Practical Founders Podcast

#31: Bootstrapped to $30 Million and Still Growing Their Survey Tool and Research Platform – Vivek Bhaskaran

Vivek Bhaskaran was a computer science student in college who worked on an online survey project for a professor in the marketing department. After university, he built a new survey tool with a fellow software developer while they still held their day jobs. QuestionPro grew slowly and profitably with efficient search engine optimization and viral marketing, avoiding the need to raise money from outside investors.

QuestionPro grew steadily by expanding the product with more powerful features for larger companies. These larger deals required adding regional enterprise salespeople. They also expanded regionally with offices in the US, UK, Germany, Australia, and Latin America. Recently, they acquired several companies with survey products used by large global companies that added to their customer base.

Vivek talks openly about their key inflection points in their journeys of revenue growth, global expansion, recruiting leadership talent, developing systems and processes, and expanding their product portfolio. QuestionPro has 300 employees with $35 million in revenue. Vivek is enjoying the learning and professional challenges of being the CEO of a software company that is growing to over $100 million in revenues.  

Best quote from Vivek:

I live my life with the same principle: to have fun while doing the work. If you stop having fun, it becomes all about the work and all about the target. 

If you stop having fun, if you stop enjoying the ride, then it becomes a chore, then you get stressed, you get annoyed, and it’s a sh*t show after that. 

So if you can make it fun, which means reducing the pressure on the target somehow. You could reduce the pressure on the target by, let’s say, 50%, and then use the other 50% of the energy to have fun. In my mind, at least, it’s a healthy balance between the target and the journey.

Edited transcript of Practical Founders Podcast interview with Vivek Bhaskaran, Founder and CEO of QuestionPro.

Greg Head: And we’re live with Vivek of QuestionPro, a bootstrapped SaaS company over 15 years old and still growing. Welcome to the podcast. 

Vivek Bhaskaran: Hey, Greg, how are you doing?

Greg: I’m doing okay. First of all, just tell us about QuestionPro. What is QuestionPro now? And employees and… Then we’ll diq into your journey and talk about all the interesting questions.

Vivek: Absolutely. So QuestionPro today is about 280 to 300 employees. We have a big name in India, a fairly decent team here in the States also, but fairly globally. We have another about 160 employees in India, 40 and change in Latin America and Mexico, actually. And then we have offices in Dubai, Germany, the UK, and the States over here. We are in the experience measurement space, frankly, and that’s how I describe it. And there are three parts to our business. Number one is consumer insights and market research. So a lot of companies who are doing research, need a platform, with both qualitative and quantitative models for that.

Vivek: The second part of our business is customer experience. A lot of folks are trying to figure out what’s going on with their existing customers and ongoing and operational basis. So we help chief customer officers and chief operating officers to understand what’s going on with their operations really from an attitude perspective. And the third and third component of our business is really service oriented towards employees. So employee engagement, culture measurement and so on and so forth. So so the three kinds of broad areas that we tackle, we have different sets of tools and technology to kind of obviously tackle each of those specific problems.

Greg: So you’re selling to big companies, big brands around the world, kind of in that market research space. We’ll go back to your beginnings, but you’re using bigger words now, customer experience measurement. Before it was just a free market research tool, SurveyMonkey, and they got started…

Vivek: Yeah, exactly.

Greg: Yeah, humble beginnings. We’ll go through that story. Have you raised any money? You’re headed towards 300 employees and sell to big brands and have all these global offices. Did you bootstrap the whole way?

Vivek: Unfortunately or fortunately, no, I’ve not raised money. Some days it feels like shit. Some days it feels actually amazing. So short answer, is no, I’ve not raised money.

Greg: Okay, well, let’s go back to the beginning then. Or maybe even before the beginning. You started this company in 2005 or 2006, something like that?

Vivek: 2005 is when I incorporated it.

Greg: Back when the web was starting to be cool, we weren’t mobile or global. Is your company an Indian company that sells around the world or a U.S. company that has an Indian presence? Obviously, you’re from India. Tell us about where you got your start in all of this.

