Zvi Band – Co-Founder & CEO, Contactually

Zvi Band is the co-founder and CEO of Contactually, the top CRM which empowers professionals in real estate, consulting, and other professional industries to build authentic relationships. Having founded Contactually in 2011, Zvi has led Contactually to $12 million in venture backing, 75 employees, and tens of thousands of customers, including 8 of the top 20 real estate brokerages in the country. An engineer, seasoned entrepreneur, developer, strategist, and startup advisor, with unique technical and non-technical operations. Thrice named a Washingtonian Tech Titan, featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Washington City Paper, Zvi was also a finalist for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year. Zvi is a passionate speaker and author whose writing has appeared in Forbes, Inc., Inman News, and many other outlets. His first book, a study of relationship marketing, will be coming out with McGraw-Hill next year. He also hosts the Real Relationships podcast and has interviewed hundreds of leaders on how they built the relationships that moved their careers and businesses to the next level.

How did the concept for Contactually come about?
Early in my career, I found that the best opportunities – jobs, clients – came about via having relationships with the right people, despite being an incredible introvert. While relationships unlocked amazing things for me, I was never very good at it – constantly losing touch, forgetting to follow up, not recording details. Contactually was built as a technological approach to solve that problem.

How was the first year in business?
Hectic! As first-time founders, we were truly building a ship while it was sailing – and learning how to sail at the same time. We were hiring, raising capital, rapidly building out the product, figuring out what our marketing strategy was going to be like, etc. In hindsight, we adhered too much to the “move fast” mantra, rather than building the foundation of Contactually.

What was your marketing strategy?
Back then, it was pretty scattershot. Wherever we could find pockets of people, we would test that channel, as long as it was on a budget. We invested a lot of time – too much time, some would argue – in integrating with other products in the hope of gaining users. We did a lot of “hacky” things with SEO, influencer marketing, Quora marketing, and being sly at conferences. Two things were important though, that I am thankful for today. First, we were always testing to find paying customers, and were fortunate enough to avoid the trap of just getting as many free users as possible. Second, while we were not as methodical as we could have been regarding customer acquisition, we were relentless in our pursuit.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
I’ll say this: it took us 2.5 years to get to $1 million in revenue, and seven months to double it!

How do you define success?
I don’t adhere to one definition, but our underlying belief of success is continued business growth and remaining on course towards our overall mission.

What is the key to success?
Investing in relationships, meaning caring about our team and their personal growth, caring about our users and being neurotic about solving problems for them, caring about the industry and building deep alliances, and with our customers that they are seeing success too.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
My greatest lesson in entrepreneurship dates back to meeting one of our earliest investors for the first time. He shared the story of how Allied captains in World War II had to be very good at filtering through tons of information – discarding some, prioritizing others – to identify where to bomb a suspected German U-Boat. So too, our job as founders is to ingest tons of data, much of it conflicting, and determine the path forward for the company.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“One of the fundamental aspects of leadership, I realized more and more, is the ability to instill confidence in others when you yourself are feeling insecure.” – Howard Shultz (Starbucks)

“Don’t be humble…you’re not that great.” – Golda Meir

What are some of your favorite books?
I owe Jessica Livingston for her Founders at Work book, as it brought the founder myth down to earth for real people and showed me it was possible.

Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things reminds me that building a company is challenging, no matter what.

Geoffrey Moores’ Crossing the Chasm was the basis for the most important strategic decision that brought Contactually to today’s success.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Hard to pick one – they all blur together. I remember having multiple days early on where we would get rejections from investors. Yes, it still stings nowadays to get turned down periodically, but it’s usually for a logical reason – e.g. they don’t invest in companies in our sector or they have a conflicting investment. But in the first couple of years, where all you had was a prototype, a few employees, and a dwindling bank account, those investors seemed like lifelines, and every rejection I received felt like we were getting closer and closer to failure.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Our team tries to prime our minds, as do I, with bright spotting. As much as we may face adversity, we can still take some time to reflect on what is, or at least has, gone well in the recent past. Those challenges then become what they truly are – small stumbling blocks in our larger story. If things get really rough, I do make a practice of the opposite – running down a logical path of “what’s the worst that could happen” and what I would do in that situation. Doing that enough, things don’t sound as dark and desperate as my head may make it out to be.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Discipline and focus are the most powerful tools at your disposal.

