In the dizzying world of technology startups, it’s easy to get lost in the hype of hot trends such as AI, blockchain, VR/AR and machine learning. What is often forgotten is the fact that some of the best startups in the world solve the simplest of problems.
This is exactly the approach that Pascal Henry, who is the CEO and cofounder of HReasily, took when he identified the fundamental needs of rapidly growing SMEs–to manage their human resources more efficiently.
Henry launched his Singapore-based HR firm in late 2015 as a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business that enables companies to increase productivity by using technology to streamline traditional processes such as payroll processing, leave management and expense claims.
“When I was running my first startup in Singapore, I had to do a lot of the manual processes myself. I felt the pain and the drain of it,” explains Henry. “It was taking up a lot of my time and energy, when I should have been focusing on building my business.”
HReasily’s mission is simple: To innovate and automate HR throughout the world. As one of the fastest-growing cloud-based HR SaaS companies in the region, their simple modules and features aim to transform many of the legacy HR processes and automate them to be accessible anytime and anywhere. Currently the company offers seven modules including payroll, staff leave, employee contracts and attendance. As HReasily grows, it continues to add product lines aimed at empowering companies to scale faster.
Previously, many businesses used solutions that each looked after a particular silo of an HR department. So you’d have one system to manage your payroll calculations, one for leave and others for other functions.
“What happened was you had to log in and out of many various systems, and these systems cost a huge amount of money,” says Henry. “What we’ve done is build a solution that is very affordable that integrates with all the functions on a unified platform.”
A simple but elegant business model HReasily runs a subscription-based revenue model. Starting with payroll, which is at the core of every traditional HR office, the company offers premium versions that run on monthly or yearly subscriptions, with add-on modules available such as staff leave and time attendance. This past summer at the RISE 2019 conference in Hong Kong, Henry and his team unveiled their latest benefits management module which will soon allow customers to acquire group level insurance, healthcare and even apply for credit cards or loans.
HReasily says its competitive advantage lies in its customer base, which is mostly SMEs. By initially focusing on the fundamental needs of this particular segment, the company has earned the support of larger banking and government agencies and has become known as an “SME champion.” Not surprisingly, as the company has grown it says that it began to attract larger corporations, publicly listed companies, multinational corporations and even payroll outsourcing firms.
“As we grew we acquired a more diverse customer base,” Henry says, “because a lot of larger companies are tired of the older and expensive solutions because they need to be installed on premise and they require a refresher every year when rules and regulations change.”
Partnerships are the key to rapid growth
Being based in Singapore has allowed HReasily to capitalize on the rapid growth in Southeast Asia. SME’s account for 97% of all the enterprises in the region, and employ half of the workforce, according to data from Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). HReasily’s growth has been nothing short of impressive. With nearly 30,000 companies on their platform and more than 100 new companies onboarding every day, HReasily is said to be growing rapidly in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Some of HReasily’s notable customers include Love Bonito (in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Hong Kong), Sambat Finance (Cambodia), OnlinePajak (Indonesia) and TechInAsia. As the company looks to complete their coverage of Asia, the next major market they look to tackle is mainland China followed by Taiwan, Japan, Myanmar and Australia.
Investors have taken notice of the company’s growth as well. Fresh off a pre-series A funding round of $5 million from Envy Capital, HReasily is currently estimated to be valued at more than $100 million. Henry admits that the company’s rapid growth in the region has only been possible with the early support from their key strategic partners.
HReasily has been working with Citibank, Mazars and Stripe. The partnership with Mazars, which was a lead investor from the startup’s first round of funding, gives them access to a global audit, advisory and payroll outsourcing firm with 300 offices in 100 countries. Henry says it allows HReasily to localize its solutions to each individual market.
“Today, building a solid ecosystem of strategic partners is very important because you come from different angles, but you all serve one customer, which is the SME or the business,” says Henry. “By coming together, we collectively create a great end-to-end experience for them. There’s strength in numbers.”
Jay Kim is a full-time investor and the host of the popular podcast The Jay Kim Show, Hong Kong’s first dedicated podcast on entrepreneurship and investing in Asia. Inc. Magazine has named The Jay Kim Show one of the top three podcasts from Asia which are inspirational and useful to entrepreneurs. Jay is an avid supporter of the start-up ecosystem in Asia and frequently consults with leaders in local government on topics related to technology, entrepreneurship, early-stage investing and startups
Is your administration work taking too much out of your time? HReasily provides HR solutions for payroll processing, leave and claims management, employee scheduling and time attendance, so that business owners can focus on growing their businesses.
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that millennials are projected to outnumber Baby Boomers as the largest living adult generation in America. With the millennial generation making up such a huge portion of American consumers, it is imperative that companies understand how to effectively market products and services to this group. For this generation, social media has become an integral part of their lives. Many companies have taken notice and are using social media to craft their marketing strategies, however, many organizations struggle to understand and determine how to successfully capture the attention of millennial consumers.
One person that companies can learn a lot from is MarQuis Trill, a social media influencer, investor, and entrepreneur who has figured out how to authentically gain and capture the attention of young audiences. MarQuis made his social media debut on Myspace in 2003, at the tender age of 12. In 2017, he was listed as one of the most influential people on the internet. Now, through his social media platforms, MarQuis reaches millions of people every month, with a large percentage of his audience being millennials and Generation Z. After deciphering the formula for success, MarQuis started an agency called Entertainment 258, which is focused on helping businesses, influencers, athletes and artists develop and expand their brands. What are companies getting wrong when it comes to millennial marketing strategies?
How does MarQuis keep his audience engaged? What are some best practices when it comes to millennial marketing on social media? MarQuis sat down with Forbes to discuss these questions and more.
Janice Gassam: Who is MarQuis Trill? How did you develop such a huge following on social media?
MarQuis Trill: It basically developed in college. I went to Prairie View A&M University on a full-ride scholarship. I had a chance to go to other big schools like Baylor, Texas A&M, USC…but I decided to go to an HBCU, just to change the culture…once I started attending the school, I saw the culture of the community. I went from playing basketball to [be] an artist, to [be] a promoter online and it just grew from there. I always had that marketing strategy inside me and my school kind of just brought that out of me.
Gassam: What are some mistakes that companies make when it comes to branding and marketing to millennials?
Trill: I think companies are getting things wrong, first, inside the company itself. They’re hiring people that are not a part of the culture—that’s the first thing. Everything we see on TV is a copy. We’ve seen multiple videos, multiple commercials from our favorite influencers. The people that work in those places are copying exactly what the millennials are doing, instead of coming to us and collaborating with us and actually hiring us and giving us jobs…instead of paying an influencer, how about hiring an influencer? It should start inside.
Second…I call it ‘camouflage marketing.’ And what camouflage marketing is, is when you’re marketing something, but it’s not focused on the actual brand. So that could be merchandise, that could be accessories, that could be sponsorships, that could be a flash of your logo…I think they should focus more on that, and creating cool content…collaborations, collaborations, collaborations. As time goes on, a 13-year-old turns 21…you always have to change…you always have to connect with the millennials and with the new generation.
If you don’t do that, you’re going to be disconnected. Once you become disconnected, it doesn’t matter if you’re a million-dollar company or a billion-dollar company—you’re going to lose revenue dollars…that’s what I feel a lot of companies are missing. You don’t necessarily have to hire someone, like a kid, to be the CMO of your entire company, just a collaboration or maybe you can give them a smaller job where they are just over marketing strategies for Instagram…all you need is five millennials in the office space for Twitter and Instagram and you’re going to have a hundred thousand followers, a million followers and they’re going to run it all for you…they don’t need big budgets because they’re young kids and as time goes on and they start doing more for your company, you’ll be able to pay them anyway.
Gassam: What are some trends you anticipate on social media when it comes to millennial marketing?
Trill: Well…it’s always something new and something fresh…what I try to focus on is fast news and fast content. That’s where you’ll get most of the engagement and most of your following from. That’s how I grew my following originally. I was taking videos from YouTube and putting them on Twitter. I was taking videos from Facebook and putting them on Twitter because different platforms have different videos and different followings. Something that’s been posted on YouTube probably hasn’t been seen by the people on Twitter…Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, they don’t all have the same following.
Different people get on different platforms because they like the functionalities of that platform. Kids that are on TikTok might not necessarily be on Twitter. People that are on Snapchat might not necessarily use Instagram all the time. That’s what people fail to realize. Every single influencer, they may not have every single social media platform. That’s where a lot of people miss out on…Twitter is for news information and text. Instagram is for pictures. Snapchat is for, right there on-the-spot videos. Basically, live videos…TikTok, [for] six seconds dancing. You have to be creative…young kids are on [TikTok] all the way from eight years old all the way up to 21.
Gassam: So, companies need to learn that they can’t post the same social media content on every single platform and expect it to stick?
