This has certainly been the case in my journey as a founder. We started a smart home company (in 2013) when everyone said we were crazy. We saw the vision and moved toward it in the face of uncertainty and risk.
When I was starting, I identified other leaders who were making bold decisions. It helped to feel like I was not alone along the path. I followed entrepreneurs accomplished their goals, and other young leaders blazing a new trail. I recently encountered an inspiring story that demonstrates just how bold we can be.
Ugwem Eneyo is the co-founder and CEO of Shyft Power Solutions, an energy technology company that’s working to enable an energy revolution for underserved consumers in emerging markets. Eneyo, a graduate student at Stanford University, and a member of Forbes 30 under 30, has secured more than $1 million in funding from investors and participated in the 2019 Ameren Accelerator program. GreenBiz named her a 2019 VERGE Vanguard honoree to recognize her dedication to helping advance Nigeria’s energy infrastructure.
Personally, I feel inspired by Eneyo’s bold ambitions to create solutions in an emerging market with a nascent entrepreneurial system – especially in an industry as demanding as energy. I interviewed her to learn more about her role in energy, Shyft’s path to raising money and how accelerators can be a beneficial platform for entrepreneur success.
1. How did you get interested in energy technology?
Ugwem Eneyo: My family is from the Niger Delta, a region that suffered negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts as a result of the extractive industries. After directly seeing the challenges and how they affected my family and communities in the region, I became keenly interested in the nexus of energy, environment and development.
I actually spent years working as an environmental and regulatory advisor in the oil and gas sector, trying to mitigate the impacts and drive change from within the organizations. I eventually left to pursue my M.S. and Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, still focused on the theme. Shyft Power Solutions is a byproduct of my work at Stanford.
2. How was your experience in your industry different as a Nigerian-American?
Eneyo: There’s an increasing interest within the industry around solving energy challenges in Nigeria and, more broadly, emerging markets. The local knowledge is often an overlooked critical asset in doing so.
My previous work in the industry, and in emerging markets, shows that it’s often non-technical issues that cause projects to be delayed or fail. The intimate local knowledge allows for an understanding of people’s values, culture and thought processes, and that can better inform how we solve problems and how we deliver solutions. This has certainly been the case with Shyft Power Solutions.
3. What approach did you take when raising money for your business?
Eneyo: In the early stage, I leveraged grants and non-dilutive capital, given the longer and more capital-intensive development timeline for building industrial-grade hardware. We also raised traditional venture capital, as well as funding from strategic corporate investors.
The corporate venture capitalists played a key role in our fundraising strategy, as they often had more market knowledge and connections, which complemented the primarily U.S.-based traditional venture capital. And Shyft Power Solutions received $100,000 in seed capital through our participation in the Ameren Accelerator this year.
4. How did your experience with the 2019 Ameren Accelerator program advance/benefit your business? What’s your relationship with Ameren and the accelerator now that the program has ended?
Eneyo: The Ameren Accelerator, alongside the Ameren employees who served on champion teams as mentors, provided important technical and business development expertise that offered valuable and unique insight into how Shyft’s platform can add value to utilities at scale. Part of our longer-term planning required Shyft to have better insight into utilities, and we were able to leverage Ameren in the process.
Although the accelerator has ended, my team and I have remained in contact with many of our technical champions, who still provide advice and references. Additionally, the accelerator program team has remained supportive, still introducing us to valuable startup resources.
5. How do you see the energy technology industry changing? What changes would you like to make?
Eneyo: In emerging markets, there will be a leapfrog over traditional central energy infrastructures; instead, we will see digitization and decentralization of energy infrastructure that may work alongside whatever central grid is available. The flexible and intelligent use of distributed energy resources will be necessary to make this possible, and Shyft is developing the technology to do so.
I want to see clean, reliable, and affordable energy for all — urban and rural — and want to see energy demands being met by rapidly growing emerging markets. I’m excited to be leading an organization that’s at the forefront of this energy transition in markets like Nigeria.
In 2007, Anit Hora quit her dream job with no safety net, no backup plan and no idea of what she was going to do next.