Vivek: I got my start in Seattle. This was before AWS and everything else, so I set up two servers in my garage in Seattle and got a T-1 line, installed Linux, and put the thing together. And I was so cheap that I actually didn’t even buy the server, I actually assembled the server. So it was like literally I bought the motherboard, bought everything because it was actually obviously cheaper to assemble a server for like $650 bucks. You could actually get it done. And I got a T-1 line. A T-1 line was at the time, I think $400 bucks, $400 bucks a month. So yeah, going back to your specific question, yes, me and my buddy Kevin, we started the company in Seattle and then we hired our first employee actually in India. And India is obviously a big contingent of our operation. We look at it globally, actually. It’s not that we are an Indian company or a U.S. company or, frankly, a Mexican company. We have 40 employees in Mexico and we have 10 employees in the UK and so on. We sell obviously, we’re an online platform and we have a presence everywhere.

Vivek: So I positioned this as we are a global company. And that’s one of the things, frankly, a lot of our employees cherish because they get to work with folks from very diverse backgrounds across the entire globe. So we have Germans, we have a German team that works with the Indian team as well as, you know. So it’s kind of like a very interesting diaspora of kind of like a cultural clash. And then it’s actually fun in some ways and everybody gets to know each other. So that’s the way. I think we lean into it. I think it’s one of our strengths, actually.

Greg: Do you have offices in India or the U.S. or the UK and people show up at the office, so it’s kind of a regional hybrid or is everybody remote? You’ve been doing this for a while, so how are you guys set up?

Vivek: Yeah, pre-pandemic, what you’re describing is what we were set up as. Pre-pandemic we had regional kind of offices. We had offices in India, offices here in Austin, Berlin and so on, and then a place called Mérida in Mexico. That was our kind of center of attention, ours and that was the office really. But post-pandemic, right after the pandemic, we decided to abandon the offices and go fully digital, fully remote. Obviously, like most tech companies, we really leaned into it. We were a little bit scared about it, especially with India. I think I wasn’t sure how people would react to remote first, but obviously, in hindsight, everybody adapted, you know, it’s fairly normal. But at the time we were pretty scared at the time. But today, it seems normal. So we are fully digital, fully remote. And we have some offices, I think in India we still have a lease on an office, but in general, most of the folks are remote. And then we kind of do hybrid in and out kind of things. Whichever team needs the office, they can use it and so on.

Greg: And where are you living these days? We’ve been following Vivek around. You moved to Austin from the Bay Area. Now you’re back. Where on Earth lies Vivek?

Vivek: Yeah, well, a good point. My wife got a job in the San Francisco Bay Area, so we decided to move back to San Francisco. So she’s the boss. She wants to come back, she wants to come back. So that’s what it is.

Greg: That’s the life of an entrepreneur. You’ve used all your chips at…

Vivek: That’s right.

Greg: That’s right. Yeah.

Vivek: I remember the day I quit my job to start QuestionPro. And this was back in Seattle, and I still remember it vividly because, I came back, I used to take the bus to go downtown Seattle and she came and picked me up from the Park & Ride. And I told her, “You know, I quit my job today and I’m going to start a new thing.” And she’s like, “Who’s going to pay the mortgage?” I had like $30,000 saved up, my mortgage was $2,000, and I figure another $800 a month, so I thought we could survive for six months. So it’s all right. We’ll figure it out for the next six months, how to continue the journey. So I think she’s supported me throughout my journey. Still up and down and all this stuff, so I think at a minimum all I can do is support her back. And at this point, she wanted to come back, so that’s the deal.

Greg: Did she know when you got married that you were slightly crazy and entrepreneurial?

Vivek: She should have. I mean, she would have. Yeah. I mean, we met in college, we met at BYU. So she’s known me for a long, long, long time now.

Greg: You were a computer science guy at Brigham Young University there in the States in Utah, which wasn’t a tech center back then, but now is a booming tech center. How did you or Kevin come up with the idea of market research software doing free surveys on the web and that kind of thing? Or how did you get the idea and get going?

Vivek: When I was at BYU, a market research professor cornered me when I was a student and a market research professor’s aide. You know, market research professors, when they want free labor or cheap labor, they get the students. And he wanted to build a survey engine at the time and he and I partnered up at the time. This was all as a student, this was a side hustle, quite frankly. That company was called Survey Pro. Then we kind of split apart. Then in 2000, I was supporting him on the side. And then in 2004, 2005, kind of had a bit of a divorce with him. And he kept Survey Pro and I kept QuestionPro and I kind of moved on. And I recruited my buddy Kevin to come and join me in that effort. And I quit my day job and I said, “All right.” We kind of bootstrapped or sidestepped or whatever you want to call it while doing our day jobs. We kept things running on the side. I think we made like $60,000 that year on the side. So I was like, “Alright, if we’re going to make 60 grand, I think we can make more than 60 grand.” So that’s when I quit my day job and I kind of went forward with it.

