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Tips from Founders
Sep 9, 2015
Featured Interview - Andrew Graham, CEO & Co-Founder of Borrowell - Part 2
In Part I of this conversation with Andrew Graham, CEO and Co-Founder of Borrowell, we discussed the vision, early challenges and trajectory of an early-stage financial technology company. In Part II, Andrew shares some specific tips for getting your startup off the ground.
Let's start with the process of identifying an opportunity, seeing a gap in the market and knowing that technology is going to be a big part of the solution. If you don't have a background in technology, how do you put the pieces together?
Though I love technology, I'm not an engineer or developer. I wasn't going to code our system. So when I was founding the company, I knew that I needed to build a team that would have these skills, along with others that I didn't have.
I spent a bunch of time looking for the best CTO out there and I found it in Salim Naran. Salim is one of the company's co-founders and he provides real leadership on technology. He has spent a lot of time saying 'okay here's how we're going to go, we are going to use this vendor for this, this part we are going to build.' A lot of those strategic decisions about what technology is used and when, become decisions that will be made by the team.
And how does one go about finding a CTO?
Over a period of a few months, I talked to everybody I could find in the startup community. I would tell people that I was looking for a great CTO who really understands financial services. Often, they would suggest names. That probably led to about 20-30 different coffee dates. Eventually, someone suggested that I meet Salim, who had a great background in financial services.
When you go from a coffee date into a deeper relationship, what are the sort of indications that this person is the right fit?
For me it's two things. First, I look at whether the person has relevant experience. Second, I consider the cultural fit or personality fit. For example, Salim and I hit it off the first time we met. We had a great chat for an hour which did not even touch on technology. Instead, we spoke more about what kind of company we wanted to build and what kind of people we wanted to be surrounded by.
I think knowing that we were on the same wavelength about those big questions was key. Like any relationship, the intangibles of fit matter a lot. So listening to your gut is really important. It is a little bit like dating I guess!
As the company grows, can you continue to attract people who fit with that wavelength? Or do you lose control of the "culture" at some point?
Let's start with the type of culture we are trying to build. We are creating innovative products that will change financial services in Canada. We look for people who are excited about innovation and the fast pace of life as a startup, and want to help the company win. We focus on our customers and what they want and need.
Since we are a financial services company which deals with money and very sensitive customer information, we also look for a sense of responsibility and security. We cannot be a culture of cowboys where you say 'hey I didn't tell you but I took all the data out of the system and did some analysis.' So a tension for us is keeping a culture that is open and innovative, while being very conscious of privacy and security.
I think we also try to be very friendly and helpful to each other. We all sit around the same table. We strive to be informal and not hierarchical.
Has being in a co-working space helped facilitate that?
Yes, it's great for a few reasons. All the companies here are pretty much at our stage with eight or more employees, some traction with investors and in growth mode. It has been very helpful being around peers like that because it gives us the ability to talk to other companies and to get advice about different topics. It makes it so much easier when an issue arises or you overhear a few people talking about something and you realize that you're dealing with the same issue. You can walk over and become part of the conversation. Also, there is a real luxury of being a company of our size; sitting around the same desk helps hugely with communication.
Does that help everyone on the team stay on the same page?
For sure. I think that the biggest challenge startups face is distinguishing between distractions and true opportunities. Prioritization in the face of limited time and resources, which is the essence of being a startup, is probably what I have found to be the hardest part of being a founder. For example, we get a lot of calls from people and companies interested in what we are doing, which leads to a bunch of opportunities to partner. So how do you prioritize them? You cannot do all of them, so which leads do you take?
One of the benefits of having a great team is that we can bounce ideas off each other. This way, we can ask each other whether this is the best use of company time. I think it all comes down to how you make those decisions and what you prioritize. You have to have a pretty clear sense of what levers are most important for your business in order to do that.
What else do you think are some key things for founders to keep in mind?
We are still so early on in our journey and certainly haven't figured everything out. What I've said today should carry that caveat! With that said, I think it helps to identify a really exciting sector and build a great team. Beyond that, you want to surround yourself with great investors and then hope your timing is good!
Thanks a lot Andrew. Great talking to you. Best of luck to you and Borrowell!