From Zero to Loopio: Part I
Behind every piece of software are the founder(s) that created it. Loopio is the brainchild of three co-founders: Jafar Owainati, COO and VP, Business Development Zakir Hemraj, CEO and VP, Product Development Matt York, CTO and VP, Technology.
A lot of exciting things have happened since Loopio began, and the Loopio Journey section of this blog will serve as a great platform to share not only the milestones we’ve crossed as a company, but also some of the major hurdles and setbacks we’ve faced.
How It All Began
What better place to start than at the start–everyone loves a good origin story and that’s exactly what this post is going to deliver.
A Tale of Two Cities and Three Co-Founders
Virginia: I want you guys to set the stage for me. There’s three of you and a business idea arose at some point. How did it turn from an idea into Loopio?
Zak: I think it’s important to understand the dynamic between the three of us–tracing back to the origins involves going back to when all of the conversations about starting a business first started. Jafar and I went to school together about 13 years ago. Matt and I started working together at another software company in Toronto 6-7 years ago.
Jafar: When Zak and I first graduated from Queen’s (University), we would have working sessions where we discussed business ideas. We were at our first jobs when we started thinking about starting a company. A number of years later we restarted these conversations. I was working in Chicago, Zak was in Toronto and we would get on these phone calls and go through business ideas for consumer and B2B products. We now had the experience and the confidence to do this.
Zak: There were a lot of ideas between us, but at the same time, Matt and I were working together in Toronto and were going through similar conversations over a drink at the bar or in a coffee shop. Matt and I also wanted to do something together and we started brainstorming ideas. One of those ideas was Loopio, which at the time we called “RFP Ninja.”
Virginia: Really? That’s an interesting name.
Zak: I know, I know…this idea was geared towards helping companies manage their content when responding to RFPs and RFIs. It was something I had spent a lot of time doing myself as a Sales Engineer. I had actually been tasked with finding a RFP software solution like Loopio for my previous company and wasn’t really happy with anything out there and even contemplated suggesting we build something internally.
Matt: As a “subject matter expert,” I was also experiencing the pain of not having RFP software at the company we were working at. I was getting asked a lot of technical questions about the products and services that Zak was selling as a Sales Engineer. I was really feeling the pain of getting asked for the same information over and over and not having a place to store it or a good software platform.
Zak: The idea stuck and no matter how many other business ideas we put forward, we always came back to this idea that we thought people would pay for. It wasn’t solving a “sexy” problem like a dating app, but it was something we thought we could build based on our own experience in building B2B software apps. I then thought why don’t we execute this project and bring all three of us together. From there we set up a couple of Google Hangout calls with Jafar in Chicago and started talking about the idea of approaching this as three equal co-founders.
You Can Always Break a Tie With Three
Virginia: I want to talk more about there being three of you. Three is an interesting number–some say it’s a bad number. What do you think makes it work?
Matt: It’s a magical number.
Zak: A lot of people think it’s not an ideal way to start a company.
Jafar: We are all different career and personality-wise but we compliment each other in many ways. I am the non-techy here and although I worked as an Engineer in the past, my drive has always been on the business side and my last role before Loopio was as a Management Consultant. Matt has really deep technical knowledge. He’s led and grown technical teams. Zak is a strong developer and leader (he has always been at the forefront in everything he does). Between the three of us, it just felt right. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling.
Zak: A lot of times people try to make this a very scientific thing, but it is like interviewing. The reality is that the gut feeling you get in the first five minutes is going to determine whether you hire that person or not. You just feel it. I’ve tried a few different side projects in the past and had ideas of starting different businesses and it just never felt the same. To Jafar’s point, it just kind of feels right.
Matt: Three is a good number to keep each other in check. There’s always a tie breaker vote.
All For One
Virginia: It’s clear you all did a lot of work up front. We’ve all heard too many crash and burn startup stories to count that come down to not taking some of the things that are less fun into consideration from the beginning. You guys seemed to have gotten on top of that right away. Thoughts?
Jafar: For a lot of startups, some of the biggest issues and fallouts happen at the beginning. The focus is so heavily shifted towards who put in how many hours and arguing over who deserves what. Although we had spent different amounts of time on this idea and all had different levels of commitment in the beginning, we decided that we were all coming in as equal partners. We knew we were in this for the long haul, so it didn’t really matter who was doing what at the beginning and coming in as equals meant that every incremental thing we do, we are all doing together.
Matt: I don’t even think there was ever a discussion about it not being an equal split, which is probably a good thing.
Zak: We knew we were all giving up the same amount in terms of careers and taking on the same risk. This was not driven by ego, I think we all wanted to build something that we’re proud of.
Virginia: Even beyond equity, it really feels like you mapped things out intelligently. Can you elaborate on getting the ball rolling?
Jafar: I was the first one who came in full time. The benefit of not be a technical person was that while I couldn’t build software, I could validate. I conducted a whole bunch of customer interviews early on. We leveraged our own networks to get an understanding from organizations that were responding to RFPs. We heard the same issues over and over and it was very similar to the experiences Matt and Zak were facing. It was clear this was a real issue. For our Loopio Book Club, we read a book called Lean B2B by Étienne Garbugli a number of months into starting Loopio and it was very reassuring to see that we had already implemented many of his recommendations.
Virginia: You just mentioned the Loopio Book Club and I have a question that I think fits in nicely here. Everyone who works here is as curious as me, if not more, which I think is one of the greatest qualities and I want to know if there is anyone or anything that inspired you to manage the company the way you do?
Matt: Zak and I spent many years working together at Achievers, which was probably the biggest thing in shaping our ideas about culture. A fun place to work, super driven people having fun and not taking themselves too seriously…getting Loopi!
Zak: For me personally, my time at Achievers was longer than I had spent at any academic institution. It taught me everything I know about running a business and what a good business environment is…a good culture really comes down to people wanting to come into work every day. A lot of that is the desire to grow personally and professionally every single day, but also creating an environment that stands out, that is a bit different. Even though Jafar didn’t work there, I think their culture rubbed off on all of us.
Virginia: What are some specific examples of how this rubbed off on you? Perhaps the fact that we “get Loopi” every Friday with an after work drink or the Loopio Book Club you mentioned?
Jafar: I think celebrating wins is huge and this is something we’ve pulled into Loopio. As for the Loopio Book Club, this not only involves continual learning but taking what you are learning and applying it into action.
Zak: This is such a huge thing, a huge pillar behind how we designed Loopio–not just learning or creating something, but then applying it when you’re finished. It’s a big part of our culture. That intensity with which you learn is not just about reading something, but also doing something with what you’ve learned.
Virginia: Any further thoughts on this?
Zak: Another specific example is something I’m sure we’ve all seen evidence of–or lack there of–at other organizations and that is transparency. We practice extreme transparency here at Loopio. We are open to sharing things like company financials with our employees on a regular basis. This element of trust in your employees leads to empowerment. We believe in arming them with this information and that it’s in their best interest to have access to it.
Matt: It’s easy when you’re small.
Jafar: Yeah, the challenge with culture is scaling it.
Zak: At the end of the day, we talk about Loopio as an established culture but we are just getting started. We’re excited about what’s to come.
Summary of Part I
- It’s not all science–when choosing your co-founders and employees, always follow your gut.
- It’s about the long haul–place priority on long term business objectives and avoid getting caught up in the details that don’t truly matter.
- Celebrate your wins–big or small, wins are wins–they all deserve to be celebrated.
Here marks the end of Part I of our Loopio Origin Story. We will have a lot of ground to cover so make sure to subscribe and get notified when Part II comes out.
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