Trill: Exactly. They also have to use camouflage marketing. Using influencers, creating dope content that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their products. They can flash the product in between the content or at the end or the person that’s inside the content can actually say the product. It can be a one-minute music video and five seconds out of the music video, that artist is pouring cheerios…he’s not necessarily saying ‘I eat cheerios.’ Now the consumer and the person that is watching the content, they’re smarter now…they know what’s fake, they know what’s an ad now…with the rules and everything you even have to put ‘ad’ or ‘promo’. So now, when you put that, your engagement goes down even more…you have to do it in a camouflage sense.
Gassam: Is there a social media platform you would recommend companies use when marketing to millennials?
Trill: It depends on what their product or service is. If you’re selling merch, I would definitely say go with Instagram and YouTube. If you’re already a super known company, I would say go with Twitter because the engagement there reaches faster…you get more retweets, you get more favorites, more impressions. If you’re trying to sell anything, if you’re trying to become a brand yourself, if you’re trying to conquer a market, I would say use YouTube because Google owns YouTube and they create all [the] SEO that’s on the internet…when you search something like ‘how to dance,’ whoever made a video on ‘how to dance’ on YouTube, that’s what’s going to pop up for a search and that’s free marketing, free viewership for the person, influencers or brand that made that video. Now content is becoming the search. That goes for marketing and branding as well.
Gassam: How can companies stand out to millennials on social media?
Trill: They should be more direct with the consumer. The consumer is getting smarter because they’ve seen so much content, so they can tell if something is fake, something is real, something is being promoted and they won’t engage as much to it. If the consumer and the people that are selling products, if they intertwine and they come more direct with people that are in the communities…then that’s when you start getting more product sales and more distribution in your product. I wouldn’t buy anything that I’m not tapped into or that I didn’t see anyone else wearing.
iPhone is hot because everyone has an iPhone, not because it’s the best phone…they keep developing different products. They have apps, they have iTunes, they have podcasts…they’re tapped into every culture…they’re basically competing against themselves…subscription-based is what’s coming next. AR is coming next, virtual reality is coming next. And these are the things that these companies need to focus on…someone will always develop something new; someone will always come up with something that’s greater than the other platforms.
Gassam: Popeyes recently came out with a very successful marketing campaign for their new chicken sandwich. Should companies copy these campaigns in order to be successful? In regard to the millennial consumer, do you think controversy sells?
Trill: I wouldn’t say copy. But they should come up with their own strategy. Once you see something so much, you are making the consumer smarter. Your next marketing campaign is going to have to be harder.
I think controversy is always great…but if you’re deliberately doing things on purpose and expecting a great outcome, nine times out of ten, it might not go your way. But if you have a whole marketing strategy behind it and if you know exactly what you’re doing and where you’re trying to go, then it’s definitely going to work…we don’t have to pay for press.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
To learn more about MarQuis, visit his website or connect with him on Instagram.
I grew up in five different states and across two continents, which was the catalyst to my interest in diversity. My ultimate goal is to help leaders infuse more love into the workplace, creating a culture that is more equitable and productive. Currently, I work as a professor at Sacred Heart University, teaching courses in management. In addition, I am a consultant, helping organizations create a more inclusive environment. I earned a Ph.D. in applied organizational psychology from Hofstra University, and I enjoy conducting research in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion, hiring, selection, and leadership.
Orlando Bravo discovered his edge early. In 1985, at age 15, he traveled from his home in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, a small town on the island’s western coast, to Bradenton, Florida, to enroll in the legendary tennis guru Nick Bollettieri’s grueling academy.
Bravo would wake at dawn, head to class at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, then return to Bollettieri’s tennis courts at noon. He spent hours warring against peers like Andre Agassi and Jim Courier under the broiling sun. At sundown, after an hour to shower and eat, he would study, then retire to a sweaty, two-bedroom condominium in which players bunked four to a room like army barracks. Then he would do it all over again, six days a week, for a full year. “It was the tennis version of Lord of the Flies,” says his former roommate Courier.
The brutally competitive environment helped Bravo climb to a top-40 ranking in the U.S. as a junior. Then he peaked. “It was quite humbling,” recalls Bravo, who’s still fit from his weekly tennis games. “It was a different level of hard work altogether. It became clear I could operate at these super-high levels of pain.”
That grit and perseverance eventually propelled him to the top echelons of the private equity world. Few outside of finance have heard of the 49-year-old Bravo, but he is the driving force behind Wall Street’s hottest firm, the $39 billion (assets) Thoma Bravo.
In February, the French business school HEC Paris, in conjunction with Dow Jones, named Thoma Bravo the best-performing buyout investor in the world after studying 898 funds raised between 2005 and 2014. According to public data analyzed by Forbes, its funds returned 30% net annually, far better than famous buyout firms like KKR, Blackstone and Apollo Global Management. That’s even better than the returns from the software buyout firm Vista Equity Partners, its closest rival, run by Robert F. Smith, the African American billionaire who recently made headlines by paying off the college debt of Morehouse College’s entire graduating class. Since the beginning of 2015, Bravo has sold or listed 25 investments worth a total of $20 billion, four times their cost. His secret? He invests only in well-established software companies, especially those with clearly discernible moats.
“The economics of software were just so powerful. It was like no other industry I had ever researched,” says Bravo, seated in his office in San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid. He wears a tailored purple dress shirt and enunciates his words with a slight Puerto Rican accent. “It was just very obvious.”
Bravo’s firm has done 230 software deals worth over $68 billion since 2003 and presently oversees a portfolio of 38 software companies that generate some $12 billion in annual revenue and employ 40,000 people. Forbes estimates the value of the firm, which is owned entirely by Bravo and a handful of his partners, at $7 billion. Based on his stake in the firm and his cash in its funds, Bravo has a $3 billion fortune. Not only does that make him the first Puerto Rican-born billionaire, it’s enough for Bravo to debut at 287th place on this year’s Forbes 400 ranking of the richest Americans.
Like a good tennis player who’s worked relentlessly on his ground strokes, Bravo has made private equity investing look simple. There are no complicated tricks. He figured out nearly two decades ago that software and private equity were an incredible combination. Since then, Bravo has never invested elsewhere, instead honing his strategy and technique deal after deal. He hunts for companies with novel software products, like Veracode, a Burlington, Massachusetts-based maker of security features for coders, or Pleasanton, California-based Ellie Mae, the default system among online mortgage lenders, which the firm picked up for $3.7 billion in April. His investments typically have at least $150 million in sales from repeat customers and are in markets that are too specialized to draw the interest of giants like Microsoft and Google. Bravo looks to triple their size with better operations, and by the time he strikes, he’s already mapped out an acquisition or turnaround strategy.
The pool of potential deals is growing. On public markets, there are now more than 75 subscription software companies, worth nearly $1 trillion, that Bravo can target, versus fewer than 20, worth less than $100 billion, a decade ago. Investors around the world clamor to get into his firm’s funds, and lenders have checkbooks ready to finance his next big deal. “The opportunities today are the biggest I’ve ever seen,” Bravo says. “Right now we are in a huge, exploding and changing industry.”
Orlando Bravo’s isn’t a rags-to-riches story. He was born into a privileged life in Puerto Rico in the Spanish colonial city of Mayagüez, which for decades was the port for tuna fishing vessels supplying the local Starkist, Neptune and Bumble Bee canneries.
Starting in 1945, his grandfather Orlando Bravo, and later his father, Orlando Bravo Sr., ran Bravo Shipping, which acted as an agent for the massive tuna-fishing factory ships entering the port in Mayagüez. It was a lucrative business. His parents moved him and his younger brother Alejandro to what’s now a gated community in the hills of Mayagüez, where the brothers attended private schools and tooled about on the family’s 16-foot motorboat.
After taking up tennis at age 8, practicing on the courts of a local university and a Hilton hotel, Bravo and his family began making the two-and-a-half-hour drive from their home to San Juan on weekends to allow him to train against better competition. “What I loved about tennis was the opportunity,” he recalls. “I’m from Mayagüez, and I’m going to come to the big city and I’m going to make it,” he says. “Let’s go! The underdog!”
He quickly became one of Puerto Rico’s top players, which landed him at Bollettieri’s academy and then on Brown University’s tennis team. “I was so scared I wouldn’t make it through,” Bravo says of the Ivy League, so he took most classes pass/fail as a college freshman. But he quickly found his footing and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1992 with degrees in economics and political science. That helped him get a prestigious job as an analyst in Morgan Stanley’s mergers and acquisitions department. There he paid his dues, clocking 100-hour weeks under the renowned dealmaker Joseph Perella.
“I learned I didn’t want to invest in risky things ever again. It was too painful.”
Bravo’s Spanish fluency put him in front of clients as other analysts slaved away in data rooms. Working on Venezuelan billionaire Gustavo Cisneros’ 1993 acquisition of Puerto Rican supermarket chain Pueblo Xtra International opened his eyes to the world of buyouts. But mostly he says he learned he didn’t want to be a banker.
