First of a 3-part mini-series. Stephen Cummins interviews CEO & Founder Larry Gadea about his life and his starchild, Envoy – a hyper-growth SaaS company that helps you handle everything coming through the front door of your office – from people to packages. When you sign in on a tablet at a reception, you’re probably using Envoy. Larry makes it look easy to transition from techie to successful entrepreneur. Born in Romania, he grew up in Canada, and now based in San Francisco. His CV includes Twitter, Google and Shopify – and his early investors reads like a an A-list of tech celebrity … investors in Envoy include Biz Stone, Marc Benioff, Garry Tan and Alexis Ohanian.
Larry discusses his life, career and the company he founded Envoy. Like our very 1st interviewee, Branch co-founder Mada Seghete, Larry was born in Romania and ended up in California. He makes it look very easy to transition from techie to successful entrepreneur. In reality it never is of course, but Larry’s transition is inspirational. Larry takes us through his early days in Google, Shopify and Twitter. He explains that while a clear value prop and a consistent user experience has been important in turning Envoy’s brand into a hyper-growth software meme, getting into large enterprises always needs a deeper sales interaction.
Don’t miss his remarkable story!
p.s. if you’re wondering about the unusual title, I wanted to play with a Greek mythological theme here. Caduceus was the the staff or wand of Hermes, the Greek God of boundaries – more popularly known as the messenger of the gods or … the ultimate envoy. As for Ceaușescu, he was one of history’s great transgressor of boundaries. He was the author of widespread poverty, stress, and danger for the citizens of Romania – from where Larry escaped with his family. Ceaușescu was the opposite to whatever a God is supposed to be. Having said that, Hermes was also the God of transgression of boundaries. Of all the great people Stephen interviewed, Larry is the one that crossed the most thresholds (and facilitated the crossing of them of course) – from crossing land borders to entering offices to rapidly removing roadblocks on his entrepreneurial journey
Larry Gadea: [00:00:00] And then I got my permanent residence in the US and finally I was able to to start something. You just have to be able to learn things and pick things up as you go. There’s no there’s no way you can be experienced in running a company before you start a company. That’s like pretty rare. If you’ve ever gone into somebody’s office – at their physical office – and they have like an i-Pad up front and you got to type in your name and your email, maybe they make you sign an NDA or like that kind of stuff, … we build the software for that. The reason it has grown to these kinds of numbers … like there’s no way with a sales team we could have gotten ourselves to 12,000 customers … the reason we did though is because we have a very strong self-serve mechanic to it. People see it. They kind of have to use it to sign in to see the person they’re there to see. But then they bring it with them. They’re like ‘Oh, this was a great experience. I actually kind of enjoyed this.’ And they bring it to their own company. And it’s that kind of virality, I guess, that that has brought us to where we are today and still growing like crazy.
Stephen Cummins: [00:01:07] I’m Stephen Cummins, and this is episode 83 of 14 minutes of SaaS, where I’m still at Rise Hong Kong. I meet Canadian CEO and co-founder Larry Gadea for the first of a three part interview about his life, career and the company he founded on Envoy – a hypergrowth SaaS Company that helps you handle everything coming through the front door of the office. Like our very first interviewee, Branch Co-founder Mada Seghete, Larry was born in Romania and ended up in California. In reality it’s never easy to transition from techie to successful entrepreneur, but his transition is inspirational. He takes us through his early days in Google, Shopify and Twitter and explains that while a clear value prop and consistent user experience has been important in turning Envoy’s brand into a hyper-growth software meme, getting into large enterprises always needs a deeper sales interaction.
Stephen Cummins: [00:02:08] Welcome to 14 minutes of SaaS, the show where you can listen to the stories and opinions of founders of the world’s most remarkable SaaS scaleups.
[00:02:25] Today on 14 minutes of SaaS here in RISE, Hong Kong, we have Larry Gadea, CEO and founder of Envoy, which he founded in 2013. Great to have you here, Larry.
