Bootstrapping to $20M ARR and beyond w/ Vivek Bhaskaran

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Episode Outline

[00:44] How and why Vivek founded QuestionPro with no venture capital

[03:59] Vivek’s decision making factors when it comes to his company

[07:40] How Vivek succeeded in secondary markets and made the decision to pursue them

[10:05] How to identify when an investment is paying off

[13:00] How Vivek approached his business endeavors and the decisions that led to where he is now

[15:55] What drives and keeps Vivek excited growing his business

[18:39] What gives Vivek energy outside of work

Connect with Vivek





All right. Vivek. Uh, so excited to have you on the show today. This is going to be for our listeners, a total curve ball of an episode, because normally, you know, we're like, so venture backed, you know, get to a hundred millionaire as quickly as possible traditional sand Hill road, route and VEC today has gone like totally the opposite direction and been wildly successful with it.

So welcome to the show. Good to be there. So you're today, you're the CEO of question pro you're also the chairman and board member of a number of other companies that you've spun out or acquired or invested in. Um, so I think it would be best to just like start at the beginning a little bit and, and set the stage for folks because today, just to, to foreshadow that question pro you did what 20 million.

This year. Yep. We are going to do it 20 million last year. We're at about 14 and a half. So this year we'll do 20. Yeah. Okay. And how much, uh, venture money have you taken? Zero hero. Beautiful. It's so cool to hear an alternative story, right. Because we already know. We already know the normal dialogue and it's, it's great.

Like it's, it's, it's a path to go and this is also a great path to go, but you just don't get to hear so many stories like this in San Francisco, in Silicon Valley. So, um, what, what took you down this path? Uh, so yeah, I mean, I wish I could tell you something that said like, well, I thought about this, but really like I started the company in 2005 in Seattle and my background is in software engineering and development.

So I kind of stumbled into it and kind of build the platform and build the tool. And, uh, we got good at SEO before SEO was cool. Right back in 2005 and today everybody talks about SEO. So we got, we figured out a way to get inbound customers. And once we got customers, we were like, okay, we've got customers, we've got cash.

Or why raise money? It doesn't even make it. No. And I was, I'd say like, probably like initially it was just naivety. And then once we started making money, it doesn't make any sense to say we were making we again, we were in, you know, B2B SAS, which is very profitable. Well, if you can do the engineering work really efficiently, if you think about it, like the production is the software development, is that right?

Typically the biggest cost. And obviously I am and developer by trade and I can build whatever the hell you want. Now. I don't think I can build it that way as fast as I used to be. But, um, so, so that's how I, that's the reason why we didn't end up raising money. And once we started making money, we made more money.

And then we just said like, we are not going to raise money. At least not. Not in length unless we absolutely need to. Which means, which also meant that we have to kind of keep the business profitable. And we ran the business very profitably. I think that's really, I'm busy profitably, so lovely. We don't want a boss, so therefore we didn't raise the money.

So are you, and I just talked about the board and all that stuff. So that's another reason why we ended up not raising money. Right. You have a giant board, it consists of yourself. I mean, it was one of these, there's gotta be some forks of like, you know, like, you know, being the janitor and the sales guy and their rep.

I mean, I've been everything, I've done everything in this company. I've been the, uh, been the, been the Cubs customer support rep. And I gotta tell you the story once, like I was, I was always, dad was handling the phones and everything else, and I used to do customer support to her way back when, and I was talking to this one lady and she's like, I want to talk to your supervisor.

I'm like, okay. I'm like, Kevin, my cofounder I'm like, Kevin, did, she wants to talk to you? I think. And he picks up the phone and he's like, yeah, you know what? This new guy we hired. He's like, not, not really up to it, but we gotta, we gotta, we gotta, you know, we've got, gotta do something about it. I'm like, yeah, man.