Bravo eventually headed west to Stanford University. He’d already been accepted into its law school, but he also wanted to attend the business school. He called insistently and eventually got accepted to pursue both. He worked during a summer at Seaver Kent, a Menlo Park, California-based joint venture with David Bonderman’s Texas Pacific Group that specialized in middle market deals. Upon graduation in 1998, Bravo wasn’t offered a position there or at TPG, and he spent months cold-calling for a job. After about a hundred calls, Bravo’s résumé caught the eye of Carl Thoma, a founding partner of the Chicago-based private equity firm Golder, Thoma, Cressey, Rauner (now known as GTCR), and they hit it off. “The biggest mistake Texas Pacific made was…that they didn’t make him a job offer,” says Thoma, 71, who Forbes estimates is also a billionaire based on an analysis of public filings.
One of the pioneers of the private equity industry in the 1970s, Thoma is a tall and mild-mannered Oklahoman whose parents were ranchers. Thoma and his partners practiced a friendlier version of the buyouts popularized by Michael Milken, preferring to buy small businesses and expand them using acquisitions. When Bravo came aboard in 1998, Thoma and partner Bryan Cressey had just split from Stanley Golder and Bruce Rauner, who later went on to become governor of Illinois, creating Thoma Cressey. Thoma sent Bravo to San Francisco to hunt for investments and eventually expand the firm’s Bay Area presence.
Bravo’s first few deals, struck before he turned 30, were disasters. He backed two website design startups, NerveWire and Eclipse Networks, just as the dot-com bubble popped. The two lost most of the $100 million Bravo invested. “I learned I didn’t want to invest in risky things ever again,” Bravo says. “It was too painful to live through.” Thoma Cressey was also struggling elsewhere, with underperforming investments in oil and gas and telecommunications. It was among the worst performers in the private equity industry at the time.
“Every time we picked up our heads to peek at a deal that wasn’t software, the software deal looked a lot better to us.”
But the failure led to an epiphany that soon made Bravo and his partners billions. He realized his mistake was in backing startup entrepreneurs, an inherently risky move, when for the same money he could buy established companies selling niche software to loyal customers. With Thoma’s blessing, Bravo pivoted and became an expert on these arcane firms. Coming out of the dot-com bust, the market was littered with foundering companies that had gone public during the bubble and had few interested buyers. Bravo got to work. His first big move, in 2002, was to buy Prophet 21, a Yardley, Pennsylvania-based software provider to distributors in the healthcare and manufacturing sectors that was trading at a mere one times sales.
Rather than clean house, Bravo kept the company’s CEO, Chuck Boyle, and worked beside him to boost profits, mainly by rolling up competitors. When Boyle wanted to buy a company called Faspac, Bravo flew to San Diego to work out of the Faspac owner’s garage for five days, analyzing reams of contracts to see if the deal would work. “Orlando would help not only at the highest level with strategy but also when we got grunt work done,” Boyle recalls. After seven acquisitions, Bravo sold the business for $215 million, making five times his money.
Software quickly became Bravo’s sole focus, and Thoma Cressey began to thrive. By 2005, Bravo and Thoma had recruited three employees, Scott Crabill, Holden Spaht and Seth Boro, to focus on software applications, cybersecurity and Web infrastructure. All remain with the firm today as managing partners.
Bravo’s big opportunity came during the financial crisis when Thoma put Bravo’s name on the door and split with his partner Bryan Cressey, a healthcare investor, creating Thoma Bravo. From that moment on, the firm invested only in software, with Bravo leading the way.
A string of billion-dollar buyouts followed—Sunnyvale, California-based network security firm Blue Coat, financial software outfit Digital Insight of Westlake Village, California, and Herndon, Virginia’s Deltek, which sells project management software—all of which more than doubled in value under Bravo’s watch. The firm’s inaugural 2009 software-only fund posted a 44% net annualized return by the time its investments were sold, making investors four times their money and proving the wisdom of discipline and specialization. “Every time we picked up our heads to peek at a deal that wasn’t software, the software deal looked a lot better to us,” he brags.
It’s late May, and Orlando Bravo’s 20th-floor offices overlooking the San Francisco Bay are filled with dozens of tech executives from its portfolio companies. Folks from Houston’s Quorum Software, which makes technology systems for oil and gas companies, mingle with cybersecurity experts from Redwood Shores, California’s Imperva. They juggle their rollerboard suitcases and thick financial books as Thoma Bravo partners map out corporate strategies on dry-erase whiteboards. Those on break hammer away at keyboards in small workrooms or demolish chicken sandwiches in a no-frills kitchenette.
This is one of Thoma Bravo’s monthly boot camps for new acquisitions, grueling daylong sessions that are critical to its success. Partners regularly buzz into Bravo’s spartan glass-walled offices, while in the background the drilling and hammering of construction workers making room for 13 new associates disturbs the peace.
With a fresh $12.6 billion war chest, Bravo is now eyeing $10 billion-plus deals and expects to begin buying entire divisions of tech giants.
After two decades studying software, Bravo recognizes clear patterns. For instance, when a company pioneers a product, its sales explode and then inevitably slow as competitors emerge. Often a CEO will use this cue to stray into new markets or overspend to gin up sales. Bravo calls this “chasing too many rabbits.” To fix it, he and his ten partners work alongside 22 current and former software executives who serve as consultants. They begin tracking the profit-and-loss statements for each product line and pore over contracts in search of bad deals or underpriced products. Critically, by the time a Thoma Bravo acquisition check clears, existing management has agreed that this rigorous approach will help. Bravo calls it “making peace with the past.”
There are also layoffs. Those can total as much as 10% of the workforce, for which Bravo doesn’t apologize. “In order to realign the business and set it up for big-time growth, you first need to take a step back before you take a step forward. It’s like boxing,” he says. “These are unbelievable assets with great innovators, and they are usually undermanaged.”
Mark Bishof, the former CEO of Flexera Software, an application management company outside of Chicago that Bravo bought in 2008 for $200 million and sold for a nearly $1 billion profit three years later, has a succinct description for this wild success. “He just kind of cuts all of the bullsh*t,” Bishof says. “It’s refreshing.” Flexera’s profits rose 70% during Bravo’s ownership, largely thanks to four major acquisitions. “Orlando’s like the general in the foxhole with his sergeant. You know he’s knee-deep in there with you,” Bishof gushes.
Under Thoma Bravo’s watch, companies on average saw cash flow surge as margins hit 35%, as of 2018, nearly triple those of the average public software company at that time. “It’s like training for the Olympics. . . . You have a finite goal to make it [in year four], and you make it very, very clear,” Bravo says. Today’s roaring market adds potency to the playbook. Lenders are now gorging on software debt, and stock market multiples for these businesses are surging.
“I learned more about building an efficient software company over the last four and a half years than in the first 30 years of my career.”
A recent example is Detroit’s Compuware, a decades-old pioneer of software applications to manage mainframe computer systems. In 2013, this Nasdaq-listed giant was all but left for dead and up for sale. There was minimal interest, other than from Bravo and partner Seth Boro, who were keen on Dynatrace, software that helped companies move databases to the cloud, which Compuware had acquired in 2011. Thoma Bravo used $675 million in cash and raised $1.8 billion in debt to buy Compuware and then split off Dynatrace as a separate company. The pair began to move Dynatrace from selling database licenses, once the bulk of its business, to cloud subscription services, now 70% of sales. This past August, Dynatrace went public, and Thoma Bravo’s 70% stake is now worth over $4 billion, with the remainder of Compuware worth nearly a billion more. “I learned more about building an efficient software company over the last four and a half years than in the first 30 years of my career,” says Dynatrace CEO John Van Siclen.
With a fresh $12.6 billion war chest for its 13th fund raised in 2018, Bravo is eyeing $10 billion-plus deals and expects to begin buying entire divisions from today’s technology giants. But thanks in part to the success of his firm, he now faces more competition. Heavyweights like Blackstone and KKR are increasingly sussing out software deals, not to mention his longtime rival Vista Equity. And he’s not immune to mistakes. Bravo’s $3.6 billion 2015 acquisition of San Francisco-based digital network tracker Riverbed Technology is currently struggling because of slowing sales and too much debt. He isn’t worried. “There are bigger and better companies to fix than there were ten years ago,” Bravo says.
His biggest challenge these days is likely back home in Puerto Rico where it all began. Bravo announced in May that he is contributing $100 million to his Bravo Family Foundation that will be used to promote entrepreneurship and economic development on the island.
This new foundation was birthed by Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island two years ago. Bravo was in Japan raising cash for yet another massive fund and frantically calling San Juan trying to locate his parents, who were living in the capital. They were fine, but the island wasn’t.
Five days later, he flew his Gulfstream jet with 1,000 pounds of supplies—water, granola bars, meal kits, satellite telephones, diapers, intravenous tubes and hydration pills—to Aguadilla, near Mayagüez. When an airport worker opened the door of his plane, Bravo says, the look of fear on his face was unforgettable. “All you could say was ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you.’ ”
He returned two weeks later in a larger plane with 7,000 pounds of supplies. Then he came in a massive DC-10 cargo plane before ultimately chartering two container ships carrying 600,000 pounds. “It was just like cold-calling for deals,” Bravo says of rounding up all the donations. He personally put in $3 million in just the first 30 days, and committed $10 million altogether.