Dennis Mortensen – Co-Founder & CEO, x.ai

Dennis Mortensen is the co-founder and CEO of x.ai.

Dennis is an expert in leveraging data to solve enterprise use cases and a serial entrepreneur who’s successfully exited several companies on that theme.

His long-term vision of killing the inbox led to the formation of x.ai and the creation of Amy + Andrew, artificially intelligent assistants who schedule meetings. He speaks frequently to anyone who’ll listen, from the crowds of Web Summit to his building’s doorman, about an optimistic future for AI, productivity, and the future of work.

Dennis was also an accredited Associate Analytics Instructor at the University of British Columbia and the author of Data-Driven Insights, on collecting and analyzing digital data.

Originally from Denmark (and keeping his accent), Dennis is now a New Yorker for life.

How did the concept for x.ai come about?
Amy (and her brother Andrew) were born out of the pain I had when I was running my previous startup, Visual Revenue, which we sold to Outbrain in early 2013. Later that year, I had a bit more time on my hands, and I counted up all of the meetings I had scheduled in 2012. The total was 1,019 with 672 re-schedules, and I scheduled every single one myself. That’s painful. We know it takes upwards of 15 minutes and eight emails, on average, to set up a single meeting. That translated into about eight or nine very sad hours I spent every single week—usually in the evening at home—scheduling my meetings.

So I brought together the core team from Visual Revenue in late 2013 to start sketching out a rudimentary solution. We then raised a seed round of financing in April 2014 in order to figure out if meeting scheduling was a tractable problem. We launched our beta that month, and began scheduling meetings. Our goal was to collect and annotate enough scheduling-related emails to understand whether AI could fully take over the job of setting up meetings.

As it turned out, it is a tractable problem. And over the past five years, x.ai has set up hundreds of thousands of meetings and processed over 11 million scheduling-related emails.

How was the first year in business?
Hard! We were fortunate in that there is huge demand for a solution to scheduling pain, and hundreds of thousands of people told us they were looking for one. We were unfortunate in that shortly after we commercialized in October 2016, we realized we had to refactor our software, which made for some bumpy going (and grumpy customers) for the following nine months, give or take.

What was your marketing strategy?
It has taken us some time to determine whether we were, at heart, a B2B or B2C2B company. We’ve landed in some ways where we started: we focus our efforts on individuals and small teams at SMBs. That means our pricing is super low, and our messaging revolves around solving scheduling pains wherever you work. We’ve found that thought leadership around AI, combined with much more tactical content around productivity and a strong social presence, are the key drivers of inbound interest.

How do you define success?
In startups, some entrepreneurs identify with the destination and hinge their self-worth on whether or not they reach it. Others identify with the entrepreneurial journey and identify with how they play the game. I’m personally more of a journey guy.

It almost goes without saying, we’re striving to be the next billion-dollar company; however, success to me is really playing the game well, no matter the outcome.

What is the key to success?
Grit. It’s that simple. You need to be able to persist when you feel like giving up, when your board members, friends, and family think you’re even a little bit crazy, when the signals of success are faint (but discernible).

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Fall in love with the pain, not the solution. If you identify a big enough pain point, it is on you to deliver a solution that fully solves it, and to not get too attached to the first version (or third version) of that solution. That’s where the grit comes in: you need to keep trying to find the right product/service/price point until you solve the pain.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Never surrender.”
“Only the brave.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Let me provide a set of slightly unorthodox suggestions:

Shoe Dog. Phil Knight’s memoir shows that a dramatic financial entrepreneurial win like Nike doesn’t necessarily translate into the same emotional win. If anything, one might question whether it is worth it.

The Narrow Road by Felix Dennis. It’s important to understand that the only way to get rich, if that is your aspiration, and the above book might suggest it is not worth it, is to hold on to your shares at all costs. I mean, at ALL costs!

Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth. Knowing who to trust is hard, and if you single-handedly make hundreds of millions of dollars, then it becomes even harder.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Having to cut a co-founder and friend from the team. Not cool.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Remembering that it is all just a game and that those three women at home still love me.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Think of entrepreneurship as a lifelong career, not a one-off event. If you do, then each time you play the game, you are a little bit wiser, which theoretically should improve your odds.

Nick Pasquarosa – Founder & CEO, Bookkeeper360

A technologist from birth, Nick could always be found with the latest technology in hand. Reconciling the books of his family’s business and filing his first tax return at the age of 16, Nick also discovered his knack for accounting at a young age. Nick graduated from St. John’s University with a Master’s in Taxation.

In 2010, Nick founded Bookkeeper360 with the goal of providing tech-savvy bookkeeping solutions for local businesses. Realizing the potential of the cloud to allow expansion into a global market, Nick partnered with Xero Accounting Software. Through hard work and passion, Nick led the firm to become one of the largest 100% cloud-based bookkeeping solutions providers in the United States. As the founder and CEO of Bookkeeper360, Nick is in charge of innovation and technology for the firm.

Nick was welcomed to the Canine Companions for Independence Northeast Region Board of Directors in 2018. Nick’s business success through Bookkeeper360 has enabled him and his team to give back to the community through CCI. CCI provides assistance dogs to adults, children, and veterans with disabilities. Nick’s passion and love for animals, paired with giving back to the community, has driven his dedication to the Canine Companions for Independence Organization.

Outside of work, Nick enjoys traveling, skeet shooting, fine foods, and learning about other high-technology firms. In case you wanted to know his greatest weakness, it is his spelling ability, which luckily technology provided spell-check for.

How did the concept for Bookkeeper360 come about?
The concept of Bookkeeper360 started in college, and is a mix between technology and accounting – two strong passions of mine. While in college, I was doing bookkeeping for SMB’s in the Long Island (New York) market and business owners needed the service. Shortly after I discovered this service could be done remotely, I transformed the practice into a complete cloud-based bookkeeping firm. We have built ancillary solutions on the initial product over the years such as CFO, technology consulting, tax, and more.

How was the first year in business?
The first year in business was about proof of concept; it was just about getting a client and servicing them. Before we knew it, we turned around and had dozens of clients nationwide.

What was your marketing strategy?
We had a strong marketing strategy by partnering with software, accountants and strategic partners, as well as having a great website to explain our brand and solutions to small business owners.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The company has grown to be a multi-million dollar firm in under three years. We were just recognized on the 2018 Inc. 5000, placing 1359 of 5000, with our three-year growth rate standing at 349%.

How do you define success?
Success is a personal definition and is different for everyone. Bookkeepers360’s success is working with thousands of small businesses each day, helping advise them and navigate through the struggles of business to help them grow and expand their companies.

What is the key to success?
Focus. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Focus, align, execution.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Don’t be a jack of all, master of none. Focus on what you do very well and excel with it. Go deep. Be ready to take risks, and there is no such thing as a mistake, because you always can learn lessons.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“It’s not what you, it’s how you do it.” – Anonymous

“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” – Steve Jobs

What are some of your favorite books?
Good to Great – James Collins
Behind the Cloud – Marc Benioff
Rich Dad Poor Dad – Robert Kiyosaki

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I had triple jaw surgery in 2014, and I ignorantly had a complication where I was seeing doctors three times a day, receiving treatment as an outpatient (hyperbaric chamber), and I was not able to be a part of my business. I was scared what would happen to the company I worked so hard to build. Thankfully, my company’s amazing team took the reins and were able to run the company without my day-to-day participation.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Entrepreneurs will always be faced with challenges. It’s important to keep positive and focus on your end goal. Life is filled with adversity. Each and every day, people are impacted by adversity – some more than others. Learn from the adversity, how to avoid it, and grow from it.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Don’t start a company just to make money. You must believe in that passion; the money, wealth, prosperity is a result of hard, diligent-focused work.

