Systematic 400% Y-o-Y Growth with Emi Gal of Brainient

After starting a software development agency in Bucharest Emi started Brainient an interactive video advertising company. In the last 5 years they’ve attracted $2,7m in funding and have been consistently growing 400% Year-On-Year.

We talked with Emi about how they’ve managed to keep things running smoothly, despite having multiple offices and doubling their headcount in the 18-24 months.

During the interview we talked about OKR which is a management and goal setting methodology first used at Intel. Here’s a link to an intro on OKR.

Interview

Audio only
[podcast]http://www.tightship.io/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Emi_Gal_Interview_Final.mp3[/podcast]

Emi Gal

emi
Emi Gal is a co-founder of Brainient, a video advertising technology company. Prior to launching the startup in 2009, Gal started two other companies and was involved with various technology and internet startups, including Skimlinks (UK), eOk (Romania) and SkinScan (Romania).

 

Transcript

Duncan: Welcome to the TightShip podcast where are in the pursuit of operational excellence. My name is Duncan Malcolm.

Have you ever wondered how fast growing companies manage maintain their culture?

Or how you keep everyone working towards the same outcomes when you’re growing your team?

This we’re talking to Emi Gal who’s the co-founder of Brainient an interactive video advertising startup who are doing really well in Europe.

They’ve sucessfully raised $5m from some of the most respected entrepreneuers and investors. And over the last 18 months they’ve grown their turnover by 400% and they’ve doubled their headcount.

Emi’s here to talk to us about how they’ve been running things smoothly internally and I really hope you enjoy this one.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Emi: My pleasure.

Duncan: It’d be great to find out a little bit about yourself and Brainient and how you guys came about, and then we can go into your growths, the challenges you guys have faced with your growth and how you’ve overcome some of those, and then at the end, go into what you guys are doing next.

Emi: Sure. I’m an entrepreneur in technology. I have been one for as long as I can remember. Around nine years ago, I started a software company back in Romania that built software cheaply for anybody in the world who wanted to build software. And then that kind of evolved and enabled us to launch various ideas. By us, I mean myself and Andrei, who’s my co-founder.

In 2009, we launched Brainient, which is Europe’s leading interactive video platform working with most big broadcasters across Europe helping them deliver interactive video ads across any platform, any device. An example of that can be you’re watching an ad for a BMW and we enabled you to book a test drive while you’re watching the ad on your mobile device or tablet or desktop.

Duncan: You guys have been quite successful in that respect. You’ve managed to negotiate some quite good exclusive deals around some quite large broadcasters, which is sort of a way to ensure your growth?

Emi: Yeah. We’ve signed almost all the major broadcasters in the UK. We work with ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Fox, Sky. We also have half of the broadcasters in France and a lot of broadcasters across Northeastern Germany. We’ve done quite a good job helping our clients deliver interactive video ads, because interactive video ads help them make more money. It’s an easy proposition in a way because once they run a campaign with us, they see that the platform provides value and then it’s more a matter of pricing and commercial terms than it is a matter of should we or should we not use this.

Duncan: Yeah, that makes sense.

Emi: As a company, we’ve done quite, quite great. We are the market leaders in Europe. In most territories at least, we’ve raised about $5 million from a number of amazing investors in the U.S. and UK including Sherry Coutu, Esther Dyson, Dave McClure in the Valley, Credo Ventures, Atlas Venture, and Arts Alliance.

In 2009, we also won Seedcamp, which is one of the leading accelerators in Europe. We have customers about 12 markets. We do sales directly in about six and the team is about 40 something people. We’ve managed to expand quite a lot geographically.

Duncan: Yeah.

Emi: We have a very distributed team, so that’s…

Duncan: In terms of where your organization’s come from, you were already working with people remotely. The people that you’ve got going through Seedcamp and then some of the investors you work with, they’re used to dealing with some very high growth companies who have to move fast to be able to seize on the opportunity. How much were they able to help you with working methodology? Was it just up to you? Were you able to clear anything much from them or was it really just a case of trial and error?

Emi: I think what Seedcamp has done really well and what our investors have done really well is they’ve introduced us to clients, and partners, and potential investors. We gained a lot by having access to a pretty extensive network of people, but they were never involved very closely into the business. The way our organization has evolved has just been in the way we thought was the best way to structure the company. We obviously wanted to use our Romanian advantage and employ all the technology team in Romania because it’s much more cost-effective than it is in London, but also because in Bucharest, we have access to the best talent there is available in Bucharest. Whereas in London, we’d have to really, really compete on price and benefits with a lot of the big guys which you wouldn’t be able to do.