When the Federal Emergency Management Agency became fully operative there, the island’s richest native turned his attention to Puerto Rico’s future. Though 44% of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line, Bravo believes in the potential to foster entrepreneurship, citing that a tenth of the population has tried to build a business.
Armed with his money, his foundation is looking to back Puerto Rican technology entrepreneurs, even ferrying them to Thoma Bravo’s offices for training. Bravo admits to being tired of the debate over Puerto Rico’s statehood and holds his tongue when asked about President Trump’s performance during Maria. “My passion, which is the same as with companies, is to move beyond the strategic, long-term pontification, and into the operational and tactical moves that make you move forward today,” he says. “Economies go down, companies miss their numbers, trade stops, product issues happen and people quit. [The question is] do you have a creative approach to problem solving?” Bravo says. “Some people are stuck . . . and some people love putting the pieces together. I just feel like every operational problem can be solved. There’s always a solution.”
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I’m a staff writer at Forbes, where I cover finance and investing. My beat includes hedge funds, private equity, fintech, mutual funds, M&A and banks. I’m a graduate of Middlebury College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and I’ve worked at TheStreet and Businessweek. Before becoming a financial scribe, I was a part of the fateful 2008 analyst class at Lehman Brothers. Email thoughts and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter at @antoinegara
Orlando Bravo, managing partner of Thoma Bravo and founder of the Bravo Family Foundation, https://www.bravofamilyfoundation.org/, announced he personally will contribute $100 million to his foundation to promote entrepreneurship and economic development in Puerto Rico, where Bravo was raised, and his family still lives.
Dr. Joe DeSimone took his own path to entrepreneurship. His latest venture, Carbon, is changing the way things are made.
He’s assembled one of the most impressive Board of Directors and line up of investors to transform the $300 billion manufacturing industry.
Joe recently appeared as a guest on the DealMakers Podcast. During his exclusive interview, he shared how his team is transforming how the world makes things, the fundraising process, what it’s like building a nearly 500 person company in less than 6 years, and many more topics.
From Academia to Entrepreneurship
Joe DeSimone was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Ever since high school, Joe found he had a knack for chemistry. For both understanding it and for teaching it.
He attended Ursinus College, and then Virginia Tech for his Ph.D. On a tip from a faculty advisor, he went to check out the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill—-one of the top 10 chemistry departments in the country.
If he would teach organic and polymer chemistry, then they would give him $500,000 to start a research program. He was convinced. At UNC, he enjoyed a highly successful career as a professor for 25 years.
Joe taught a lot of students chemistry and mentored many researchers. He learned that people have very different learning styles. From his perspective, if you want to be a great teacher, you have to take responsibility for explaining complicated topics in accessible ways.
It turns out that is a really important trait for entrepreneurs too. It’s a valuable skill whether you’re doing it in a classroom setting, talking to VCs or investors, or your own employees. The importance of bringing people along with you.
His position in academia enabled Joe DeSimone to pursue a handful of interesting startups based on his research before he launching his newest venture, Carbon, in 2013.
His first company was BioStent. A partnership with an interventional cardiologist at Duke University. They developed a coronary stent that is polymeric instead of metal-based. It dissolves in the body after 18 months, once blood vessels can operate on their own again. The company was acquired by Guidant, and then Abbott.
Next, it was Liquidia Technologies, a partnership with one of Joe’s Ph.D. students including Jason Rolland, now SVP of Materials at Carbon. Liquidia went IPO last year.
They developed technology that leveraged tools from the computer industry to make precision nanoparticles. It spawned new and more effective ways to deliver medicines to the airway.
It has proven valuable in improving treatment approaches for diseases like pulmonary arterial hypertension, and in creating next-generation vaccine platforms for infectious diseases and certain cancers.
After spending 25 as a faculty member at UNC, the opportunity to go to Silicon Valley and take on a new entrepreneurial challenge was something Joe couldn’t pass up.
UNC agreed he could take a sabbatical to pursue his idea. That was five years ago.
Departing Academia for Silicon Valley
When Joe left North Carolina for Silicon Valley to found Carbon, he didn’t know what the future would hold. Carbon is now one of the world’s leading digital manufacturing companies.
Based in Redwood City, Carbon’s mission is to enable companies to make breakthrough products that can improve human health and well being, transform industries, and change the world.
Joe launched the company and its groundbreaking Digital Light Synthesis™ (DLS) technology on the TED stage in 2015. DLS fuses light and oxygen to rapidly produce products from a pool of resin. Using DLS technology, Carbon is enabling companies like Adidas, Riddell, Ford and Johnson & Johnson to create breakthrough products at speeds and volumes never before possible, finally fulfilling the promise of 3D printing.
Joe believes that empowering product teams to make breakthrough products and bring them to market faster will change the way we live.
Carbon has cracked the code on 3D printing at scale. The manufacturing industry is a $12 trillion market and manufacturing polymers is a $330 billion market. There is enormous potential here for Carbon to lead the digital revolution in manufacturing.
Creating a Company Differentiated by its Technology, Business Model and Team
With a team of nearly 500 employees around the world, Carbon has also assembled an impressive team of board members and investors while raising $680 million in the process at a $2.5 billion valuation.
Carbon’s board includes former Chairman and CEO of DuPont, Ellen Kullman, former CEO of Ford Motor Company, and former CEO of Boeing’s Aircraft Division, Alan Mulally, and Sequoia’s Jim Goetz.
Some of their investors include Sequoia, Google Ventures, GE, Adidas, BMW, Johnson & Johnson, and JSR. They’ve also got Fidelity, Baillie Gifford, and Madrone Capital Partners as well as investment from additional international sovereign funds.
Storytelling is everything in fundraising and Carbon was able to master this. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) that I recently covered. Thiel was the first angel investor in Facebook with a $500K check that turned into more than $1 billion in cash.
Critical Ingredients for a Successful Company
During the interview, Joe shared three of the most important components of building a successful company as being:
1. The importance of IP and patent-protection
2. Building highly differentiated technology
3. Assembling a world class team of people that are committed, passionate, and talented
DeSimone also shared his thoughts on the similarities between academia and entrepreneurship such as the importance of bringing people along with you and painting a vision for the future and how the world can be different.
Listen in to the full podcast episode to find out more, including:
I am a serial entrepreneur and the author of the The Art of Startup Fundraising. With a foreword by ‘Shark Tank‘ star Barbara Corcoran, and published by John Wiley & Sons, the book was named one of the best books for entrepreneurs. The book offers a step-by-step guide to today‘s way of raising money for entrepreneurs. Most recently, I built and exited CoFoundersLab which is one of the largest communities of founders online. Prior to CoFoundersLab, I worked as a lawyer at King & Spalding where I was involved in one of the biggest investment arbitration cases in history ($113 billion at stake). I am an active speaker and have given guest lectures at the Wharton School of Business, Columbia Business School, and at NYU Stern School of Business. I have been involved with the JOBS Act since inception and was invited to the White House and the US House of Representatives to provide my stands on the new regulatory changes concerning fundraising online
A novel about who really invented the lightbulb by the screenwriter behind the Oscar-wining film “The Imitation Game.” It features the intertwining stories of Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and George Westinghouse.
When a young Stanford neurosurgeon is diagnosed with lung cancer, he sets out to write a memoir about mortality, memory, family, medicine, literature, philosophy, and religion. It’s a tear-jerker, with an epilogue written by his wife Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, who survives him, along with their young daughter.
Westover, raised in the mountains of Idaho in a family of survivalists, didn’t go to school until she was 17. She would go on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University. This memoir chronicles her path towards higher education.
It’s what was passed on from Buffett’s father to Warren–the principle of having an “Inner Scorecard” rather than an “Outer Scorecard.” Either one can get you to success, but one matters more than the other. Buffett said:
The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an Inner Scorecard.
Unpacking Buffett’s “inner scorecard” principle
An outer scorecard is what most people have or want, often driven by hubris, greed, or a life lived off-balance. It’s an external measure of success that attempts to answer elusive questions like, “What do people think of me, my success, my image, or my brand?”
The inner scorecard is intrinsic and it defines who you are at the core of your values and beliefs. The focus is on doing the right things and serving people well instead of on what other people think of you. In one simple but hard-to-attain word in business, it’s about being authentic.
The inner scorecard has been the Warren Buffett way and what has worked for the self-made billionaire his entire life. It’s taking the higher road and it’s paid off for Buffett.
Investor and author Guy Spier writes in his book The Education of a Value Investor, “One of Buffett’s defining characteristics is that he so clearly lives by his own inner scorecard. It isn’t just that he does what’s right, but that he does what’s right for him … There’s nothing fake or forced about him. He sees no reason to compromise his standards or violate his beliefs.”
Here are four examples of how living by your own inner scorecard can lead to success, as it has for Buffett.
1. Start with what you teach your kids.
In Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, she quotes Buffett offering a parenting tip: “In teaching your kids, I think the lesson they’re learning at a very, very early age is what their parents put the emphasis on. If all the emphasis is on what the world’s going to think about you, forgetting about how you really behave, you’ll wind up with an Outer Scorecard. Now my dad: He was a hundred percent Inner Scorecard guy.”