Larry Gadea: Thanks for having me.
Stephen Cummins: Are you enjoying the conference?
Larry Gadea: Yeah, it’s been great. It’s been great. Lots of great speakers, lots of great events. It’s always great to see so many people in one place.
Stephen Cummins: Fantastic. So could you recount your your life for us in a few minutes, all the way through your childhood? All the way up to where you started working.
Larry Gadea: [00:02:57] A few minutes being key here. So, yeah, I was born in Romania. And this is like a while ago when we had the whole like Ceaucescu thing … and it was it was pretty exciting. Then we went from there … like through a whole like escaping thing. We went to Germany. My Dad eventually found a job in in in Canada. And that’s technically where I grew up. So from 3 years old on in Ottawa, Canada … that’s where I grew up and did a lot of stuff there, like I did all my high school, all my elementary school, all that stuff. Learned a lot. That’s where I really played with the computer a lot. Got, oddly enough, into a game copy protection cracking, which is like this way of really reverse engineering games to make it do more than it should. But that skill really lent itself to be very useful because later in my teenage years, Google launched this thing called Google desktop search. It was this way to search a computer from your … like you could search it just like you would the Internet … just as fast. The problem is it only worked for certain types of files and only worked for Microsoft Word. Ottawa happens to be a where Corel, which makes WordPerfect, is based out of. And so, for whatever reason, I was using WordPerfect …. Really wanted to make that better and really wanted to use it with the Google product. And of course to support it. So I used my knowledge I guess to make it support it. This add-on I guess grew very quickly because it turns out a ton of lawyers in the US are mandated by law to use WordPerfect for whatever reason.
[00:04:35] So it blew up overnight. It got all this interest and I was like in high school, I was probably like 17 years old or something like that. My add-on I just kept on growing. I got a call from Google. Pretty afraid that it’s like ‘Oh no! This is the the lawyers. Like this is it. I’m going to some form of jail. Of course they were much more interested … it’s like ‘Hey, if you know how to do these things, you should come over here and work with us over here … which is not what I expected. So I’d always wanted … of course, Google’s like the dream job for like a 17 year old .. like you getting out of high school. ‘Absolutely!’ Did the interviews and everything. And then we got to the point ‘Cool! When can you start?’ And then that’s kind of when I told them that, like, ‘Hey. So I don’t actually have my degree yet. And like, you can’t actually leave Canada or enter the US without a degree. So I’m going to need that. I need another few years.’ So after the initial shock, they eventually found a way where it’s like I did a two or three month internship, worked with the desktop team there, built a bunch of stuff with them. And then I had the bright idea of asking them ‘Hey, so can I kind of continue doing this while I’m in school?’ They, I guess, said ‘yes’. And then that continued for four years of working with them.
Stephen Cummins: [00:05:59] And that’s what we were talking about. I couldn’t get my head around a four year internship. And were they formative years for you?
Larry Gadea: [00:06:09] What would you mean?
Stephen Cummins: Well, would they have influenced … that work you did with Google … would that have had an influence on what you ended up doing?
Larry Gadea: [00:06:17] Absolutely! So my manager at Google … she actually referred me. So after I graduated from school, I then went to …. then that’s like ‘OK, cool. Now I can actually have a real job!’ And I’d been, of course, at Google for a while. So I wanted something a little bit different. I knew I’d always wanted to start a company. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I knew I needed a little bit of experience in a much smaller, chaotic environment. I was looking for different things … and one of the companies was Twitter. I guess it would have been 2008. And 2009 is when I eventually end up starting at Twitter by referral from my manager at Google. She knew the CEO there. And that was a pretty like fast swoop in.
Yes. So then I was at Twitter like employee like 40 or 50 or something really, really early. There’s a lot of chaos at the time. Not unlike the chaos that happens at Envoy today. But regardless, I was there for two and a half, almost three years. And then I got my permanent residence in the US and I was able to start something. And then a few months later, I end up leaving and starting.