Duncan: Let’s talk about growth. How fast are you guys growing? You said you initially started with two offices, one in Bucharest, one in London.

Emi: Yeah.

Duncan: You’re currently at six. How fast has that happened in the last five…?

Emi: Well, since we started, we’ve been growing at about 400% year on year, every year. That’s been quite good because it’s given our investors the confidence to put in more money and that’s fueled even more growth. Our international expansion started about 18 months ago. We now have sales for France, in Germany, in Russia, in Australia, and we’re pressing the pedal even more trying to go deeper on some of the key markets in Europe, and then maybe expand to Asia as well.

We’ve had a great run and the company is at a stage where it feels like a proper company. There are obviously challenges. There’ll always be challenges. It will always be hard work, but being in a leading position as we are in the UK, it definitely fuels our growth quite steadily.

Duncan: In terms of headcount, where’s your headcount going in the last sort of 18 months?

Emi: Well, I think beginning of last year, we were about 20 or maybe 21 or so. We’ve doubled over the course of the last 18 to 24 months. It feels like a proper structure across the company, because we have teams for every single function that you would need in a company, which gives me and my co-founder, Andrei, a lot of time to focus on the bigger picture and how we move forward.

Duncan: We talked about this before. What sort of challenges did you have with the multiple offices and the growing teams? What were the common things that you guys are pumping into in terms of both communication challenges on a day to day basis and keeping everyone in sync? Then, obviously, we talked about some cultural challenges as well.

Emi: Yeah, so there are three things that are kind of tricky to manage when you have a distributed team. Number one is communication. You’re obviously not all in the same location. Can you still hear me?

Duncan: Yeah, loud and clear.

Emi: Okay. First of all, it’s communication. It’s not as easy to just walk up to someone and communicate that you want something done or whatever it may be. It doesn’t always happen that, unless you have a processing place that when you sign a new client, the product team would know and they kind of get excited about it. The most important thing for us was creating this feedback loop from all the different offices in order to ensure that everyone is up to speed with everything and everyone’s is on the same page when it comes to everything within the company.

We’ve put it a lot of process. We have a monthly general assembly with the entire company and then we have weekly meetings between the different departments. Products speak to sales every week. The engineering team spends a lot of time with the product team and commercial team. We have people flying from all locations to Bucharest or London to coordinate with the teams in those locations and communicate with those things in those locations. We send a lot of stuff via email. We have an email address that blasts emails to everyone in the company. That’s sometimes abused but most times relevant. We’ve had to ensure that there’s proper communication between everyone in the company.

Duncan: Can you give an example of the sort of things that were happening before you sort of pushed this forced communication, because I’m assuming that people… Based on what you’re saying, I’m assuming, before you put in the structure of the meetings, and the regular emails, and the reporting, and communication is that people probably weren’t talking to each other as well. Have you got examples of things that you can compare to that?

Emi: Yeah, it would often happen that we’d sign a new client, the contract would be signed and the product team had to create an account on the platform for the client. That would never happen, because there was no flow of information from the contracts from the commercial team to the finance team to the product team. You don’t think about that when you’re all in the same room, because you just go, “We’ve signed this client. Create an account for them,” but nobody did it to the other locations. By putting a bit more communication in place and processes in place, it solved that problem.

Duncan: What sort of tools have you been using to help communication? Obviously email makes sense, telephones, and video conferencing.

Emi: We use Trello a lot. We use a project management tool called Assembla, which is mostly used on the engineering and product side. Other than that, obviously we use CRMs and all that on the various teams. Various teams use the tools that they want to use on whatever needs they have. But to be honest, what works best still and I think it’s the most underrated tool in businesses is email. We’ve tried influencing people to start using tools like Slack or whatever else. And at the end of the day, it’s just so easy to send, read an email that people don’t just see the use of using other tools. That works for us really well. We do get a lot of email traffic, but it works. If it works, don’t fix it.

Duncan: Do you guys use instant messaging at all? Do you use video chat like we’re doing now or…?

Emi: We do. We use a lot of Skype. We use Google Hangouts. We use Google Chat. I personally use a lot WhatsApp with my management team. I have them all on WhatsApp and we have a group. We text there quite a lot.