Dan Watkins – Founder & CEO, GloFX

Dan Watkins is the founder and CEO of GloFX, a Tallahassee, FL-based manufacturer and retailer of wildly-unique glasses and glow products. The company innovates and designs dimensional eyewear (diffraction, kaleidoscope, 3D glasses, etc.), as well as LED and glow products commonly used for flow arts and dancing. The company was started with $400 in capital inside Dan’s garage and now produces millions in annual revenue around the globe. GloFX ranked #1650 on the 2018 Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in America.

How did the concept for GloFX come about?
GloFX was originally a side project in my garage. I quickly became enamored with the products, developing systems and marketing. I officially launched GloFX in 2012 with an aggressive business plan after a couple years of practice in the garage. We launched GloFX Wholesale in 2013.

How was the first year in business?
Fun. It was a fast-paced game of chase. We went after every opportunity we saw, and had fun doing it.

What was your marketing strategy?
In the early years, it was focused on guerilla and event marketing. By 2013, we leaned heavily into SEO and social media marketing. Now, our 10-person sales and marketing team focuses on modern digital marketing strategies, as well as a variety of unique marketing and sales strategies including our promoter, influencer, and affiliate programs.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Quickly. Our staff size doubled every year from 2012 to 2016. It took 80-hour work weeks for years to establish the full foundation and to remain profitable during the rapid growth. We have never taken on any outside funding, which made it a challenge to grow quickly in the early days. We’ve grown over 2,500% in the past five years.

How do you define success?
Success in business is like a gas engine. Without certain parts, missing gears, etc. – it does not run. Yet, a well-oiled machine runs itself. All you must do with a successful business is pour in gas, crank it up, and it speeds off on its own. Having a business that can do that profitably, while still growing, is success to me.

What is the key to success?
It would be nice if there was a single key to success, but I have not found it. Success is created through a collaboration of hard work, good strategies, a great staff, and even trial and error. You must find the right mix to reach success.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Your staff drives your success. Treat them right!

What are some of your favorite books?
To be honest, I’m not a big book reader, but Predictable Success by Les McKeown was a good one.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’ve had many. Like most entrepreneurs, you must fail first before you can succeed. I can recall a very tough week, a few years ago, when we lost three staff members. Having three team members, on a small team, quit in the same week is a big blow. It hits your motivation, your colleagues, and the entire team feels it. I didn’t even want to drive to work and face the remaining staff, but you get past those humps.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
A drive for success. My peers, competitors, and family are all motivators to keep pushing. I like a good challenge; it makes us stronger.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
People, Products, and Systems. You need a balance of all three from the start to build the proper foundation for any successful business.

Atal Bansal – President & CEO, Chetu

Atal Bansal is president and CEO at Chetu, a U.S.-based software development company that provides businesses worldwide with custom technology solutions. As an application development company with over 1,500 skilled software developers, Chetu combines technological expertise, specific domain experience, and passion for excellence to deliver enterprise-grade solutions.

How did the concept for Chetu come about?
Chetu was born at the tail-end of the dot-com boom. I noticed a growing and insatiable need for development expertise. The development outsourcing landscape, at the time, was exacerbating the issue – enticing businesses desperate for a digital presence with price models they could not resist. Low prices only produced mediocre, unsustainable code that those companies would need to throw out a few years down the line.

There was a loud, unanimous call for quality programmers capable of producing software that would last and not break the bank in the process. We analyzed the pain points of traditional outsourcing – communication barriers, time zone discrepancies, IP ownership – and assuaged them with logic.

Chetu was conceived on the dream that there can be an institution that incorporates higher standards of excellence and self-improvement without making the working environment difficult for employees. We are dedicated to growing our industry-specific knowledge alongside industry trends and allowing that knowledge to propel more sustainable development efforts. Our dynamism guides our own sustainability as well; we built Chetu to last – to forever be a guiding platform that encourages innovation and creativity by converting concepts to world-class code.

Chetu was set out to be a company that maintained a high employee retention rate so we could attract and keep the best talent in the software development industry. Furthermore, cost-effective IT solutions did not need to come at the expense of quality. As a result, we created an environment where employees are encouraged to learn from one another and perfect their skills in multiple areas to better serve clients.