Stephen Cummins: [00:07:35] Wow! And between like Milo, Twitter and Shopify from the sounds of it, Twitter has had the bigger influence on what you went on to.
Larry Gadea: [00:07:46] Yeah. Milo, and then Shopify, were really kind of … I was just helping friends there … and they were like in between when I was at Twitter. But Twitter was really the big one. Twitter and Google are the ones that I usually refer back to. There’s so many things that happens at those companies that I didn’t realize were things until similar situations happened at Envoy now … and I’m like ‘Wait a second. I kind of know these things.’ Yeah. So that was that was definitely very interesting.
Stephen Cummins: [00:08:12] And the impressive thing for me, Larry, is that, you know … you had a bunch of techie roles … and then you may have had exposure to these things, but it seems like you didn’t have a massive exposure to sales or marketing customer success or whatever … and suddenly, boom, you jumped out the window and like all us entrepreneurs do at some point, you started Envoy. How did that happen?
Larry Gadea: [00:08:41] Yeah. So, I mean, it’s … you just have to be able to learn things and pick things up as you go. There’s no there’s no way you can be experienced in running a company before you start a company … that’s like pretty rare. And if you are, it’s almost a bias against you. But like the sales and marketing was actually something we didn’t even do too much of in the early years of Envoy. Lke it was something that we just kind of figured out over time. But we did build a product that people like. The our core product, which is our Envoy visitor registration system, which is basically . if you’ve ever gone into somebody’s office … at their physical office … and they have like an i-Pad up front, you got to type in your name and your email mean, maybe they make you sign an NDA or like that kind of stuff. We build the software for that. It’s in over 12000 or 13000 offices used on a daily basis … over 120K or 130K people daily. We’ll sign and that’s some office worldwide. So it’s pretty wacky. But the reason it has grown to these kinds of numbers. No way. With a sales team we could have gotten ourselves to 12000 customers. The reason we did, though, is because we have a very strong self-serve mechanic to it. People see it. They kind of have to use it to sign in, to see the person they’re there to see. But then they bring it with them. They’re like, ‘Oh, this was a great experience. I actually kind of enjoyed this.’ And they bring it to their own company. And it’s that kind of virality, I guess, that that has brought us to where we are today and still growing like crazy.
Stephen Cummins: [00:10:17] And, you know, if I look at somebody like Calendly, one of the keys to their virality would be the fact that it’s a freemium, it always looks the same. So you have a ton of free users. Obviously a ton of paid users too. But that means that it’s a thing because it’s recognizable. So when you send it to someone and then someone else and then someone else … ‘Oh, hang on. This is a meme! I have to get involved and see what this is.’ And so is that the case also with … shall I say Envoy or Envoy? (2 different pronuncitions)
Larry Gadea: Both! 50-50.
Stephen Cummins: OK. So, you know, when you get that … Do you have something similar where … because I’ve actually used it a couple of times. And it’s brilliant. And of course, because I’m in and out of B2B SaaS offices a lot, I see it all the time. So it’s very persistent. I can see it. So for you, product market fit was everything.
Larry Gadea: Yes!
Stephen Cummins: And does it have that? … Does it have a similar virality to a Calendly?
Larry Gadea: [00:11:19] Yes! So with Calendly like it kind of says ..it lets a person pick like a slot where they want to have a meeting with you. And they remember that interface. With Envoy you get an email after you sign in somewhere … especially if you’ve signed an NDA and we’re like ‘Hey, here’s a copy of the NDA you signed earlier for your records.’ And then at the bottom of that email, it’s Iike ‘By the way, powered by Envoy. Get Envoy in your office!’ So its kind of that built in motion that works. Also, it’s a very consistent interface. We do allow customization of the product, but it’s mostly about like, well, what do you want your NDA to be or which questions do you want to ask or what’s your accent colour or your background picture? But we don’t let people kind of change the whole interface. We find that like its really important to have a consistent interface everywhere. If we’re in 13000 offices, it needs to be like consistent for everyone. And we don’t we don’t white label the product either. There’s no company that has removed any of the Envoy branding. It’s also super meticulously designed … where its just designed to be used very, very simply.