After graduating with a degree in fashion design Hora landed a high paying gig as a designer for a major label in New York City. She was earning a good salary, had great benefits, strong job security, enjoyed her work and was getting promoted on a regular basis. Seven years into her seemingly perfect career, however, Hora found herself thinking, “This can’t be it.”
“I did love my job, but I didn’t love it enough to not want to try something new,” she says. “I worked as a full-time knitwear designer when I started making my own products. When demand started to grow, it became more difficult for me to balance everything.”
Hora eventually couldn’t keep up with the pace of a day job and creating her own products, so she took off on a three-month backpacking trip around South America while she considered her next career move. As she traveled, volunteered and taught, Hora fell in love with the lifestyle and ended up staying for over a year and a half. “That’s when I realized that maybe the nine-to-five life isn’t for me,” she says.
The trip taught Hora how different life was outside the big city. For example, she says she had very little patience for illness in her corporate life; the moment she felt sick in New York she’d race to get a prescription for antibiotics and try to return to work as quickly as possible.
It wasn’t until she came down with an illness in South America and tried to do the same that she realized this wasn’t normal behaviour. “They all looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “They were like, ‘why would you want such a strong medicine?’”
That’s when Hora fell in love with herbal teas and natural medicines, which she studied formally upon her return to New York in 2008; first in classes at the Open Centre, then during an apprenticeship at an apothecary in Brooklyn.
She even started selling her natural health products at local craft fairs but eventually discovered they weren’t the natural products customers were looking for.
“Every time I’d go to sell them, these women would come up to me and ask for skincare and makeup stuff,” she says. “They’d come to me and be like ‘I’d buy this if you had this for face or hair or nails,’ and I thought, ‘yeah, I’d probably use that too.’”
In 2009 Hora enrolled in the Aveda Institute in New York City where she pursued her aesthetician’s license, but her savings were starting to dry up. At the same time, she needed money to buy supplies, create a website and build her new brand, Mullein and Sparrow.
To make ends meet Hora took up a day job at a spa while attending taking classes in the evenings and on weekends, building her business in what little time remained.
“I wasn’t sleeping very much in those days,” she says. “I don’t remember having any time for a social life or seeing friends, I remember being in complete isolation from everyone I knew, but it was so exciting that I didn’t see it like that.”
After years of balancing work, school and entrepreneurship Hora got the opportunity she had been waiting for in 2014, when she received an email from a representative at one or her favorite retail chains, Anthropologie. “That was such a surreal moment for me,” says Hora. “I was like ‘how did you even find me?’”
The company was interested in selling her products in their stores, but Hora couldn’t fulfill an order of that size from her home studio, so she started looking for a line of credit and a new workspace. Even with her purchase order, Hora couldn’t get her bank to provide the capital she needed. The demand was there, but it still took time for her to develop the bandwidth to fulfill a big order.
In reflection, she says she should have put more thought into financial planning. “I would have put more thought into my budget. Organization is not my strong suit so I would have brought someone on early on to help me allocate my resources more efficiently.”
Today, M.S. Skincare has products in a range of small boutiques and major retailers around the world, including Urban Outfitters, Free People, Nordstrom, Steve Allen and Anthropologie. But the greatest validation, according to Hora, happened when she was selected for an entrepreneurship fellowship from the Tory Burch Foundation as well as Goldman Sachs’ prestigious 10,000 Small Businesses Program, despite having no formal business training.
“There’s a lot of self-doubt that comes from doing this, especially if you spend the first few years by yourself figuring it out,” she says. “You just have to believe you can do it, and keep that sense of stubborn optimism.”
Plenty of entrepreneurs adhere to the mantra of “hire slow, fire fast” and for good reason. Then there’s Melanie Perkins, the co-founder and CEO of Sydney-based design software company Canva. She spent a year trying to find her first technical hire.
While Perkins didn’t intend to spend so much time filling her first engineering position, looking back on it now, she wouldn’t have done it any other way. The year-long quest informed how she’s made every other hire since. And it’s hard to argue with the results: With 700 employees, Canva is a hiring machine, and it’s been doubling in size every year.