Greg: And this was a web-based survey tool, meaning, log in for free, and sign up your questions. This was kind of a booming market. Everybody started doing that. We all started getting surveys like the SurveyMonkey and all of those. That was that time. So you weren’t a market researcher, you were an engineer, a computer science guy? 

Vivek: Absolutely, yeah. I did joke that we do about 11 million surveys per week, and I’ve never done a survey actually, personally. So yeah, so I’m not a market researcher, really. My background is in software and computer engineering and that’s how I got into the business. And then I figured out how to sell and then kind of like, quite frankly, that was my aha moment. Like if you’re a star developer and you know how to sell, then you can do both sides, really. That was my big AHA moment in my life. Actually, I was a typical software geek, kind of like, let me just do my software thing and move on until… I don’t know. I don’t know. Something clicked in my head and said, “Actually, I should try selling and see if people actually, can I sell something?” So that was my big breakthrough. And so once you kind of are good at selling or good at building, then you have both sides and you can accelerate, you can do a lot of things since you have a lot of control.

Greg: Was that very common back then? I mean, now funding has reached stratospheric levels, but back in the day when you wanted to create a serious software company, there wasn’t AWS and all these frameworks and all this stuff. It was a little harder to make software. And generally, you needed to raise money to build an engineering team. And typically there was somebody who knew about market research and then raised money and got an engineering team. Was there a tribe of, let’s say, engineering entrepreneurs or bootstrappers that you found way back then?

Vivek: No, actually. I mean, I think serendipitously, the big reason we didn’t end up raising money is we just didn’t know how to do it. I mean, literally, we were a couple of guys who just did tech consulting work and then we kind of stumbled into this and we built this. I think that actually helped us. I mean, two things really helped us earlier on in our careers. One is, obviously we were software guys so we could build anything we want.

Greg: Was Kevin also a software guy? You were both coding?

Vivek: Yeah. Both of us were software guys. So we could build anything we want. So, obviously, that’s kind of like a huge timesaver. It’s obvious, really, right? And the second part is we did SEO before SEO was cool.

Greg: Before SEO was called SEO, I’m sure.

Vivek: Yeah, literally. There was no word for it. And how the whole thing came about was like, “Well, we built this thing. Okay, look, we need customers. How the hell do I get customers?” And I’m obviously an engineer. I’m like, “Kevin, take a look at this. Google will do a search for it. If you show up over there, number one, we get customers.” So it’s not that complicated. And so how do you get to number one on Google? Well, that’s the job of… And frankly, the other thing is, the thing about SEO is a fairly technical kind of role. A lot of people put it under marketing, which I think even back then a lot of people put SEO under marketing. I mean today it’s under growth-hacking and everything else.

Greg: Yes, the technical side of marketing, yeah.

Vivek: Yeah, exactly. So back in the day, like 2005, 2006, it was all like, “Hey SEO is marketing.” And so a bunch of marketing people are all my competitors. SEO teams are under marketing and I was an engineer, so I was like, “Oh, this actually shouldn’t be under marketing, it should be quite frankly, under engineering.” In fact, the best SEO, kind of ad play SEO operations are under engineering, where like engineers are kind of designing at scale kind of systems to scale. Yeah, and testing. And then so I did all of the tests upfront. So we started getting customers and we were very profitable too. So it’s a combination of like we didn’t know how to raise money. We literally did not know how to raise money. And so we got customers on board and then we were profitable also. So it was like, well, we just keep going. That’s it. So we made money and at the end of the year we just gave us big fat distributions. And so cool. We’ll run this like a law firm. At the end of the year, we’ll give distributions to each other and make money. Going back to your specific question, that’s how we not avoided, but serendipitously because we never needed money, so we always had the money. So it’s like, what do we do next, what do we do next? And so we had the cash, so we just kept on doing it. I think pretty, pretty good results. I’m happy at least. And I can sleep well at night and I’m happy.

Greg: So what was it back then? Was it a search something, a free survey tool in Google or something like that? And then click on your web page and try it now. Was it $100?

