Founding a company during the pandemic

by Manoj Agarwal and Dheeraj Pandey

Founding a company during the pandemic

Trying times often produce unique brands. Salesforce started in 1999, just before the infamous dot-com crash. Nutanix, Uber, and Slack were founded in 2009, in the trough of the global financial crisis.

Our startup, DevRev, came together late in 2020, with the world in the grips of COVID-19. We’ve grown quickly, with most people working from home in North America, Europe, and Asia. We have had a monumental fund-raise. And we’ve brought stellar people together to turn a fundamentally disruptive idea into successful products.

Throughout the pandemic, we learned three critical lessons to make remote work, work:

  • Conscious Hiring: building mutual trust with candidates without ever shaking hands.

  • Conscious Operations: SaaS makes it so much easier to start and scale a new business. However, autonomy and automation are keys to an employee-conscious business.

  • Conscious Teams: Zoom is good, but for long-term decision-making and relationships, seeing people face-to-face is gold.

Before we go further, it would be remiss if we didn’t start by saying that the pain and loss of human life this pandemic has inflicted worldwide is heartbreaking. Unfortunately, a lot of suffering continues, and we cannot lose sight of that. We hope that humankind emerges stronger out of this global crisis, like we hope to do at DevRev. People are our greatest asset, and the lessons learned in assembling them during this lockdown will be etched in our memories forever.

Lesson 1: Recruitment and the “Why Not” Challenge The other day, we hired a developer halfway around the world and she joined the same day! That’s almost unheard of before the pandemic. The physical world brought immense limitations that didn’t make us think outside the box. We call it the “tyranny of status quo.” COVID helped us invoke first principles way more than we ever could have imagined: why not.

When we recruit new talent, we can visit top colleges in every continent without ever stepping out of our homes. Similarly, applicants don’t have to travel cross-country and sit around for hours waiting for interviewers to talk to them.

Everything about remote-only recruitment can be turned into a competitive advantage: the breadth of candidates, the depth of discussions, and the ability to turn candidate experience into self-service. We can watch them code live — yes, in real-time! We can provide feedback at lightning speeds. And we can get them onboarded exceptionally fast.

In over 20 years in the tech industry, we have learned that many breadth leaders rarely get to talk to candidates directly, unless they’re the hiring manager. EAs are too protective of their schedules. Calendly is our new EA. Greenhouse APIs are our new scheduler. Tray.io is our new recruiter!

Speed is our new friend.

Lesson 2: SaaS without self-service is a dying breed We are amazed at the number of cloud-based software tools our company could try out for free and then pay only for the ones we loved. We like the subscription economy. But we love the consumption economy. Welcome to the era of PLG!

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There are delightful tools for recruiting, hiring, collaboration, communication, accounting, payroll, expense management, project management, employee success, banking, and cash management — pretty much anything we need. And guess what: we didn’t have to talk to a single salesperson to use these services, nor did we ever have to visit a brick-n-mortar office to incorporate in 3 continents. Unthinkable before COVID. Possible because of COVID.

Everything we needed was in Google Workspaces, Slack, Zoom, Notion (Wiki), Discord (community), BambooHR (HRIS), Gusto (payroll), FindEm (sourcing), Greenhouse (recruiting), Ease (benefits), Okta (identity), Figma (design), Brex (banking), Miro (ideation) and so on. All said, we’re using more than two dozen SaaS products, and we’ve become the masters of stitching them together via Tray and Pipedream.

Integration is king. Employee experience is paramount for remote workers. Developers are the magic without whom there is no “ops” in People Ops.

P.S.: No wonder we worship #Dev.

Lesson 3: Zoom is good; a fist bump is golden Until a couple of months ago, we had not met a single team member in person. We hadn’t even met each other for almost 15 months until both of us were double-vaxxed. DevRev was seeded in the parallel universe of Zoom; such was our trust and conviction in the idea.

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There is no pride in how it all transpired though. We wish for the pandemic to get over soon. Building trust, context, and purpose is not easy without touching each other’s lives in person. Building a career is immensely hard, especially for new college grads, without the serendipity of the office environment — the appreciation of colleagues (dopamine), the mentorship of buddies (oxytocin), and the mastery of solving complex problems (endorphins).

Work for us will forever be hybrid. We have to think global and act local. Only then can we resolve the inherent tensions between autonomy and purpose, experience and youth, deep work and broad work… we and I.

Sapiens, and the Imagined Myths Microsoft was forged in the ’70s and ’80s amidst oil price shocks and economic stagnation. Ditto for Apple. Google’s formative years were the years after the 2000 crisis. Amazon got forged during the ’08 crisis, as did Netflix. The best companies make the best of difficult times. Shocks make them antifragile. Stories of survival and adversity form the urban legends that “tribes” use to navigate the highs and lows of company-building. Harari speaks of this in Sapiens:

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The pandemic years will define the collective consciousness of our people. The bonds forged during this lockdown will shape the future of our company. The concrete we poured to fight this virus will form the foundation of our organization.

The stories of COVID-19 will shape the Sapiens of DevRev. 🍀