In an industry that sees engineers switch jobs with frightening speed, many of Canva’s early technical hires are still with the company. While Canva won’t discuss revenue, Perkins, the company’s co-founder and CEO, says the company has been profitable since 2017. Canva has 20 million monthly users in 190 countries. In October, Canva announced an $85 million investment, with a valuation of $3.2 billion.
This is going to be bigger than yearbooks
When Perkins started the predecessor company to Canva in 2007, she was just 19. She was frustrated by how hard it was to use design software. When she started teaching design at university, she noticed that her students were similarly frustrated. With her boyfriend (now fiance), Cliff Obrecht, she built a website called Fusion Books that helped students design and publish yearbooks.
It did well–becoming the largest yearbook company in Australia and moving into France and New Zealand. Perkins quit university to work on it full-time. By 2011, Perkins and Obrecht realized Fusion Books could be much more: an engine to make it easy for anyone to design any publication. But to build that more ambitious product, they’d need outside investment.
Perkins headed to San Francisco to visit angel investor Bill Tai, who is known for making about 100 investments in startups that have yielded 19 initial public offerings. She’d met him in Perth a year earlier, where she had collected an award for innovation. “If you come to California, come see me,” he remembers telling her. “Without me knowing exactly what she was doing, she engineered a trip. She’s a very ballsy woman, if that makes sense. And I’m thinking, you know, I should help her. I know hundreds of engineers.”
Early in her San Francisco visit, Tai introduced her to Lars Rasmussen, the co-founder of the company that became Google Maps. Tai told her that if she could hire a tech team that met Rasmussen’s standards, he’d invest. “I didn’t realize at the time what that meant,” says Perkins. She bought an Ikea mattress, and planted it on the floor of her brother’s San Francisco apartment. “Obviously, that was free rent,” she says. “I had food to get by and I felt safe.”
Perkins set out initially to hire by doing the obvious: She went to every single conference she could get into. She’d speak if the organizers let her. Tai invited her to his MaiTai Global networking event in Hawaii, even though, for most attendees, a big draw was kitesurfing, which she’d never attempted. “It was great fun,” she says gamely. Then, “I really don’t like it. I have the scars to prove it. I’ve … retired from kitesurfing.”
Back in San Francisco, Perkins passed out flyers, trying to pique people’s interest. She cold-called engineers, and approached suspects on buses. She scoured LinkedIn, but Rasmussen wouldn’t even deign to meet most of her finds. “He didn’t think they had enough startup gumption or experience with a world-scale company, or with complex technology,” she said. She says fewer than five LinkedIn finds ended up interviewing with Rasmussen. He’d give them a problem-solving challenge that, inevitably, they flubbed.
After a year of this, Perkins was thoroughly frustrated. Surely it’s better to at least make some progress, she told Rasmussen, than to continue to do nothing. But he was adamant.
The perfect candidate and the bizarre pitch deck
That same year, Rasmussen introduced her to two candidates that he thought might be a good fit and recruitable. The first, Cameron Adams, a user interface designer who had worked at Google, was busy trying to raise money for his own startup. The second, Dave Hearnden, a senior engineer at Google, initially said he wasn’t interested. In 2012, both had a change of heart.
“We were absolutely over the moon,” says Perkins. Adams came on board first, as a co-founder. Hearnden, on the other hand, started to have second thoughts: Google wasn’t happy with his leaving, obviously, and was trying to get him to stay. He worried that his project would be abandoned without him, and he didn’t want to disappoint his team.
At this point, Perkins sent him something that has since become known as the Bizarre Pitch Deck. In 16 slides, the deck tells the story of a man named Dave, who longed for adventure but was torn by his loyalty for Google. In the pitch deck, as in life, Dave eventually joined Canva. It helped that Google had already poached his replacement.
In 2012, Perkins was able to raise a seed round of $1.6 million, and got another $1.4 million from the Australian government. Tai finally agreed to put in $100,000. “It was really hard for her to raise,” he says. “You’ve got a young girl in her 20s from Australia who had never worked at a company, with her live-in boyfriend as COO. People would say to me, What if they break up? I didn’t have a good answer.” Now, things look much different: Tai says Obrecht is Canva’s “secret weapon,” and that “Cliff has just blown me away.”