I mean, what else I've been doing? This is up to me and Kevin, we are just running the company. There's two of us. I mean, somebody says like, I want to talk to your supervisor. I'm like, well, I mean, you can talk to my mom, but other than that,

You put the phone down, make some tapping sounds and then change your voice. Yeah, exactly. That's that's a lot, you know, those are the stories we have don't so, I mean, it sounds like you, you went through a bunch of big junctures and decision making points where you were deciding, you know, Is now the right time to go raise money is now the right, like what, and then doubling down on yourself and choosing not to, and kind of taking another step further into this unchartered space of, you know, reinvesting into yourself, into the company and trying to keep it optimized such that you can continue to do.

So what, like what was going through your head? Like what were you weighing in making those decisions? Great question. Actually, a great question. Yes. It's not that the idea of raising money obviously has not bumped into us. And even later on, like we can even, we are going to talking to private equity firms that are, that are interested.

Uh, I think, uh, the, the question really comes down to, at least, for us really comes down to how much we think we can grow organically, like hustle our way up. And how much would the additional capital help? Um, the general argument obviously is you need the additional capital to do things. Um, but we've always been scrappy from day one.

So we, we, I look at it and say like, well, I mean, you know, what are these guys going to do that we cannot do? And, and we can't think about that. And then I also think about kind of our equity. You know, the company is owned by me and all these. It's not just me. It's all the employees too. So we have a good chunk of the company that's owned by the senior management, the senior management doesn't get diluted.

So they're all part of the, they're all part of the story. It really, so they are, they are in it for, and we all, actually we are, we've done this decisions two or three times in our lives where we just sat down and said, well, we can raise the money. We all get diluted. We all, and these, we, all these guys come on the board and they are going to draw, you know, drive this, that drives the train.

Um, and then they also look at their models and say, Oh, they're going to get us from point a to point B really? It's using that cash. And then, then we are, honestly, I look at each other and totally it's like, can we get there? Can we get half of them? Maybe not even full? Can we get half of there without going through this process?

Um, and that's the kind of decision I have. I've made it like, like maybe I would say like a couple of times I've been wrong clearly. Like, okay. Like in some cases I wish I had the cash. They are obviously others in this, in this business have made much more money than we have made clearly and in culture.

So they're sort of more monkeys they're, they're like, you know, obviously a billion dollar companies. So, um, but then also I've seen like, you know, You know, 50 other companies come in and raise money and fail realistically for every, for every company that makes money. There are at least nine of them clearly that I've done that go down the tube.

And so those are the decision making factors that, that I've had. Um, To do. And, and we kind of usually come up with some bright idea that helps us make money. Um, I know one way or the other, that's why we are, we are where we are today is like, not all the ideas I've kinda like stocked, but at least a few of them have stock.

And then B V kind of like, you know, fuck is with tank or star. So that idea, um, and, and the other thing that weighs really heavily on my head is like, uh, the part of the reason I started questioning pro was not really to con gold. Go change the world or do anything. I just want to, I hated my boss. I just simple.

I just want to do, I just want to go, go back to my day job, that's it. And I, you know, that's it. Um, and, and so to me, like, you know, personal freedom and autonomy is a, is a big part of what I want to do with my life. Um, realistically. And so, um, so even with the people that we talked to you, like, if that. If you don't feel that if you don't feel that why we, I'm not really interested.

I mean, we already, all of us quite frankly, make enough money. We don't need to, you know, find where we can, we can always use more money, but, uh, but I think personally and man for the management team, the personal autonomy is actually, uh, I guess for me it weighs heavily. Uh, it's not a, it's not a nontrivial.

I don't realistically. An entrepreneur is entrepreneur. Yeah, exactly. You never let the gym go. Right. So that's why, I mean, in previous conversations you've shared with me, I think part of your initial go to market strategy that really stood out to me was. You were going after the white space, that survey monkey and Qualtrics left on the table in kind of secondary markets.

Can you, how did you first off, how did you land on that? What was the thinking that led up to that decision? And then what was it like to roll out in those. Kind of unproven call them secondary markets that ultimately was a very successful move for you. Yeah. You think about it. Like, you know, we are competing with, you know, mozzarella monkey and Qualtrics, and both of them are millionaire plus companies realistically.

So they have their marketing budget is girly, you know, 10 times our marketing budget, um, simply, but, um, so, and there are Jesse after different markets, different ideas, and we decided like, okay, what are they not doing? And what are the different areas that they're not focusing on? And we can focus on that.