Vivek: We tried experimenting with all kinds of things. We went all the way down to $15 a month, all the way up to $99 a month. We were just kind of constantly doing all kinds of experimentation. And so, yeah, it was a freemium model, just like everybody else at the time. And quite frankly, my crowning achievement, we don’t have that anymore, my crowning achievement back in 2008, 2009, was that I was number one for the word survey. I beat out SurveyMonkey for the word survey even though survey was not in my domain name, really. So I was super proud of that, and then we lost it obviously, like over the next couple of years. SEO is a pretty tough game. Everybody got smart. Everybody got really strong. So I was super proud of the fact that we got to that. But yeah, the experience was like people search for free survey tools, survey software, all these terms, and then they come to our site, sign up, get a free account, test it out and then upgrade. And there were feature upgrade locks. They were like, okay, look, these features are available for the free licenses, these features are not available for free license. And we had locks and credit card processing. And then we also were doing like a lot of customers. That’s the other part that worked for us. We were doing chat sales out of India that worked out really well.

Greg: Web chat, website chat?

Vivek: Website chat. So that has been one of our key strong points. So if somebody had a question, they would go on chat, ask a quick question and our reps would answer the questions and I’ll kind of walk them through the use case, walk them through the solution. And people loved that, and then they upgraded online and they upgraded on the spot, typically. So that was the upgrade motion or kind of the paywall slash upgrade motion that worked out for us.

Greg: So your India team, I’m hearing, isn’t just engineers coding, right? You also had some support and salespeople. Sales conversion stuff there. So 24/7 sales conversion, right?

Vivek: Yeah. I’m similar to Zoho, and Freshdesk. A lot of people do it right now. We’re not the only guys doing it. So the way we run a business right now is like we have a commercial business that runs out of India that’s sub 10K, and then north of 10K, we run in-market sales teams, enterprise sales team. So that’s how I divided the business. So it’s less than ten grand, and I strongly believe that less than ten grand, it’s actually super difficult to sell in the market at that price point and have like a sales-led function. Even a middle market or a middle market sales like function and be profitable.

Greg: It’s like in Germany, to sell something for $1,000 U.S. a month equivalent, or €1,000 these days, it’s really hard to have local employees, even inbound employees or outbound, like either way, because it’s so expensive and you’ve put all of the sub-$1000 a month customers in your India go to market machine.

Vivek: Correct. So yeah, we do it on an annualized basis but it’s still probably the same, obviously. I know other companies have figured it out, but we also have profit margin requirements. I want the company to be profitable operationally. I mean, yeah, people have asked me, “Look, you’ve been doing this for many, many years.” But first of all, my role has changed over the years. The first $2 or $3 million, I was hustling all day long, and then…

Greg: You’re everything to a few million dollars of your coding and selling and chatting.

Vivek: And every entrepreneur does that. The first million dollars, you just do everything. If you have to take support chat, you do a support chat. Whatever it takes to get to that. $1 to $10 million was, kind of putting systems and process in play. Again, we stumbled the ball a couple of times, and then today we are about $35 million bucks. So like, obviously our target is to get to $100, and we think we can do it, obviously. So we’re on our track right now. But again, my role and my job, obviously, is completely different today than what I did a couple of years ago.

Greg: So let’s talk about the inflection points of a business. And it’s one of the things for practical founders. What do you think the inflection points were? Sometimes people say, usually about $3 million, say 20 or 30 people you need a little bit of management and not everybody can report to the CEO. And then about $10 million, you’ve got closer to 100 people, there’s VPs and directors. So like it’s the $1s and the $3s you can kind of see. But was it kind of like getting to $1 and then getting to $10 million were your inflection points in the business?

Vivek: My inflection point was about $3.5, $4 really. $4, we kind of almost plateaued out. We got to $4 and we kind of almost plateaued out. We couldn’t figure out a way to kind of scale up a little bit.

Greg: Was that a market-led plateau or was that internal?

Vivek: Internal. I think all these things are all internal. I’ve never kind of blamed the market. I don’t at least blame the market. It’s like, you have to adapt, and even if the market is changing, then you have to adapt. And it’s our job to adapt, really. And you’re right. I mean, the key part was like, whether it’s $1, $2 or $3 million, founder-led hustle, quite frankly, can get you to that number. I mean, you just roll up your sleeves, pick up the phone, bank the calls and you can do it really. But then getting from $3 to $10 or whatever, $4 to $10 or whatever, the number is somewhere between north of $1 less than $4, let’s put it that way. So it’s a wide range, but at some point you’ll need more systematic process and systems in place. I contend that a lot of people, a lot of my friends, obviously I have a ton of friends who started stuff, if you try to put those process and systems too early, then you’re kind of like grinding it down too, first. Like, you don’t need all that stuff when you are in the super early stages. But you know that you have to pivot into more systems and process. And that’s and obviously, that’s a pivot, that’s a change, that’s an internal change. And we struggled with that, to be honest. We struggled with it quite a bit for a couple of years. We were stuck, $4, $4.5, $4.1, our growth rate, like seriously, slammed down. So we went fast. We went from $250 to $750, $1.8 to $3.2.