Keeping the bar high, hundreds of hires later
While Tai drove her nuts at the beginning, Perkins appreciates his stubbornness now. “We’ve been able to attract top talent across the globe,” she says. “It wouldn’t have been possible without setting such a high technical bar early on.” Tai says he hasn’t made exactly this condition with other startups. But he’s done it in reverse: He’s backed highly technical people without knowing what, exactly, the business opportunity would turn out to be.
The experience also showed her, the hard way, just how much effort she’d have to put into hiring if she wanted to build a successful tech company. By Canva’s second year, the company had a recruiting team. “We knew we needed to invest heavily in hiring,” she says. Now, each open position gets a strategy brief. That document lays out the goals for the person in that role and the project they will be working on. It also identifies the people who will be involved in the hiring process. “Getting everyone on the same page is really critical,” says Perkins. “It sets that person up for success.”
And like Rasmussen looking for the first technical hire, Canva asks each candidate to take a challenge. Candidates have a choice of doing a four-hour challenge or a one-hour challenge. “Maybe they’re working parents and they can do it in an hour,” says Perkins. “Other people prefer to have a longer time and work at their own pace. We’re looking for people happy to take on challenges and who get a real buzz out of being able to solve hard things.”
In in-person interviews, someone on the Canva team will almost always ask the candidate, “How would your previous boss or manager talk about your work or rate you?” Perkins says people are “surprisingly honest” in their responses. The answers help her get a window into what type of leadership allows a particular candidate to thrive. Some people require a lot of structure or hierarchy, she says, and Canva doesn’t have much of either.
“One of the things I believe quite strongly is having a really strong idea of where you’re going,” says Perkins. “I have this visual metaphor. Plant 100 seeds. Until eventually one flowers or sprouts. For most people, if you’re rejected, you feel really hurt and don’t want to continue. The reality is that you have to push through. If I had given up quickly, I certainly wouldn’t be here today.”
Most everyone has probably heard of Jack Ma and Alibaba. But, few understand the true immensity—and importance—of what Ma, the co-founder and former executive chairman of Alibaba Group, has done. We had a fascinating conversation at the Forbes Global CEO Summit in Singapore, where we discussed what he did at Alibaba, one of the most formidable e-commerce companies in the world, and his future plans and aspirations.
By providing people in China with a powerful online platform to market their products and services with Alibaba, he nourished millions of small businesses — and the cause of free enterprise. Thanks to Ma, countless numbers of Chinese businesses and individuals can obtain loans and other financial services that would otherwise be unavailable from traditional institutions within China. He also enabled small enterprises everywhere, including the US, to easily trade with entities in China.
Having recently stepped down from Alibaba, Ma is moving into philanthropy, big time, to promote entrepreneurship and education, among other things.
Struggling students will take heart at the fact that Ma was a poor student, frequently flunking his exams. Furthermore, his success was not immediate; numerous employers turned him down when he first entered the workforce.
Ma’s story validates Adam Smith’s truth that commerce benefits us all, and free markets are the best poverty fighters ever created.
Steve Forbes is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Media.
Steve’s newest project is the podcast “What’s Ahead,” where he engages the world’s top newsmakers, politicians and pioneers in business and economics in honest conversations meant to challenge traditional conventions as well as featuring Steve’s signature views on the intersection of society, economic and policy.
Steve helped create the recently released and highly acclaimed public television documentary, In Money We Trust?, which was produced under the auspices of Maryland Public television. The film was inspired by the book he co-authored, Money: How the Destruction of the Dollar Threatens the Global Economy – and What We Can Do About It.
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.”
Recommended: Read Forbes’ Other Dealmaking Cover Stories
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 email@example.com. 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.
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.