2. Beware of whom you hang out with.
One summer after graduating from Columbia University, Buffett had to fulfill his obligation to the National Guard and attend training camp for a few weeks. That experience taught him one incredible lesson: hang around people who are better than you.
Buffett said in The Snowball, “To fit in, all you had to do was be willing to read comic books. About an hour after I got there, I was reading comic books. Everybody else was reading comic books, why shouldn’t I? My vocabulary shrank to about four words, and you can guess what they were.
“I learned that it pays to hang around with people better than you are because you will float upward a little bit. And if you hang around with people that behave worse than you, pretty soon you’ll start sliding down the pole. It just works that way.”
3. Don’t forget the only two rules of investing you’ll ever need.
Buffett pares down his inner scorecard investment philosophy to two simple sound bites. He says, “Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1.”
Yes, he’s made billions but he has also personally lost billions–about $23 billion during the financial recession of 2008. What Buffett alludes to here is mindset–having a sensible approach to investing. That means doing your homework, finding sustainable businesses with good reputations, and avoiding being frivolous and gambling away your money. Buffett never invests prepared to lose money, and neither should you.
4. Never waver away from what matters most to you.
Buffett’s success is not so much about what he has done as it is about what he hasn’t done. With all the demands on him every day, Buffett learned a long time ago that the greatest commodity of all is time. He simply mastered the art and practice of setting boundaries for himself.
That’s why this Buffett quote remains a powerful life lesson. The mega-mogul said:
The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.
This advice speaks directly to our inner scorecard. We have to know what to shoot for to simplify our lives. It means saying no over and over again to the unimportant things flying in our direction every day and remaining focused on saying yes to the few things that truly matter.
Billionaire John Gokongwei’s Robinsons Retail Holdings Inc. is considering an exit from the fashion business as it struggles to compete with cheaper, faster chains like Fast Retailing Co.’s Uniqlo. Stock jumps to three-week high.
The Filipino retail giant, whose fashion portfolio includes the Topshop and Dorothy Perkins brands, instead sees better returns from pet, health and beauty products where demand is growing, said Chief Executive Officer Robina Gokongwei-Pe in an interview.
“We are shrinking fashion, for it has become very difficult,” Gokongwei-Pe said. “There are other brands that came in who are more progressive and cheaper. We are already reducing the number of stores and we have to think if we move out altogether.”
The Manila-based company is relooking its business as it faces shrinking operating margins and growing competition in the low-cost space. It’s pivoting into wooing higher-spending consumers by entering into the premium grocery market, as well as expanding foreign franchises in beauty products and pet care, hoping to achieve 15% revenue growth annually for the next five years.
“Pets have become very big,” said Gokongwei-Pe. “Dogs now are very spoiled. Just look at Instagram and Facebook, it’s all about dogs. You should put money where the money is, which is food, drugstores, hardware, and growing businesses like pets and beauty.”
Robinsons Retail’s fashion portfolio has contracted to six brands and 40 stores at end-2018 from nine brands with 60 stores in 2014. Fashion is among the company’s specialty shops, which were cut to 341 in March from 387 at end-2018.
The company in December bought the local franchise for South Korean personal care and beauty products retailer Arcova and Club Clio, adding to 15 stand-alone stores selling Elizabeth Arden, Shiseido and Benefit Cosmetics. It also procured the license for Singapore’s Pet Lovers Centre in October and plans to open a second outlet as early as this year.
“Robinsons Retail is deploying its capital in a way that promises more growth,” said Miguel Ong, analyst at AP Securities Inc. “Fashion isn’t attractive as before with the rise of online platforms and brands like Uniqlo dominating the market.”
Under a five-year plan targeting mid-to-high teen revenue growth, Robinsons Retail will spend between three billion pesos ($59 million) and five billion pesos to add 100 to 150 stores a year, according to Gokongwei-Pe. The retailer has 1,911 stores in various formats, excluding 1,960 outlets of its The Generics Pharmacy.
Revenue contribution from supermarkets will rise to 55% this year from 47% in 2018 after its acquisition of former rival Rustan Supercenters, whose 36 supermarkets cater to affluent shoppers. Robinsons Retail’s own 160 supermarkets cater mainly to mainstream consumers.
The acquisition and other new stores will improve gross profit margin by 10 to 20 basis points this year, said Gokongwei-Pe.
Operating margin, which fell below 5% in 2018, will shrink further due to write-offs related to the Rustan purchase. It will “definitely” improve in 2020, when the integration is completed, she said.
A foreign executive has been hired to manage Mini Stop, which has potential to double its 5% sales contribution in 2018, if the convenience stores are “scientifically” ran.
Robinsons Retail is considering creating its own e-commerce app for its supermarkets to fill the gap left by Honestbee’s closure in the Philippines. It may start from scratch or expand Growsari Inc., a grocery delivery service for mom-and-pop stores.
The closure of Honestbee caused a dip in supermarket sales and will impact this year’s performance as same-store sales growth could have been 4.2% to 4.5% instead of 3%.
Edgar Sia’s fortunes increased more than fivefold to $475 million since debuting on Forbes Asia’s list of the 50 richest Filipinos in 2011.
Edgar Sia II made his fortune a decade ago feeding the Philippines’ appetite for chicken. Now he stands to make an even larger one feeding China’s appetite for gambling. Sia’s company DoubleDragon Properties spent the last few years building, among other things, office towers along Manila’s once-sleepy waterfront. Sia figured he’d lease the space out to call centers and business process outsourcers, key drivers of economic growth in recent years. He estimated that he could collect about $14 a square meter.
He didn’t count on demand from across the South China Sea. DoubleDragon got its towers up and running just as warming ties between Beijing and Manila sparked a boom in arrivals by Chinese eager to open offshore casinos offering online gaming to countrymen back home where casinos are illegal. DoubleDragon’s Meridian Park complex is a 10-minute drive from Manila’s Entertainment City casino complex. Sia found himself not only among the largest commercial property owners in the area, but the only one with new property to rent.
By the end of last year, tenants were signing leases for nearly $24 a square meter. “We were positively surprised with the outcome,” DoubleDragon’s 42-year-old chairman and chief executive says, with considerable understatement. The boost from offshore China gaming is just part of a property push that’s helping turn Sia from fast-food tycoon into one of the country’s biggest commercial landlords.
Far from Manila Bay, DoubleDragon is building shopping malls, hotels and industrial warehouses in smaller cities across the Philippines. Last year, it tripled net profits to roughly 7.4 billion pesos ($141 million) as revenue more than doubled to 14.3 billion pesos. DoubleDragon’s stock has climbed more than 50% this year. The company is now looking to cash in on its office towers and community malls, package these as a REIT and raise as much as 15 billion pesos via an IPO.
“Most of the baby steps and growing pains happened in the past five years,” says Sia, whose aim is for DoubleDragon to build about 1.2 million square meters of leasable commercial space by the end of 2020. “In just about a year more, the company will already become a strong adult.”
Sia’s own entrepreneurial upbringing began early. While studying architecture in university at the age of 19, he dropped out to lead a group of classmates build a 5-story hotel for budget business travelers, borrowing 40 million pesos from parents and a government pension fund to buy the land and pay for construction. “I was talking to the landowner who didn’t take me seriously,” he recalls. “So I grew a mustache to make me look older.” Sia shaved his mustache. He still owns the hotel.
In 2003 one of the country’s largest shopping mall chains, Robinson’s, opened a new wing in Iloilo offering discounted rents for restaurants. Sia seized the opportunity to launch Mang Inasal, a fast-food chicken restaurant that means “Mr. Barbecue” in the Iloilo dialect. “It was a Filipino comfort food that had not yet been turned into a fast-food fare,” Sia says. “So we created the concept, and then rapidly grew to fill and dominate the gap.”
By 2010, he had grown his barbecue-chicken chain into the country’s second-biggest fast food group, with more than 312 branches, making it bigger than McDonald’s. He sold 70% to rival Jollibee Foods for 3 billion pesos and earned a spot as the youngest member of Forbes Asia’s 2011 list of the Philippines’ 50 richest with a fortune of $85 million when he was just 34 (Sia sold his remaining 30% of Mang Inasal in 2016.) He was No. 24 on last year’s list with a net worth of $475 million.
Edgar Sia II hopes to open 1,200 MerryMarts, a chain of grocery stores owned by his family, by 2030.
In 2013, he partnered with Jollibee founder Tony Tan Caktiong (No. 6 on the rich list) to found DoubleDragon, which went public the following year. Sia and Tan still own 35% each; Tan still sits on the board as co-chairman. Each owner’s stake is now worth about 21 billion pesos ($402 million). While its Manila Bay investment has proved unexpectedly profitable, most of DoubleDragon’s developments aren’t in Manila at all, but in small towns and cities across the country. It’s there that the company is building 60% of the commercial space it plans to build by 2020.