Um, and one of that was our banter bid, Latin America. We just learned, you know, and it all started off ready, naively, really where we said like, okay, let's just kind of try to spell it in Spanish. Really. I mean, we have. You got traffic coming in from everywhere. So we hired a, and I'll tell you the story. We had a Mexican American guy in Seattle and said like, Hey bro, here's the goal?

Here's the phone. Next time somebody picks up somebody from, you know, Latin Americans. So you'd go, go for it. Right. And sell it in Spanish. And then he actually pitched me. He's like amazing guy. He runs out all of his or runs our entire lifetime business now. So he pitched me one day and he sat down with me and he said, does it make sense that I'm selling to a bunch of Mexico's from Seattle?

I'm like, yeah, actually a good point that doesn't make any sense. What is your, what do you think we should do? You're like, I should go down to Mexico and run the, build a lead I'm doing for you. I'm like, great. Here's your, yes. You have to grind on the ground. Go for it, dude. Not that complicated. And so, um, so, and that has become, you know, $2 million, another line of business.

In fact, only today. And he went in and he, you know, we have about. How do you put five people in, in metadata and that, so that's one kind of factor. And then when that happened, it quickly stopped me. I'm like, okay, this is an easy market. And there's an easy mechanism of actually going into a different markets, setting up, shop there and then start selling no where, where, where breeders are not focused on those.

On those markets realistically. And so that's where we can open up one office in Germany, one office in Dubai and reasonably open up an office in the UK, UK and Germany are obviously big markets, but, you know, but Dubai was again an opportunistic move and we kind of, you know, have, you know, we've got good, good, good traction and progress there.

How long did it take, thank you to see enough signal to know that that investment was paying off. The strategy was working in each, in each geo, like as you expanded, was there some sort of, kind of. Criteria you had set up where, Hey, if we don't see X and Y period of time, maybe it wasn't the best call.

Yeah. Yeah. So we, we kinda like, I think I would say, like, we kind of say that we'll invest X number of dollars and that's all we got, that's it. Right. So it's almost like actually, why say, if you've been through that and you were done really we'll be out realistically. And so far, we've never had kind of.

Come back empty handed, because first of all, it's not a ton of money, but really before a little bit of money. So it's like, even if you lose that money, it's not, it's not the end of the world, frankly. It's really not available. So, so that's what we've done. Um, and so we are what we don't, we have to like really wait until we find the right kind of crew.

Um, so what we found out with the Jewish expansion, it's not just. Um, it's not just hiring somebody in a particular market. You gotta send somebody from your team also under that market. Really. So the connection between that person and I've made the same mistake, the other opposite I've failed in Australia.

For example, we just hired a guy in Australia and let him kind of hang out over there and he was not connected to the company strongly enough. Right. So then, so that problem exists. Right? Um, so I think. Now we've kind of almost perfected. We've kind of gone this come up with a solution model of some sort of a recipe where we hired a person there and somebody from our team too, to kind of pair up with him.

So he's got a connection into our company and then that, that, that internal connection is there. And then obviously they know enough about that local market and then they start hiring and building a team there and then kind of start expanding the business. Um, again, it's slower again, if you are, again, going back to it, original question, like, you know, if you are a venture back, we put a lot more money in it, and now we are just a little bit more slower.

And so our growth is therefore, um, slightly more, slightly more kind of stunted because of that particular issue. But again, but it's still, it's very profitable and very kind of organic growth from that perspective. Yeah, you, you own a hundred percent of the growth or the company does, right? It's it's a different, sorry.

It reminds me of a, I was chatting with Paul Rios who runs a, the Brazil org for HubSpot and also set up their lat am group. Okay. And it, it was, it's funny how grassroots, some of these things are, are there, their thing was, he was looking for good leads when he was a rep and notice that there was one that came in and it was in Spanish.

And then he did a search in their database to see like, well, I wonder how many more of these have gone untouched that earns. 30,030,000 and then like, damn. So it's like you have a business right there. Yup. Yup, yup, yup, yup. Yeah, exactly. Right. And that's the same thing with, even with Andrea's fundraisers round runs our Latin America operation.