The short answer for such a massive superyact is, they didn’t really. But that doesn’t mean the experienced owner—who worked with the red-hot superyacht exterior designer Espen Oeino, interior designer Mark Berryman and the highly experienced, megayacht builders at Lürssen in Germany—couldn’t at least try. So, the 450-foot-long, 67-foot-wide yacht was built in the relative secrecy of Lürssen’s enormous manufacturing facility. And the yacht that took several years, and $100’s of millions to build (and probably more than a few non-disclosure agreements) was always referred to by its code name: Project Shu.
But then again, it was extremely hard to keep a yacht that’s much longer than a football field a secret when it finally emerged from the builders covered facility earlier this spring. And even harder once her sea trials on the Baltic began earlier this summer.
And as you can see in the few photos that have finally emerged (it’s now called by its real name—Flying Fox) Espen Oeino has designed an elegant yacht exterior that that looks sleek in spite of her massive over-all volume.
The balance and proportion of the exterior allows for generous deck space that offer a range of options for owners and guests to enjoy. Numerous terraces and platforms open out over the water to provide fantastic access the water. While every other exterior element, from sun decks and open entertainment areas to more shaded and intimate spaces, has been designed to provide the highest level of luxury.
For example, all superyachts have swimming pools, but Flying Fox is special in that its enormous swimming pool that runs from side to side on the main deck. The exterior also is equipped two helicopter landing pads, one on the bridge deck and another on the sun deck aft, that makes it possible to for owners and guests to use multiple helicopters.
Meanwhile, advance reports about the interior (no photos of the interior have been published yet) say interior designer Mark Berryman’s has interior has a calm and spacious feel featuring soft neutral tones and tactile finishes.
And as you can see from what the builder and project manager of this massive yacht said when the yacht was launched earlier this spring, they kept the “secret” going for as long as they could.
“Project SHU represents a major milestone for Imperial.” says Julia Stewart, Director at Imperial Yachts who brought their vast experience and knowledge to their supervision of the massive build project. “Being involved in impressive superyacht projects like these show our capacity and experience in superyacht and megayacht management, with regular deliveries of 80m+ projects supervised and operated by our team since 2015. Our strong and very dynamic links with Lürssen, Espen Oeino and Mark Berryman helped to achieve one of the most impressive vessel of the next decade”
Shipyard Managing Partner Peter Lürssen proudly states: “SHU fulfills the requests of a very experienced owner in an exceptional way. The owner’s input within all aspects of the yacht’s design was clear, strong and exacting. Building SHU was a significant challenge and we are very proud of this achievement. She represents another remarkable milestone in our history.”
But the secret is out now, and tuned for much more from Lürssen and Espen Oeino. The German yard, and Norwegian designer have been very, very busy.
During my previous life as an editor at several American yachting magazines, I was lucky enough to sail thousands of offshore miles on a wide variety of boats. My job as yachting scribe has brought me on adventures from the Arctic Circle to the equator, and to nearly every tropical destination in between. I’ve dodged high-speed hydrofoils on the brown waters off St. Petersburg, Russia, anchored in impossibly blue water off uninhabited islands in the Seychelles, Scandinavia, the BVI, and the Bahamas, and even flown aboard a Jayhawk helicopter with the US Coast Guard on training missions. These days, when I’m not travelling or writing about the magic that happens at confluence of superyachts, offshore adventure, luxury travel, and technology, I sail my ultra-simple, ultra-fast dinghy, ride my gorgeous and gloriously-expensive carbon fiber bike, and push our little one in a baby stroller all over New England.
Justin McCurry doesn’t like much on his schedule. At most, he sets one thing to do a day. On Monday, that might be volunteering. On Wednesday, it’s likely grocery shopping. On Friday, there’s a good chance he’ll be playing tennis with his wife.
The rest of the time? It’s up to him. Pursuing a hobby, playing video games, doing yard work. It’s not the typical schedule for a 39 year-old with three kids. But that’s what McCurry has done since officially retiring as a transportation engineer in 2013.