Sia’s wager is that rising household incomes and improving transport are about to trigger a sea change in the way consumers shop in these second- and third-tier cities. Small, family-owned supermarkets and shopping centers, he predicts, will give way to nationwide chains whose size gives them leverage over suppliers and lower costs. “Five years ago,” he says, “the top three retail chains accounted for less than 10% of the sales of manufacturers such as Unilever or Nestle. That’s gone up to a third today. In five years, it could rise to 70% to 80%.”
In preparation, Sia is building 100 shopping centers under his CityMalls brand in cities with an average population of only 160,000, each about a tenth the size of malls in bigger cities. The aim, Sia says, is to introduce big-name retail brands such as SM Savemore groceries or Watsons drugstores into these small, but increasingly affluent communities.
By the end of last year, Sia had achieved half his goal by opening 51 CityMalls. The average occupancy rate is already 96%, according to DoubleDragon, helping it more than double rental income last year from commercial and office buildings, to 2.5 billion pesos. International property consultancy Savills projects that CityMalls will account for about 40% of the community mall stock in newly urbanizing areas by next year. Sia says he’s already locked up the best locations in many emerging towns and cities: “Maybe [a competitor] can do it in one or two cities. But can you do it 100 times?”
Sia is also ramping up in the hotel sector where he got his start. DoubleDragon operates the Hotel 101 and Jinjiang Inns budget brands in the Philippines aimed at business travelers and tourists, particularly from China. As of the end of 2018, Sia had two Jinjiang Inns and one Hotel 101, contributing a combined 534 million pesos to DoubleDragon’s revenue. Two more are under construction and DoubleDragon plans to build four more this year and next. Sia is also looking for foreign partners to expand the Hotel 101 abroad.
Building community malls in small towns, Sia says, made him realize there’s also still room for another major grocery chain in the country. So in April, he launched the first branch of MerryMart, a chain of grocery stores owned directly by his family, on the ground floor of DoubleDragon’s Meridian Park complex. His aim is to open 1,200 MerryMarts by 2030. “If we properly prepare and execute,” he says, “MerryMart can still catch up with the large retail players in the Philippines.”
But the Manila Bay investment may be DoubleDragon’s biggest money-spinner. It broke ground on the Meridian Park complex in 2015 and, by the time four of its six towers were completed last year, the company had emerged as the area’s biggest owner of new office space, according to David Leechiu of Leechiu Property Consultants, which helped find tenants for the complex.
Its timing couldn’t have been better. Offshore gaming operators’ share of office space in Metro Manila rose sevenfold in 2018 from 2016, according to Leechiu Property, faster than any other industry. By the end of last year, they accounted for almost 30% of office rentals, tripling from two years earlier.
Most online casino operators favor Manila Bay because of its proximity to Entertainment City, which caters largely to Chinese visitors who become potential customers once they return home. Property values in the district jumped 81% between 2016 and 2018, according to Leechiu, outpacing the 58% rise in Makati, Manila’s financial district.
Sia leased 100,000 square meters in his first four office towers before they were even completed, 60% to online China gaming companies. For now at least, he can virtually name his price, says Leechiu. “The deal that we did [at 1,250 pesos a square meter] is for the last vacant space in the entire Bay area for the next 12 months. The tenants know that, so they grabbed it,” he says.
Not everyone is a believer. Before its recent rise, DoubleDragon’s stock spent three years in a tailspin. One nagging investor concern: Sia is building brick-and-mortar malls in an age of online shopping. Luis Limlingan, managing director at brokerage Regina Capital Market Development in Manila, says retail shops now take up just half of Philippine malls’ leasable space, down from 80% over the past 20 years. That has made DoubleDragon a no-go for some investors. “None of the large institutional local funds invest in it,” he says.
Sia says his malls are well-positioned to absorb the impact of e-commerce in the Philippines. Online buying and delivery of groceries has yet to take off in the Philippines, he says, and “CityMalls are already 75% food and services, and more than 80% of things sold in CityMall retail shops are basic non-discretionary items.” As e-commerce spreads to the smaller cities where CityMall dominates, Sia says, they’ll double as pickup points and fulfilment centers for online stores.
DoubleDragon’s rising rental income is proof enough to other investors. “DoubleDragon’s stock started to recover this year because the assets that were completed so far have started to generate good recurring income,” says Henry Ong, an independent personal financial advisor who follows the stock. And as Sia’s expansion converts into steady cash flow, it may give him a war chest for greater diversification, says Leechiu. “Once he has a scalable recurring income base, it’s so easy for him to use it as a springboard to go to other places. It’s so easy for him to go to other sectors.” Sia’s partner Tan agrees: “[He’s] the type of entrepreneur with unlimited potential. His ability to create new compelling ventures and execute with speed is unparalleled.”
Each year for the past five, Forbes has searched the country for the 25 fast-growing, venture-backed startups most likely to reach $1 billion in value. Graduates include: food delivery service DoorDash, home seller Opendoor, luggage brand Away and synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks.
This year, with the help of TrueBridge Capital Partners, we scoured the country again for budding unicorns. TrueBridge analyzed the finances of more than 150 startups, then our reporters dug deeper. That research caught problems at San Francisco-based Cleo, a parenting app with a troubled workplace and a CEO who lied about her age and background. The company was removed from consideration after our investigation, and its CEO resigned in mid-June. (The full story is here.)
FOUNDERS: Michael Gronager (CEO), Jonathan Levin, Jan Moller
EQUITY RAISED: $53 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $8 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Accel, Benchmark
New York-based Chainalysis makes cryptocurrency investigation software that can shine light on how people use bitcoin, ethereum, litecoin and more. Financial institutions use the technology to screen customers and comply with regulations designed to prevent money laundering, while government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation can identify illicit transactions and investigate alleged criminals. Before teaming up to found Chainalysis, CEO Michael Gronager, 49, cofounded cryptocurrency exchange Kraken, while CTO Jan Moller, 47, built the Mycelium cryptocurrency wallet.
FOUNDERS: Arshan Dabirsiaghi, Jeff Williams; CEO: Alan Naumann
EQUITY RAISED: $122 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $25 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Acero Capital, Battery Ventures, General Catalyst, Warburg Pincus
In 2010, software security analyst Jeff Williams, 52, started dedicating resources at his consultancy, Aspect, to developing a program that would automate software security analysis. In 2014, he and former Aspect analyst Arshan Dabirsiaghi, 36, founded Los Altos, California-based Contrast Security to monitor the code within running apps and directly notify developers of potential vulnerabilities. “The work that previously had to go through security experts now goes directly to developers,” says Dabirsiaghi, now the company’s chief scientist. In 2016, the company brought in an outside chief executive, Alan Naumann, formerly CEO of online fraud detection startup 41st Parameter, to expand the business.
FOUNDERS: Lior Div (CEO), Yossi Naar, Yonatan Striem-Amit
EQUITY RAISED: $189 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $50 million
LEAD INVESTORS: CRV, Lockheed Martin, Softbank, Spark Capital
Cofounders Lior Div, Yossi Naar, and Yonatan Striem-Amit met during their service in the Israel Defense Forces’ elite intelligence unit, Unit 8200, fertile ground for many high-tech startups. While working on cybersecurity in the military, they came up with the idea for Cybereason, a cloud-based cybersecurity platform specializing in continuous monitoring and response to advanced cybersecurity threats. The company launched in 2012, and relocated from Israel to Boston the next year. “You provide value by helping a big organization not to be in the news as someone that gets hacked,” says Div, 41.
FOUNDERS: Paras Chitrakar, Jason Wilk (CEO), John Wolanin
EQUITY RAISED: $13 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $19 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Mark Cuban, Section 32
As a college student at Loyola Marymount University, Jason Wilk, now 34, blew through his budget, collecting overdraft fees. Wilk, an avid “Redditor,” saw that overdraft fees are a common complaint among users. So in 2016, he founded Dave, short for David, who beat Goliath, which Wilk sees as the big banks. The app tracks expenses and warns when a user’s account is in danger of being overdrawn. It hit a nerve: Dave was Apple’s “app of the day” in April 2017, and has been downloaded nearly 10 million times in two years. “Entrepreneurs can keep their ear to the ground for the next idea,” Wilk says. “Any idea that can be Reddit tested is a good place to start.”
FOUNDERS: Blake Murray (CEO), Alex Bean
EQUITY RAISED: $257 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $8 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Insight Partners, New Enterprise Associates, Pelion Venture Partners
Expense tracking service Divvy is taking on Concur and Expensify by offering its budgeting, fraud detection, and spend management tools for free. Instead of charging per user, Lehi, Utah-based Divvy gives businesses custom Mastercards and takes a cut of merchants’ fees to the bank when people make purchases. Founders (and high school buddies) Alex Bean and Blake Murray, both 35, have won over more than 3,000 corporate customers so far, including WordPress, Evernote and Qualtrics.