Stephen Cummins: [00:12:28] And would you say the fact that getting the product market fit and building … I’m sure iteratively improving all the time … that kind of mechanical virality into your product, did that allow you to put more effort into constantly innovating. So, you know, a lot of companies … they build something that just is just right. Timing’s perfect. Hit product market fit. And then they go to a VC, take a bunch of money. Don’t think about who they’re taking the money off. And it’s all about building a sales and marketing machine. Do you think that kind of protected you a little bit from that?
Larry Gadea: [00:13:04] There was definitely some pressure to do that. And we still do that today. For what it’s worth it’s been very helpful. Having that sales and marketing machine is definitely powerful. Here’s the thing. You’ll be able to do a self-serve motion for spreading your product, your new product. Absolutely. But you’re not going to sign on Disney, or you’re not going to sign on like some massive company because of a self-serve motion. You need to talk to them because internally at their companies, they have all sorts of politics going on there. You need to give them demos, different demos to different people … like the demo you’d give to a security person is very different from the demo you’d give to a front desk person or very different from somebody in facilities. They all have different needs. They all have different things that appeal to them. So you need salespeople for that and you need good marketing material for that. So self-service is great for like a kind of common denominator, very simple people that will do the research on their own. But if you want to get into the enterprise and add more sophisticated deployments with real companies, you’re going to need to talk to them.
Stephen Cummins: [00:14:09] Absolutely. It’s high touch and it’s a longer cycle. But do you still find that you … at the same time running in parallel with that, you get a certain amount of deal flow from individual users, early adopter types who happen to work in the enterprise … use it personally and then you get it. And is that still happening?
Larry Gadea: [00:14:27] Yeah, absolutely. The bottoms-up thing is alive and very well with our product. Though … kind of what happens … there’s another kind of thing here where it’s like if you do a bottoms up approach, you will get maybe one office, maybe two. But if they have like 20, 50 offices, … you kind of like kind of plant that idea. It’s like… ‘Hey, Envoy works best when you have a global administration of everything. You can search all the records globally, not just your one office.’ And when you plant that idea, the the buyer and decision makers at the company will be like ‘Oh, we even think of that.’ And then you can get a much bigger land or much more influence. For us the way we look at it is like we get a lot more influence because if they sign on 20 offices, 50 offices, that is 50 times more people that are visiting those offices, which means 50 times more exposure for more people getting the product at their own office. So it really is important for us. And this is also why we have a free plan. It’s important for our growth that that people install it as much as they can. And if we have to put a salesperson on it, we absolutely will.
Stephen Cummins: [00:15:42] In the next episode, part two of three, Larry describes Envoy as a Trojan Horse to get into people’s offices, through the front desk, and through the visitors sign-in to the rest of the office where there’s plenty more opportunity.
[00:16:05] You’ve been listening to 14 minutes of SaaS. Thanks to Mike Quill for his creativity and problem solving skills. And to Ketsu for the music.
[00:16:14] This episode was brought to you by me, Stephen Cummins. If you enjoyed the podcast, please don’t forget to share it with your network, subscribe to the series, and give the show a rating.
[00:16:30] This podcast is a labour of love. And I travel all over the world to interview the founders of amazing SaaS start-ups. I ask for nothing in return from them other than their valuable time. And I never play dirty tricks such as ‘If you get five of your employees to rate the podcast with five stars and send me screenshots, we’ll publish a month earlier. These episodes are so much work to produce and very expensive without the backing of a big tech company. Do your good deed for today by taking a minute now to review this on Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts or any of the major podcast platforms. Wherever you’re listening to us. Thank you.
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