How was the first year in business?
We opened our doors on April 1, 2000 from an office in Miami, FL. We were offering custom software solutions for businesses of all kind – startups, SMBs, Fortune 500’s – where there was a software need, Chetu was there to answer.

In terms of market penetration, we experienced zero roadblocks. In fact, the first year was challenging only because of the sheer volume of business we were doing. It was clear our need-based analysis and our business proposition was highly sought after. Everyone needed development and they needed it done well.

After the first year’s end, we knew we needed to increase our bandwidth to match the market demands, an understanding that led to our first wave of company growth.

What was your marketing strategy?
We leveraged trade shows heavily. We went in, set up our booth, and listened to attending business owners discuss their development road maps. This is where we really dug our heels into the industry-specific side of development. All of our trade shows were vertical specific; the more trade shows we attended, the greater the depth of knowledge we were able to exhibit within the corresponding vertical.

Soon enough, we were able to promise our clients a development team with experience in their niche field of interest. Say they needed a CRM and operated within the event planning space; we would match them with developers who not only were experts in customer relationship management systems, but also familiar with the nuances of the relationship between CRM and events planning.

Chetu’s digital marketing presence is a fairly-new initiative. In the beginning, we used freelance sites and marketplaces to address channel-marketing. Now, we have an in-house marketing team of over thirty individuals, all highly-skilled in their prospective areas.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Our growth was monumental. In the first three years, our employee base grew within the United States at an average rate of 50% per year. The next ten years were characterized by exponential expansion, and eighteen years later, we are still continuously-growing internally and in terms of revenue.

How do you define success?
I gauge success by growth – how well are you evolving and how have you monetized that evolution? Also, what steps are you taking to propel forward to new heights? In my experience, companies become complacent when they finally tap into a revenue stream they are happy with. This is not success.

Success is incremental improvements made to achieve a state of enlightenment; a state more refined than where you are in the present. From the onset, we have set our goals high at Chetu because the more audacious the better. Unambitious goal-setting leads to perpetual mediocrity, while audacity breeds excellence.

What is the key to success?
The key to success is persistence, learning from missteps, and taking the necessary steps to not repeat the same mistake twice. The key to success is prying back the surface and fine-tuning the micro-processes that come together to support the machine. It’s hiring creative and driven individuals who are hungry and passionate about what they do.

We ignite tenacity within our staff by outlining the expectations for them and encouraging them to reach beyond their current achievements toward something greater. I do not believe in caveats; we believe in doing whatever makes sense in the context of the situation. Sometimes, this requires us to create new practices and rules to accommodate. Remaining dynamic in the face of adversity or unfavorable conditions is the number-one predictor of success.

Simply put, the key to success is doing whatever it takes. We go to any length to make things more efficient for our customers and our team. I do not tolerate inefficiency because inefficiency is the adversary of success.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The onus of entrepreneurialism falls on no one other than the entrepreneur – meaning we cannot attribute failures to any force outside of our own ability to adapt. There is another part of this though – success is something that must be shared.

It is the culmination of many moving parts coming together to achieve a unified goal. Yes, I set Chetu into motion and I’ve nurtured it along the way, but it has grown beyond me. Our success is now a testament to a strong and agile team, rather than the work of a single individual.

The heart of Chetu is our teamwork, dismantling the silos between us and taking risks together.

What are some of your favorite books?
Chetu was inspired by the book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras, a remarkable piece of literature that examines visionary companies. There are many great quotes throughout the text that have fueled my ambition.

However, at Chetu, we live by the simple quote, “Good enough never is.” It is a continuous reminder to never settle for anything less than extraordinary.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Chetu has never found it difficult to push forward in the face of adversity, primarily because adversity fuels a fire – the fire to self-improve and overcome. If I had to choose a motivating factor to continue on, it would be my team at Chetu.

My team is the engine. Where we meet rivers, we build bridges. Anytime we find we are at a deficit, we pivot. We have built a well-oiled machine where each piece is equally as important as the next.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I would say this – you don’t always need to believe in yourself, but you must have the unwavering resolve to see your idea through. Once you decide to move forward with your idea, never question it again. Be persistent, be hungry, and never, ever close yourself off to a new perspective. We can always learn something.