In about a decade, he and his wife, Kaisorn, saw their portfolio balloon from a few thousand dollars to $1.3 million, yet neither of them had a job that paid close to six figures. And what’s particularly unusual about McCurry’s journey: He never had a passive income stream – other than his investment portfolio – that helped buffer his paycheck, boosting his ability to save. Instead, he did it all through cutting back and finding intelligent ways to squeeze savings, without sacrificing his lifestyle.
“I realized I had more paycheck than expenses,” said McCurry. “I just knew that saving money was probably a good thing,” as he tried to figure out what to do with the leftover funds each month.
When bloggers and FIRE (financially independent, retire early) voices talk about stepping away from the day job in their 30s and 40s, it’s also often coupled with side gigs that bring in dough, such as real estate or businesses that they built. It serves as a much-welcomed security blanket when managing a retirement that could stretch 50 years or more. For McCurry, though, it wasn’t about passive income streams or growing a sizable real estate portfolio. From 2004 to 2013, he and his wife lived on one income while essentially stashing away the other.
In the meantime, they had three kids, bought a house and have traveled the world.
Don’t Get Overwhelmed by the Size of It All
When McCurry first started saving, he looked at how long he would need to retire, and came up with a number that would let him step away from the job 20 years later. Even though he never was a big spender, the number seemed daunting.
“Knowing I would have to chug away for a decade or two,” said McCurry, “it’s almost like a pie in the sky.”
It made it difficult for him to see the benefits at first because that number was so large and the timeframe so long. This isn’t much different than when people set out for retirement on 40-year timeframes.
Researchers have found that the more someone connects with their future-self, meaning can view their future self with the same empathy and concern as their current self, the more they will save.
This ability to connect with the future self may be easier on this shortened timeframe. But it’s not guaranteed.
For McCurry, it became easier to handle as he continued to refine his plan, saving more than he and his wife ever expected they could. Then, after a few years, he started seeing the impact of compound interest.
He would place around $60,000 in the portfolio in a year, while the investments would return $100,000. McCurry soon realized that his 20-year plan had shrunk in half.
Cut Your Taxes
One of the most important ways McCurry saved was on taxes. At one point, he took the family’s joint income of $150,000, and managed to realize a tax hit of just $150.
His wife maxed out her 401k as well, while also doing the same in a health savings account and a flexible spending account. He then used a series of deductions, from the standard one to exemptions to child credits to reduce that income line to $28,950, leaving just a $150 tax liability.
McCurry took the approach that the tax breaks providing a discount to his savings. At the time, he would invest around $60,000 a year in tax-advantaged accounts. With that money, he locked in about $15,000 in tax breaks. That $60,000 investment, in actuality, only cost him around $45,000 if you count the tax break.
“It’s a little easier to save $45,000 versus $60,000,” McCurry said.
Design For the Worst Case Scenarios
One reason that McCurry’s timeframe shifted from 20 years to 10, despite lacking an additional income source, was simply because of the amount of buying he did when times looked bleak in 2007 through 2009.
He’s not like many in the FIRE world, constantly checking the portfolio, feeling the joy as the dollars increased, bringing him one step closer to quitting the day job. Instead, he mostly checks the accounts once a quarter, figuring out where he stands and if he needs any adjustments to his contributions.
“The last quarter in 2007, I noticed huge drops in our net worth,” remembered McCurry.
It didn’t deter him.
“I put as much as I could into the stock market each month, knowing I’m buying these shares at half or a third from where they were,” he added. “It was a buying opportunity of a lifetime.”
When the stocks began to turn in 2009, then his net worth went into hyper-drive. Since stepping away with $1.3 million, he’s now worth over $2.1 million, largely due to the fact that he now earns a little income from his blog, RootofGood.com (which means he doesn’t have to tap as much investment income) and the performance of his investments through a decade-long bull run.
But McCurry is savvy enough to realize the market will pull back at some point.
That’s where he taps his engineering muscle. As an engineer, you always prepare for the worst-case scenario. If what you’re building works under that scenario, then it will work, theoretically, in all other cases. When he looks at his portfolio, if the market drops 40%, then it would reach the levels he started with when he first retired.
He might spend a little less, but with a 3.25% rate of withdrawal from his investments, his family would be “totally fine,” he said.
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