FOUNDERS: Luis von Ahn (CEO), Severin Hacker
EQUITY RAISED: $108 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $36 million
LEAD INVESTORS: CapitalG, Kleiner Perkins, Union Square Ventures
The world’s most popular digital language-learning tool, seven-year-old Duolingo has 28 million monthly active users. Most use the free version of its gamified courses. Revenue, largely from subscription fees from ad-free Duolingo Plus, is expected to double this year. CEO Luis von Ahn, 39, is a 2006 winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant and a former Carnegie Mellon computer science professor. Before founding Pittsburgh-based Duolingo, he sold two inventions to Google, including reCAPTCHA, the software that spits out the squiggly lines you type to alert a website that you are not a bot. An immigrant from Guatemala City who says learning English transformed his life, he’s driven to offer free language education to the masses. For our feature on Duolingo, click here.
FOUNDERS: Marcelo Cortes, Daniele Perito, Max Rhodes (CEO)
EQUITY RAISED: $116 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $100 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Forerunner Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Y Combinator
In a bid to help mom-and-pop stores survive in the age of Amazon, Faire wants to take the risk and hassle out of wholesale purchasing. The San Francisco-based company helps retailers discover and buy new products online, and will accept free returns from them within 60 days for items that don’t sell. Today, it offers 5,000 brands to 35,000 stores. CEO Max Rhodes, a 32-year-old former Square employee, came up with the idea after he started working with a New Zealand-based umbrella brand and spent thousands of dollars to sit at a tradeshow booth to convince U.S. store owners to stock the high-end umbrellas.
FOUNDERS: Dylan Field (CEO), Evan Wallace
EQUITY RAISED: $83 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $3 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Greylock, Index Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia
Figma wants to move design online, casting aside the old model of software downloads and siloed creation in favor of a browser-based tool where designers can work and collaborate together. Founders Evan Wallace, 29, and Dylan Field, 27, met at Brown University—Wallace graduated, Field dropped out with a Thiel Fellowship—and launched the San Francisco-based company in 2012. Five years later, Figma started charging professionals to use its product. (Individuals are still free.) Today, professionals pay $12 per editor per month and businesses $45 per editor month to use Figma. More than 5,000 teams, at companies like Microsoft, Volvo, Uber and Square, are users. “Design is like this viral infectant because once your competitor is well-designed, you have to be well-designed, otherwise you’ll be disrupted,” says Field.
FOUNDERS: Arun Chandrasekaran, Matt Elenjickal (CEO)
EQUITY RAISED: $101 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $16 million
LEAD INVESTORS: August Capital, Bain Capital Ventures, Hyde Park Venture Partners
Matt Elenjickal, 37, a logistics geek with an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, founded FourKites in 2014 to help companies know where their deliveries are, when they’ll arrive and what’s going on along the way. Its predictive supply-chain management software is now used by more than 260 of the world’s top shippers — and upwards of 500,000 loads per day — including Best Buy, Kraft Heinz, Nestlé and Smithfield Foods. “If you are a shipper, once the truck leaves your facility you have no idea what is happening,” Elenjickal says. “That is how supply chains are run even now without a solution like FourKites. You cannot compete against Amazon.”
FOUNDERS: Mathilde Collin (CEO), Laurent Perrin
EQUITY RAISED: $79 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $16 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Sequoia, Uncork Capital
Mathilde Collin, an alumna of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, got the idea for Front while at her first job after graduate school. “I saw how much time was wasted with people sorting through their emails,” she says. So in 2013, she launched the San Francisco-based startup to help companies become more productive with a shared email inbox that incorporates Facebook, Twitter and SMS, and encourages team collaboration. Today, Front has 5,000 customers including Shopify, MailChimp and Stripe.
FOUNDERS: Sung Ho Choi, David Gandler (CEO), Alberto Horihuela
EQUITY RAISED: $145 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $74 million
LEAD INVESTORS: 21st Century Fox, Northzone, Sky
David Gandler, 44, a longtime network sales exec, launched FuboTV in 2015 to tap into pent-up demand in the United States for overseas soccer leagues. FuboTV offered live streams of soccer channels such as GolTV and Benfica TV to start, then expanded programming through deals with beIN Sports and Univision. Today, New York-based FuboTV is generally a cheaper alternative to cable (starting at $54.99 a month) that offers more than 90 channels.
FOUNDERS: Chris Clark, Stuart Landesberg (CEO), Jordan Savage
EQUITY RAISED: $213 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $104 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Bullpen Capital, General Atlantic, Lone Pine Ventures, Mayfield Fund, Norwest Venture Partners, Serious Change
Ask Grove Collaborative CEO Stuart Landesberg, 34, who his typical customer is, and he’ll give you a specific answer: “A 29-year-old mother of two working as a substitute teacher in Lawrence, Kansas.” Even in the age of Amazon, Grove has carved out a $104 million niche in e-commerce by selling natural products, from laundry detergent to sponges, in easy-to-order shipments. Around 60% of its revenue comes from products not sold on Amazon, says Landesberg. But he wants to do more than sell Seventh Generation or Method soaps online. In 2016, Grove started to manufacture its own all-natural products that now make up nearly 50% of its sales. The key? Designing products that are easier to ship. Its glass cleaner, for example, is highly-concentrated and smaller than a tube of toothpaste.
FOUNDERS: Augusto Marietti (CEO), Marco Palladino
EQUITY RAISED: $71 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $5 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Andreessen Horowitz, CRV, Index Ventures, New Enterprise Associates
Kong acts as a gatekeeper to companies’ APIs (code developers use to build apps) and monitors how often they’re used. Augusto Marietti, 31, and Marco Palladino, 30, launched the company out of a garage in Milan, where they both attended university, and were constantly flying back and forth to Silicon Valley to fundraise. “At this stage, we barely had enough money to eat,” Marietti says. “We definitely lost a few pounds when we were first starting up.” Now based in San Francisco, Kong has successfully penetrated the enterprise market with 130 customers that include SoulCycle, Yahoo Japan and WeWork.
FOUNDERS: Jack Altman (CEO), Eric Koslow
EQUITY RAISED: $27 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $7 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Shasta Ventures, Thrive Capital
Lattice founders Jack Altman, 30, and Eric Koslow, 28, learned first-hand the impact of work culture while working at startup Teespring, which sells custom t-shirts. In 2015, they decided to do something about it, starting Lattice. The San Francisco-based company’s human resources software uses surveys to shift the focus of performance management from employee evaluation to career development. Today, Lattice works with 1,300 customers, including Coinbase, Instacart, Slack and WeWork. “Employees are looking for more meaning from work than ever before, and have more visibility into and access to other jobs than ever before,” Altman says. Lattice helps their employers step up.
FOUNDERS: Elton Chung, Lidia Yan (CEO)
EQUITY RAISED: $125 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $46 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Brookfield Ventures, China Energy Group, Sequoia
Cofounded by husband and wife team Elton Chung and Lidia Yan in 2015, Los Angeles-based Next Trucking is moving freight brokerage online. While other startups like Convoy and Uber Freight move cargo from point A to point B, Next Trucking focuses on drayage, or the “first-mile” of transferring goods from port to warehouse. “Drayage is a lot more complicated because it involves terminals and ports,” says Yan, 38. As a result, Next Trucking has doubled revenue every year since 2016, reaching $46 million in 2018. Yan forecasts revenue will hit $120 million this year, helped by large contracts with retailers Dollar General, Rite Aid and Steve Madden. For our feature on Next Trucking, click here.
FOUNDERS: Jack Conte (CEO), Sam Yam
EQUITY RAISED: $166 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $35 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Freestyle Capital, Glade Brook Capital Partners, Index Ventures, Thrive Capital
Musician turned entrepreneur, Jack Conte, 35, wants to break the “starving artist” archetype by helping creators earn a regular income. “Deciding to be an artist shouldn’t have to be a difficult conversation,” says Conte. “It should feel like a viable career choice.” Using Patreon, artists offer exclusive experiences in return for contributions from their subscribers or “patrons.” HBO’s Issa Rae, Humans of New York founder Brandon Stanton and comedian Heather McDonald are some of the creators currently using Patreon and by 2019, the company expects to pay out more than $1 billion to its users.
FOUNDERS: Denis Mars (CEO), Simon Ratner
EQUITY RAISED: $14 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $1 million
LEAD INVESTOR: Kleiner Perkins
The Proxy app is like having a set of keys on your smartphone: Your profile’s signal gives you access to any building where you’re registered, eliminating the need for traditional ID cards and keys. It’s a straightforward idea, but Australian-expat founders Denis Mars, 42, and Simon Ratner, 39, are confident that they’ve just scratched the surface of its potential. So far, San Francisco-based Proxy has proven popular with commercial real estate clients like WeWork. Mars and Ratner now hope to expand their technology (which includes the app, management platform and signal-reading hardware) to identity verification for ride-sharing and event check-in.