Duncan: Have you had any challenges actually getting people to adopt tools, new members coming to the team? The most common one I’ve heard as an excuse is either people who are maybe not hardcore technology-focused or people who are older, all these sort of typical stereotypes. Have you faced those?

Emi: You really have to give people a very good reason for using a tool, and then you need to ensure that the tool is actually simple enough that people get to actually use it. For example, our tech team uses this tool called Assembla and no other team in the company uses that tool, because it’s a pretty complex thing but everyone in the company uses Trello just because it’s such a simple thing to do and they have their different boards and they have their little cards and it’s just a no-brainer.

Duncan: Yeah.

Emi: Because we don’t have a lot of tools that people have to use, we haven’t had issues in on-boarding new people on the platform, in the company. As the organization grows, that may change or it may not. I think teams should be flexible enough to adopt new stuff as it becomes needed.

Duncan: Yeah, that makes sense. In terms of actually bringing people on, doubling the workforce in 12 months, what sort of induction processes have you guys brought in? Have you got one? How do you keep in culture? One of the things that we’ve been talking to people like the CEO of Moo [SP] and one of the things that comes through with all of these organizations on a regular basis is culture, culture, culture, and just making sure people understand where the company is, where it’s going. So there is a common vision and drive forward. How did you guys achieve that?

Emi: Yeah, so that was the second item on my list of three things that I think are really important when you have distributed teams. It’s pretty hard to maintain a culture that is the same across different offices, because you may have one office that works really hard as in late hours, and you may have an office that’s very productive, and you may have an office that’s really fun but one that’s kind of business-y.

In order to maintain the same culture across the entire company, we do two things. We spend a lot of time in the hiring process ensuring that the people that end up joining the team are a good culture fit. We do that by going through an extensive interview process like you have three or four interviews. And then after that, you have a meeting with a number of people on the team in order to see whether there’s a match. And then on top of that, we have a psychometric test that we do whereas we send people a survey. They fill in the survey. It kind of asks them personality questions and then we get a dashboard that shows us how they will fit from a cultural perspective with every single member of the team. We use an awesome start-up called Saberr, S-A-B-E-R-R, to do that and it just helps us ensure that from a data perspective, from a psychometric perspective, we will have good cultural fit.

Duncan: You’ve pulled everything in [inaudible 00:15:33].

Emi: Exactly. The second thing we do on the cultural front is that we do a lot of crosspollination. Everyone travels the different offices as often as possible and I spend a lot of time on a plane trying to instill the Brainient ethos into everyone in the company.

Duncan: Yeah, that makes sense. I was speaking to the head of sales at Stack Exchange in London. They were saying that they had a very similar process where they take people through seven stages to make sure that they both have the cultural fit, and they fit in terms of all the skills they need. Then take them and sit down at a lunch meeting, all the various different things, just so that they can make sure that person isn’t going to be the one that causes all the issues.

Emi: Of course and it makes sense, because I’d rather hire someone for being a good cultural fit and train them for skills than the other way around.

Duncan: Yeah, that definitely makes sense. The other side of these things, I was just recently talking to someone who has just recently poked around scaling up businesses. He believes one of the most important things was the marketing so that you can actually afford to have that long process. If you have a position open, you have enough candidates that you can filter through and actually say, “Well, out of the 20 or 30 people we have coming in, we can say this is this one,” rather than have a position where you just have one candidate.

Emi: Yes, of course. We just went through a process of hiring a marketing person and I think we interviewed about maybe 50 people just to find two that were in the final and then, choose one. We spent a lot of time and we’d rather not hire someone than hire the wrong person.

Duncan: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve seen that happen before. A colleague of mine who… you know, first business and they just tried to rehire a marketing manager and they left after six months to go on something else. Ultimately, it wasn’t a good fit. The person had one side of the skills and maybe not another and some of the other culture issues. That’s a huge loss in terms of time, money and effort.

Emi: Exactly.

Duncan: What’s number three on your list?

Emi: Number three is transparency. I think one of the things that you can do well when you are a team in an office is everything is very transparent to everyone. We’ve just raised around. Of course, everybody finds out because you offer drinks. I only realized this about maybe two years ago that unless you spend time ensuring that there’s transparency across the entire organization, top down and bottom up, you can get into situations where you find out six months too late that someone isn’t performing on the team, or six months too late that some client isn’t happy and so on.

Within the company, we make everything publicly available from like revenue, targets revenue, numbers, number of clients. It’s kind of we’re very transparent in terms of everything. We use something called OKRs, Objectives and Key Results planning, where we set an objective or more for the company and then, key results to meet those objectives and then, those escalate down to the entire organization. We have a structure that enables us to ensure that every single person from the tester to the commercial director work towards the same goals.