Greg: Double, double, double, yeah.

Vivek: Yeah, and then $3 and $3 and change and then we were like, now we’re going $2.2 to $2.5, to $2.9. I’m like, “Shit, what the fuck happened?” It was supposed to go from $3 to $6, right?

Greg: And you probably felt that as owner, right? Because your expenses probably drifted, but your revenues did not. You were the loser there, that math.

Vivek: Yeah. That was not working out. And then it took us some time to really understand that systems and process needed to be built and we kind of like worked on them a little bit more. And then we got to our $10, $9.5, $10. That was good. And then we got stuck again at $9 and then we went to $9.5, then $10.5, then $11.5 again, like 10% growth. All right, that’s something. Then again, I think that the second growth curve is really around like just hiring a player, like at the senior level, really. I mean, obviously, that’s kind of like my thesis. I may be wrong about it. My thesis is like, systems and process kind of gets you there and then at some point, you just need rock stars in the senior management, not just everywhere, but in senior management, rock stars who have been there, done that, who can take… then they come in and they actually kind of run the car for you in a different way. They run the different functions at scale and at high efficiency and at a high caliber, really. I started doing that and that started helping us move away from that place where we were stuck at $10 and then we did a bunch of M&A also so that we got into kind of M&A also in the last couple of years. That has added more top-line revenue to the business to help us scale as we go along.

Greg: Let’s talk about your leaders though. Because at kind of the growth phase that you’re in, whatever the $30 to $100 million ARR growth phase, and how you got from $10 to $30, you have leaders that run engineering, customer success and functional things from presumably the U.S. or India or wherever. And then you have regional leaders, UK, or Middle East, or Africa, or Latin America. You’ve got a mix of department leaders, functional leaders and region leaders. Now you’re kind of in the matrix, overlapping responsibilities and agreements and allocations and all of that fun stuff here. Is that kind of where you are right now is you kind of divided it up two ways?

Vivek: Correct. Yeah, it’s pretty straightforward. We have kind of like global sales teams that own accounts and revenue, simply put. So different markets. So Andres runs Latin America and he’s got a couple of folks under him that run Mexico and Brazil and so on and so forth. But Andres kind of like runs Latin America, Sindhu runs Dubai, Aseem runs UK, Mike runs Germany. So we have different markets. We’ve divided the world into different markets and leaders across those markets, and they’re primarily sales-driven, quota-carrying revenue leaders realistically. So they are like, “Look, my only job is to sell any product that QuestionPro builds in this market.” That’s the charter on one side. On the other side, we have what I call product leaders, really. So we have multiple products. I have seen a quote on each of the products. So that’s the matrix. I have three or four kind of product categories slash product leaders. And then on this side, I have sales leaders who are kind of geographically aligned or geographically responsible would be the right word. And then they mix together. And that’s our vision for $100 million because we mix the two together. Now you can say like, well, individually can we get to $100? But actually at that time can get to $10. They’re already at $3.5, $4. If you’re at $3.5 or $4 can you get to ten? Yeah, actually… …Latin America you can. It’s a matter of pumping more product, pumping more sales. Realistically, the two key levers are pumping more product, pumping more sales.

Vivek: One of the keys that I strongly believe in is autonomy. I’m an entrepreneur myself and I want to create an environment where… A lot of people, if you just talk to them, like, why did they quit their jobs, why did they start things, it’s really yeah, it’s for the money, yes, yes, yes, but it’s really kind of to do what they really want to do. That is a paramount function. And I’m hoping that as we grow that we have at least preserved some level of autonomy. Everybody understands that they won’t have the same level of autonomy that frankly, I had when I started, but I want to still inculcate a culture where people have autonomy. And so, this particular model works really well, especially the geographic distribution model where you run this market, I won’t even tell you what you need to do. Quite frankly, I can’t tell you. I mean, I don’t know how to sell in Dubai and the Middle East. I mean, seriously, it’s preposterous to say that, like, I know how to do that.