FOUNDERS: Ofer Bengal (CEO), Yiftach Shoolman
EQUITY RAISED: $147 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $50 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Bain Capital Ventures, Francisco Partners, Goldman Sachs, Viola Ventures
Israeli tech veterans Ofer Bengal and Yiftach Shoolman set up a fast-database service, in 2011, to help businesses looking to speed up responses on their apps. Redis Labs relies on what’s known as NoSQL, an alternative form of compiling data that is faster than traditional models. That lightening-fast processing speed has helped it sign on FedEx, Mastercard and other corporate behemoths. To scale up quickly, the Mountain View, California-based company offered a free, open-source version to hook developers. In 2013, it rolled out a paid version with costs starting at $5 per month per gigabyte. “You can’t do without open source if you want rapid adoption,” says Bengal.
FOUNDERS: Shivaas Gulati, Josh Hug, Matt Oppenheimer (CEO)
EQUITY RAISED: $312 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $80 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Bezos Expeditions, DFJ Venture Capital (now Threshold Ventures), Generation Investment Management, Naspers’ PayU, QED Investors, Stripes Group
Remitly is taking on Western Union with lower fees — estimated 1.5% on average vs. the money-transfer giant’s 5%. Matt Oppenheimer, who had worked for Barclays in Kenya, and his cofounders launched the business in 2011 to help people in developed nations like the U.S. and Australia send money cheaply to relatives in developing countries like Mexico and the Philippines. Today, Remitly serves 60 countries and processes $6 billion a year in money transfers, about 1% of the nearly $700 billion remittance market. Already one of the largest fintech firms targeting immigrants, the Seattle startup’s long-term goal is to branch out into other financial services, potentially including credit cards, personal loans and auto loans.
FOUNDERS: Xuan Yong (CEO), Mike Witte
EQUITY RAISED: $94 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $21 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Bedrock Capital, Founders Fund, Quantum Energy Partners
There are nearly 1,000 rigs drilling for oil and gas in the U.S. Each well requires the input of dozens of service companies and workers — everything from high-horsepower compressors for fracking, to miles of steel pipe, and millions of gallons of water and truckloads of sand. Cofounder Xuan Yong, formerly of Citadel and D.E. Shaw, believes RigUp can improve on the good ol’ boy network by more efficiently connecting the “hyperfragmented” market of roughnecks, engineers and business owners with the big oil companies that call the shots. RigUp pre-vets workers and vendors, and creams an estimated 4% off every contract made via its online platform. Yong isn’t worried about machines invading the oilpatch. “Even with A.I. there will be demand growth for labor,” he says. “Field tickets are still signed on paper and stamped.” For now.
FOUNDERS: Stephen Hawthornthwaite, Roth Martin (interim CEO)
EQUITY RAISED: $42 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $140 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Goldman Sachs, Lightspeed Venture Partners
Founders Roth Martin, a former art gallery owner, and Stephen Hawthornthwaite (aka “Hawthy”), a former investment banker, launched the footwear brand after listening to their wives complain about the lack of stylish, comfortable shoes. Rothy’s 3D-knitted round-toe and point-toe flats, made from recycled plastic water bottles, have gained cult status. In just three years, it expanded rapidly with direct-to-consumer sales online, reaching revenue of $140 million last year. For our feature on Rothy’s, click here.
FOUNDERS: Phillip Liu, Karthik Rau (CEO)
EQUITY RAISED: $179 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $25 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Andreessen Horowitz, CRV, General Catalyst, Tiger Global Management
SignalFx monitors cloud infrastructure in real time for companies like Yelp, Shutterfly and HubSpot. In 2013, Karthik Rau, 41, who previously worked at tech startups LoudCloud and VMware, founded the company with ex-Facebook software architect Phillip Liu, 51. While competitors collect and query data in batches every two to three minutes, SignalFx evaluates and alerts users to anomalies in two to five seconds. “The difference between getting reliable alerts within seconds and getting them in minutes is the difference of seamlessly dealing with an issue,” says Rau. “Or having all of your users on Twitter complaining.”
FOUNDERS: Paul Dabrowski (CEO), Michael Dabrowski
EQUITY RAISED: $157 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $20 million
LEAD INVESTORS: Founders Fund, 8VC
Gene-editing tool Crispr has unleashed a gold rush for new products made possible by cheaply and easily editing DNA. Synthego is cashing in by selling the genomic equivalent of pickaxes, shovels, maps and other tools. Its ready-made and custom kits allow researchers in academia and the private sector to rapidly develop gene-edited products, including new medical treatments. Its founders, brothers Paul and Michael Dabrowski, 34 and 38, previously worked at SpaceX as engineers and drew on that experience to bring a new way of thinking to biotech.
FOUNDERS: Umar Afridi (CEO), Sid Viswanathan
EQUITY RAISED: $13 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $48 million
LEAD INVESTOR: Initialized Capital
If you buy birth control from Nurx or hair-loss products from Hims, behind-the-scenes pharmacy Truepill will actually fill and deliver your prescription. The three-year-old startup’s founders Umar Afridi, 37, a former retail pharmacist, and Sid Viswanathan, 35, who previously worked at Johnson & Johnson and LinkedIn, see a growing market in bringing technology and efficiency to pharmacy. Although Truepill started with direct-to-consumer brands, it’s now making a bigger play to bring on corporate customers with pricey, specialty medications.
FOUNDERS: Benjamin Bercovitz, Filip Kaliszan (CEO), James Ren, Hans Robertson
EQUITY RAISED: $59 million
ESTIMATED 2018 REVENUE: $20 million
LEAD INVESTORS: First Round, Meritech, Next47, Sequoia
While many startups have tackled the “smart home” with varying degrees of success, Verkada has exploded in shy of two years on the market by offering big businesses, municipalities and schools a cloud-based system that combines hardware and software to detect movement and easily store and share surveillance streams. In 2019, the company founded by three Stanford graduates and the former cofounder of Meraki (a cloud startup since acquired by Cisco) signed on the city of Memphis — a nearly 1,000-camera contract — Juul Labs and Newtown Public School District, the district of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting tragedy.
Additional reporting by Susan Adams, Elisabeth Brier, Dawn Chmielewski, Lauren Debter, Michael del Castillo, Jillian D’Onfro, Christopher Helman, Jeff Kauflin, Alex Knapp, Alex Konrad, Christian Kreznar and Monica Melton
Cover Photographs by Tim Pannell for Forbes | Illustrations by David Wilson
A Berkshire Hathaway shareholder arranges her shopping next to a large drawing of Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, during a shareholders shopping event in Omaha, Neb., Friday, May 3, 2019, one day before Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders meeting. An estimated 40,000 people are expected in town for the event, where Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger will preside over the meeting and spend hours answering questions. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders’ meeting as in past years yielded various insights on Warren Buffett’s and Charlie Munger’s insights on the markets, politics, tech stocks, past mistakes and many other topics.
Further Buybacks On The Cards
It should come as no surprise that Buffett and Munger are considering further buybacks of Berkshire stock. With a large, and growing, cash pile and limited deal opportunities to date, they are likely to use cash to repurchase Berkshire shares as the fallback option. In fact, the pair used answers to certain questions, such as regarding Brexit in the U.K. to remind the audience that they are very willing to make acquisitions in Europe should they see the right deal at the right price. They feel that Berkshire is typically considered for deals in the U.S.. Yet, internationally they have more work to do to have Berkshire in consideration for a large business sale. Still, the emphasis on buybacks suggests that there is little in the deal pipeline for now, though of course that could change quickly. Buffett and Munger would love to see more attractive deals, but absent attractive opportunities, stock buybacks are the default.
Another Bite Out Of Apple?
Buffett and Munger were both very positive on current holding Apple, and Apple CEO Tim Cook was also at the event. It seemed clear that Buffett was quite willing to up his Apple stake at the right price.
Various objections such as potential regulation of Apple’s app store were raised in questions, though Buffett didn’t dismiss those concerns entirely, he mentioned that what has hurt the most is that the stock has gone up. That, the CEO’s presence and the fact that Buffett didn’t go out of his way to make the detailed bull case on Apple all suggest he make be angling to up his stake at the right price, even though Apple is currently Berkshire’s second largest public holding behind Coca-Cola.
A More Flexible Approach To Value Investing
Over his lifetime, Buffett’s investing approach has evolved and it continues to. In his early years, Buffett loved buying so-called cigar butt stocks, as popularized by his early mentor Ben Graham. This means stocks that may have been poor companies, but were trading well below the value of assets that could be sold realizing a profit for investors. Such deals are harder to come by now. As such Buffett looks more for great businesses at reasonable prices, a direction that Munger has clearly prodded him in. However, now Buffett talks of value investing in broader more creative terms, such that any stock where the likely expected cashflows exceed the price can be attractive, even if not cheap in on the traditional metrics and ratios associated with value investing.
So though Buffett’s approach continued to be refined, its core principles remain the same in looking for great businesses at attractive prices with sound management in place. In reviewing Buffett and Munger’s comments, one is left with the feeling that they are seeing few bargains in this market and buybacks paired with watching and waiting for certain key holdings such as Apple to fall so they might add more is the current strategy. Aside, from the comments at the meeting, the fact that the company is sitting on over $100 billion of cash and short-term securities at the end of 2018 reinforces that Buffett and Munger aren’t seeing the opportunities they would hope for in the current environment.
Articles educational only, not intended as investment advice.