Sometimes there is nothing better than learning from the stories of entrepreneurs in the trenches.
Suneera Madhani did not set out to build a fast-growing financial technology company.
She was working at a merchant payment processor and was surprised by all the complaints in the industry. After doing a lot of research, she tried to pitch her company’s executive team on her idea to bring more transparency and efficiency to the industry. No go. So she left the company, and tried to sell her idea to more than a dozen more payment processors. Not interested.
“That’s when I knew I would have to make a bet on myself,” said Madhani, who recently spoke to South Florida entrepreneurs attending SUP-X in Fort Lauderdale. The millennial entrepreneur put her savings of $10K in, she talked her brother into putting in $5K, and her boyfriend (now husband) chipped in another $5K – skin in the game. It was 2013, and that was the humble start of Fattmerchant, a subscription-based flat-rate credit card processor.
PRIMED TO GROW
Today Fattmerchant is one of Orlando’s most successful small businesses. The startup company now has 100 employees. It generates triple-digit annual growth, has 5,000 customers and has raised $20 million in venture capital. But in Fattmerchant’s first couple of years, pitch contest winnings ($200,000 in one year alone) powered a small team along. That led to some media coverage – including a Fast Company story that went viral. While the exposure was great, the team of two in the tiny office couldn’t handle the orders, nor could their systems, after that story published.
That was when Madhani knew that even though the company was offering credit card payment processing in a way that was never done before and it was being well received, that wasn’t enough. Fattmerchant wasn’t prepared to scale – they left business on the table when their systems crashed.
Madhani knew then she had no processes in place to handle growth. She needed to build out a team, hire a CTO, build proprietary technology and be more forward-thinking about what the company will look like in the years ahead. With the help of the StarterStudio accelerator in Orlando in 2015, the technology development, team and investors began falling into place. Fattmerchant now had the foundation for the fast growth to follow.
ADVICE TO GROW ON
- Strong culture is everything. “When you walk in to Fattmerchant from the elevators, there is this sense of energy I can’t explain but it is contagious,” Madhani said. But it isn’t organic, it’s intentional, she said. The company vets every candidate using the startup’s core values (get it done, create joy and one team). Madhani stokes a strong culture in other ways, too. Every week always starts and ends with team gatherings, where they share developments and learnings. Madhani and her management team host all-hands quarterly meetings, where they share goals and progress.
- If you are starting your company, know your industry inside and out. Madhani started out in commission-only sales in a merchant processing company and worked in other roles too. She took notice of the complaints and inefficiencies and started researching the industry, as she developed her concept that solved those pain points.
- Think bigger. You need to plan for growth. Think about what that future looks like, she said. For Fattmerchant’s trajectory, technology and processes had to be 10X scalable.
- When you are a small growing business, every hire is critical. If you are looking for a VP of sales, look for the person who is one layer down from that in his/her current company. That worker likely will be more motivated to roll up their sleeves and get it done. Also, consider offering equity as part of the pay package.
- Share your goals — as well as the learnings — with your team. As stated earlier, Fattmerchant has weekly, quarterly and yearly gatherings to do this.
Madhani also offered’the entrepreneurs some fund-raising advice:
- If you are seeking investors, be prepared to show them traction. Fattmerchant has received investor funding, and Madhani advises entrepreneurs to have an MVP and revenue (paying customers) before pitching to investors, particularly in Florida.
- Get out there and network in the community and at industry conferences. That’s critical to raise awareness about your company, especially if you are raising funds. She won her first business plan competition from her local NAWBO (National Association of Women Business Owners) chapter, who provided valuable mentorship too. Her first-in investors were Florida investment companies FanFund (now DeepWork Capital) and VenVelo. She was connected to her first institutional investor from outside Florida through the Florida Venture Forum, a venture trade organization.
- Keep your investors updated. Madhani said her investors have continued investing, so she has been able to spend less time fund-raising and more time growing the company.
For Madhani, the entrepreneur who inspires her most is Sara Blakely of Spanx, who has said as a kid her father used to ask her, ‘how did you fail and learn from that today?’
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