball started rolling from there – we thought we’ll get to the 2014 mark in the first year so our expectations were off in terms of what it actually takes to grow a business.
Having the right partner(s) can make or break your success
According to Steve Hogan, Managing Director at Tech-RX (a Silicon-Valley based venture capital firm), the #1 thing failed start-ups have in common is that sole founders don’t have partners. Contrary to the popular misconception that entrepreneurship is a lonely road, a crucial factor to start-up success is aligning yourself with an all-star team that complement the gaps you have.
[George]: What roles did you take on in the beginning and how did you split them amongst yourselves?
[Ravin]: I was definitely more geared towards the sales and marketing aspect of the business – anything to do with client success. That being said, I didn’t really know the “sales process” that well either – things like following up, knowing your buyer, having a call to action, etc. weren’t as intuitive so I ended up spending lots of energy in the beginning doing things that were less effective.
[Tishan]: I guess we figured it out over time. It’s funny though because in the beginning, we would explain the business to a VC and they would be a little weary of our team as they would think Ravin and I were both computer science guys leading the management team. Eventually, we both fell into roles we naturally gravitated towards – Ravin was sales, marketing, customer experience and I was technology, product development, engineering, QA, etc.
[George]: What do you like most about having a Co-Founder?
[Ravin]: You can have vacations. No, seriously – it makes a huge difference to have someone as your backup, someone you can trust and is fully capable of running the business while you’re not there.
[Tishan]: It also helps to have someone who understands what you’re going through. That moral support is a big factor because as we’ve said before, when you’re going through that valley of the shadow and everything’s on the line, you can have that partner/friend to talk to and lift you up again.
[Ravin]: Also, even though we were friends, we still set formal rules and standards from the beginning. We even went as far as setting how many vacation days we can each take and that meant holding ourselves accountable to a company we had to grow/scale. Those conversations were awkward at first, especially because we were friends, but it’s better to have them upfront in the beginning to lay out what’s acceptable and what’s not.
[George]: When did you start feeling reassured about the success of the company?
[Ravin]: When we started paying ourselves a salary. When Tishan and I started working on QuickTapSurvey full time, we had no other choice but to make it a success – financially. Again, because we were bootstrapped, we had to think about profit from day one and it was a continuous process for us where the more we made, the more we would reinvest in the business.
[Tishan]: We moved into a tiny one-room office in Scarborough and as the company grew, we just started growing the space as well (expanding into other rooms within the building). Once the company started making real revenues, we not only grew in office space but in size of the team as well – that was super important to us as Co-Founders because we were essentially the ‘Chief Everything Officers’ for a long time.
Knowing when it’s the right time to do the right thing
Michael Hyatt, Co-Founder of BlueCat (which was sold for $400 million to a US firm) said that “entrepreneurs should be thinking about building a great business, and exits come from companies who run great businesses.”
[George]: At what point did selling the business become a consideration?
[Ravin]: We had calls showing interest in the company at many points of the journey, but we ignored most of them. Then, at one point, we started getting more calls and there seemed to be a larger interest in the market – seeing as though the market was hot and buyers were on the lookout we started to pay more attention to a potential exit.
[Tishan]: We were also product-focused tech founders who scaled the company to a certain level, and to take it to the next jump required different skillsets. At the point where we started thinking about a sale, we also had different options on the table like continuing to grow the business, but we figured that doing so would also mean absorbing more risk – and our families deserved some security.
[George]: What was the feeling like when you closed the sale?
[Ravin]: Sense of relief. It’s really an emotional rollercoaster when you’re going through the process because there are a lot of unknowns – being unsure of whether it’s going to work or not, going through the due diligence, the negotiations, etc.
[Tishan]: Once the pen touched the paper to sign/close, there was a sigh of relief – the goal was accomplished.
[George]: What are you looking forward to most now that it’s done?
[Tishan]: Definitely advising/mentoring some companies, and maybe starting another company sometime in the near future.
[Ravin]: Spending time with family, taking some time off, and getting recharged for the next venture!
[Ravin/Tishan]: All in all, its really been a fun ride, we learned so much through this process, and experienced a ton.
Expect the Valley of the Shadow - growing your business will be more challenging than you think
Stay optimistic and focus on small wins - A positive attitude and early success will allow you to stick with it longer
Profit is King - working on your bootstrapped start-up full-time, making a profit is a priority from day one
The “Foundation” Team - Find the right partner you can trust, and who has skillsets that complement your gaps
Build it RIGHT and they will Come - Focus on building a successful business first, and a successful exit will follow as a result