He kind of like, look, there's nobody like actively chasing after these guys, simple, like everybody's chasing after, you know, the, and, and, and it's not that they don't need neither solution like this. And so, um, so I think it's kind of that that particular thing is what, what helped us. How do you think about, I mean, did you go into this business planning on being here?

Here are these billion dollar soon to be billion dollar kind of venture backed players, and we're going to go kind of eat their long tail, or did you go, like, how did you approach it from a mindset perspective? So I stumbled into this. Like I said, I been doing this for a while. So for me, I started the question probably 2005, actually.

So young before Qualtrics was big. In fact, I have, I have a history with Qualtrics actually. So I went to BYU, um, by not a Mormon, but I ended up planning up in BYU and, uh, I'm originally from India. And so just for schooling, uh, of, by my computer science and for engineering there. And then, and that's where I got cornered by a market research professor and they, and he wanted to build a survey platform.

You know, you came into the computer science lab and he said like, Hey man, I want to. I want somebody to build me a software tool that does surveys realistically, as library is in my hands. And I said, so how much are you gonna pay me? Like starting bucks an hour. I'm like, I'll do a lot more for someone in Boston realistically.

So, uh, so that's how we got started. Uh, that's how I got started into the survey business effectively. And then I kind of, then I went to Seattle and then we can split apart when we are. Divorced. And we split apart with Scott, Ryan, uh, and then that, that became Qualtrics later on, realistically. So Scott, Ryan has Garnsey of course, you know, uh, of Qualtrics.

He cannot give him a lot. We went a different route. I went to Seattle, I kind of did my own thing. Signup tech consulting. And then I realized that consulting is a soul sucking job, frankly, you get out of it. And so then, then, then I, then that's when I built the tool. And so at the time it was pretty small actually like, you know, sort of a monkey wasn't that big.

And when I started it and then started the monkey, wasn't that big? I do, honestly, that'll be, I'll be straight. I don't think the entire market would be as big as I thought I would have probably kind of. Taking the job more seriously. If I thought at the time that this is, this is, this is, it is a big deal.

Uh, but, uh, so that's how the first one for years we were kind of like four or five years, we got to about four or $5 million in revenue in 2009. Uh, and then, and then like, I, you know, and then we kind of like, then we start seeing that there's. It's for real, that's what it would be stop saying. There's a commercial market.

There's kind of an enterprise market. That's when I started seeing that. And then that's when we started saying, Oh shit, this is this. This is going to be, this could be much bigger than what we thought. Usually we thought it's just going to be a side project and learn a little bit of something to pay our bills realistically.

But then in 2009, 2010 is when we thought this is going to be a real. And that's when we kind of got. A little bit more serious. Um, and then we kind of, you know, then one thing led to the other and kind of kept growing up. Although we stumbled, I would probably say we stumbled between 2013, 14, 12, 13, 14. We did stumble them all and reading.

We are not able to grow the company that's fast. Um, um, but then to the last couple of years, we've kind of picked it back up. Um, and we are pushing it right now. So what, what on that, on like the pushing it now front? What drives you now? I mean, you don't need to be working. You don't, you've been successful.

You have spun out multiple successful. Other entities. C is, uh, like, is it, is it for the chase? Is it  when you kind of take a look at what's coming for you this year, and you're thinking about goal setting. What, what. What's your mindset like? Yeah. I mean, yeah. And I, I think I talked to him earlier on, I took a couple years and I was being, you know, I was being a kind of advisor to a bunch of companies and I realized like, I hate giving advice.

I like doing things realistically. Right. So I think that's a personality that's kind of just that's us, me. And so to me today, today, it's like just, you know, it's the chance really? It's like trying to try to big and make it bigger. And that's a simple is the chances that is, would be the, would be the simple way of describing what drives me.

A lot of people still tell me like, Hey man, you've been doing this for a long time. Are you tired? Like actually, no I've been doing every year. My, my role has shifted like, you know, running a really, and being the CEO of a $3 million business where they're seeing, Oh, C I'm a $20 million business, completely different, like a role from a role operations.