Duncan: And no one [inaudible 00:19:35] so key for everyone to know where they’re walking towards.

Emi: Exactly, because this is all publicly available. You can go into this doc that we have and you can see what everyone’s working on in a particular quarter, which is pretty good because it gives you a sense of the organization. This was a methodology invented by the founder of Intel that was then taken by Google and Facebook, Zynga and kind of the whole of Silicon Valley A-list stack. It really works. It’s a simple concept that really, really generates results.

Duncan: I have to get some links for the methodology afterwards.

Emi: Definitely, yeah. If you Google OKR, you’ll find it.

Duncan: Then, there’s one last one that I guess is unique to [inaudible 00:20:23]. It could be seen in other places especially if you’re opening in different regional areas of the world which was what a European says and what a European means.

Emi: Yeah, when people in the US look at Europe, they see Europe. Whereas when people in Europe, they look at Europe, they see France and UK and Germany and Romania and Sweden. Every single market is different and therefore, every single market needs to be approached differently. In our experience, selling to France is all about lunches and all about schmoozing with the right people. Selling in Germany is all about going through a very rigorous process. Selling to Holland or the Netherlands is pretty straightforward but not as straightforward as Germany and not as schmoozy as France.

You need to find the subtlety for every single market and the Americans don’t get it, and because we’re a European company, we know how to do that. That has given us quite a big competitive advantage.

Duncan: Have you needed to do cultural training internally both on the market understanding side but also on the side of things where… I mean, this is a classic thing as a Brit where someone goes, “Right, that’s pretty good but we need to change one or two things.” As a British person, that actually means that you really need to start again with a totally new thing. In other places, they might go, “Oh yeah, that’s really great.” Someone goes, “I’m doing really well here. I’ve only just got a little bit more to go.”

Emi: Yeah. We haven’t had to do a lot of that just because when we hire culturally, we hire people that are kind of straight-talking because that’s how we are internally as a company. Even though they maybe quintessentially British, they’re a little bit on the spectrum towards being straight-talkers and saying, “This is shit,” rather than, “This is amazing but you have to change it all.” We really haven’t had any instances where we’ve had culture clash because of the different nationalities. That’s a function of the fact that we’ve tried to hire people that, from a psychometric perspective, would get along anyway. Then, they’ll sort out their issues even though they don’t know the cultural differences in the various countries.

Duncan: That’s makes total sense. What next to Brainient? You guys are prevalent in Europe. You seem to have owned the entire European market fairly effectively.

Emi: Well, I wouldn’t say own yet but we are on track. Next year, we want to accelerate our European growth. We have tremendous momentum in like 12 different markets in Europe. We want to accelerate that momentum to go deeper on some of the markets and also try our hand at potentially opening up some countries in Asia.

Duncan: Anywhere in particular or you just… where in Asia?

Emi: Well, we’ve picked the largest ones. We’re thinking Japan and China but they are also the trickiest ones to sort out so we’re doing a bit of due diligence now to see how we should approach that expansion and where we should go first and who we should work with in order to increase our chances of success there.

Duncan: That makes sense. If people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way?

Emi: Oh, it’s emi@brainient.com or I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Google, I’m everywhere on the interwebs.

Duncan: Okay. If people have got a… people who have…

Emi: Yeah, whoever has a question, just email me at emi@brainient.com. I’m proficient at email. That’s kind of my secret power. I am a hundred emails a minute.

Duncan: That sounds exciting. The Asia growth sounds really exciting. Right now, a lot of European and US companies are really looking at how they move to Asia, how do they get into those markets because there are some challenges that the opportunities are obviously quite large. As far as I can remember, the people who are [inaudible 00:25:29] Facebook at the moment in terms of having a physical device and some software that are in a large Asian country.

Emi: There are tremendous countries from an opportunity perspective and they are eager to adopt new technology. You just have to do it right because Japan for example, you get one chance to it because if you don’t build a good reputation from the beginning, they won’t work with you culturally. That’s how they operate. China, you need to almost have a completely separate Chinese offering that feels local and is managed by a local person. Again, there are cultural differences in the go-to market strategy for each market but next year we feel we should take on those challenges.

Duncan: That makes sense for sure. Emi, thank you very much for your time.

Emi: My pleasure, Duncan.

Duncan: Have a good one.