And even, even my own kind of professional world perspective. I'm building things on, we are trying to get through, obviously, you know, 40, $50 million in revenue over the next few years. So our, our kind of horizon is also that. Um, and, uh, and the kind of work and the kind of, what I need to do is also different.

So I think, I think every few years and what I'm doing has been changing. Um, and so that's what keeps me excited as long as I have a new project to work on I'm. And I told you a little bit, like we are, we are in the process of acquiring or, you know, acquiring a company. And that's kind of a, it's probably our biggest acquisition so far, and I've never done one yet.

So it's like, it's not a new project. I'm just going through the, you know, going through the process of assimilating, you know, three or $4 million of revenue into our business in itself is kind of a big kind of a, it will be task. I mean, I don't know, I've never done it and that's, you know, that's least for me professionally, it's a really exciting kind of concept and we'll see what we can do.

And now. Pretty pretty sure. I learned a lot. Uh, so going back to your point, like, okay, what drives me? So these kind of new initiatives and what drives me, and I think we've built a pretty good solid management team that I really like working with the guys that I work with. And that's an important element.

Like Andres's a. Kick ass guy. I love talking to him. We do chat every couple of weeks. Where are you? You know, in depth. Um, and my management in all the guys that I've gone to, they've all been that day for a long time now. Um, and so they like working with me and I love working with them and they figured out a kind of like a good kind of organizational balance.

Um, and that's good enough for all of us realistically. So, so every year we kind of sit down and say, all right, what do you want to do this year? We go over with a bunch. Projects. And so we can all, let's say we can crush it and execute it. Nice. What, um, what gives you energy outside of pushing and startups and scale?

What, what outside of that gives you energy? Outside of that. I think I'm a big Mumbai as I was ending. That's when you said you were in Denver, someone biking. Uh, so, um, I, I, uh, I'm a, I wouldn't say I'm an avid mountain biker, but I love mountain biking. Obviously when I was here, I was, you know, I was in San Francisco.

I used to go up to some doctors all the time that turns them on bike rides over here. And we're in sort of close out of the two by two of my favorite spots. Although in Austin, it's been a, it's been a shit show is clearly right now as administrative. So I have not gone mountain biking a while now. Uh, so that's kinda like, that's not, that's not how they're gonna, at least I wouldn't say massive passion.

And then the other thing that I do is my brother and I, we, we raise, uh, uh, motorcycles. So yeah, so my wife told me that I used to it. I used to ride motorcycles. He goes, man, but I had two kids. I have a, I have a 10 year old, 12 year old daughter and then a wife from my first kid was born. I was like, you got to stop riding, riding, motorcycle.

It's not going to pay me. You know, markets need a father, so he's not going to work, but I'm negotiating my, you know, I always negotiate for a living, right. So I negotiated a deal with my wife saying, okay, what's the problem with motorcycles? And she's like, well, it's not about you. It's all about the other idiots on the road, right.

Question to you. I'm like, great. You know what we'll do? So you have to give me permission to ride the motorcycles on a track. There's nobody in a track. It's like just me ripping around and stupid tracks. Going around in circles. Right. And she said in her infinite wisdom, she said yes to that. So, so the other thing that me and my brother.

Yeah. And that's my kind of the way I kind of bonded my brother do. So we go out to, you know, obviously when I was in California, I like, you know, ponder Hill Logan, I say guy and yeah. So Noah, uh, so, uh, we just, you know, I have a, I have a beat up motorcycle. That's not a beat out of, it's kind of like a reasonably good motorcycle then.

So track only bike by. Rip around a track with him. Uh, so I've crashed the bike once. Um, but it was like, I, I, I didn't, I didn't even, it didn't even do anything cause I was writing all the songs and everything else. So I've crashed, I've crashed my board cycle once on a track, but that's my other thing.

High side or left side. I lost. I'd actually be flying out. I just let it go. And I just came down and that's it. Oh man. Well, now that I know you're a motorcycle guy, this, this episode code could go from 20 minutes to an hour. No problem. But we'll, we'll take that offline. The fact, this was a super, super fun conversation for me.