Vivek: Logically it doesn’t make any sense. But Sindhu knows how to sell in that market, and I’ve hired her to kind of crack that market and figure it out. And she owns local marketing, local sales, local whatever, whatever she needs to do. She’s got a number in her head and says, “All right, you’ve got to get there.” And you have a budget and you have a target. That’s how I operate that. So like, you have a budget and you have a target and you figure out how to get me there. And the first year obviously is hard, they have to kind of hustle their way through it, but they also go through the same motions. $0 to $1 in that market is the hard sell and then they have to, literally, literally, it’s the same thing. And so I kind of coach them into kind of like, look, this is what you’re going to face. I faced this, I know you’re going to face this. And so that becomes slightly easier. But still, it doesn’t make it any more unchallenging, frankly. So that particular process and system has in general worked. At least that’s how we’ve done it so far.

Greg: Well and you’ve evolved through the years without going through every step of the journey. And there are many steps along the way. You started off selling this, let’s say, simple, pretty free survey tool, and now you’ve got in-market people selling bigger companies, bigger deals. Are you selling to big companies and their market research departments or marketing or, who buys the bigger deals that you’re selling these days?

Vivek: The primary two buyers are like, you’re right, people who are running market research in bigger companies. They need some software platform to run their operations, really. So that’s our primary buyer. And the second primary buyer is people who are running kind of customer side studies. And a lot of times these two teams are actually in the same team, but also they’re also in mature markets. They’ve actually segregated one as a team that runs market research and the separate customer-facing team or a customer analytics team or a customer, chief customer, they’re typically reporting on the chief customer officer or the chief operating officer, not through marketing really, because it’s an operational function.

Greg: So that’s a little bit of land and expand, right? You could sell one and go sideways to the other group and vice versa.

Vivek: That’s the theory. That’s the theory. I would not say that we are really good at it. I’d say that we land and stick there and we don’t really kind of expand. But some of our competitors like Qualtrics have done really well because they perfected the art of land and expand, simply put. So they kind of land in one side of the zone and then they kind of figure out how to get there. And that’s a challenge I wouldn’t say that I’ve solved. I think we’re working hard on trying to solve that problem, but I don’t think we are structurally, I wouldn’t say… We have some anecdotal wins, but not consistent. I mean, you know you solved the problem if you know that you have consistent wins in that process. So the good news is we have anecdotal wins, which means it can be done. But the bad news also is like it’s anecdotal, it’s not operational, it’s not systematic, which means a lot of work still needs to happen to make that anecdotal into a systematic kind of process and operation really.

Greg: Well, thanks for being honest and authentic because a lot of people in corporate software, CEOs talk a big game about cross-selling and integration and all of that kind of thing. It’s way harder when you acquire something to cross-sell the acquired product. You assume all the synergies. And thanks for being realistic about that. For these senior people, it’s about the senior leaders, right? Not just you, like it’s the next wave that really carry the weight of the growth of the company. You’re not venture funded and not everybody has options in the eyes on the unicorn price and everybody’s doing their calculation there. How do you attract and incentivize these very capable leaders, maybe more entrepreneurial than most, but especially in the age of stratospheric venture expectations which still exist out there. It got pretty crazy the last couple of years, but how do you find the talent to grow and keep the talent? How do you land and stick?

Vivek: That has been my kind of journey in the last three years, just finding senior folks and convincing them to join me in this effort. And you’re right, I mean, I think a lot of times we miss out on a lot of people because we are not known. And obviously, when you raise money, you get a good brand. Somebody’s backing you, so therefore you must be smart, is the general kind of narrative. And I mean, look, I’m an entrepreneur, so I kind of take that as a challenge. It’s like, yeah, nobody’s backing me, I’m still fucking smart. I think that’s kind of like the narrative that I followed. And yes, it has been hard in many cases. People have just walked away from me and said like, “No, I don’t want to talk to you. You’re just too small.” In many cases, it also works the other way around. A lot of people have been at venture-funded companies and seen the meat grinder and seen the decision-making process that is kind of like highly skewed towards the investor community.

Greg: Thanks for being nice about that. That’s an understatement. Yeah.

Vivek: I mean, it is what it is. If you’ve gone through a couple, you realize what goes on, and it’s not as peachy as you know… I’ve met a friend of mine who has been like, “Okay, we sold the company for $18 million bucks and we got $0 because preferences were at $12.8 million. And then there was like, $2 million in debt.” So like, yeah, good. So you sold the company for $18 with $12 million in preferences and $3 million in debt. So basically you got $3, and then that $3 got divided again between everybody. And so, a lot of people don’t understand or kind of like those who’ve not been through this, they don’t understand preferences, they don’t understand waterfall, all this stuff really. Going back to your point about whether it is difficult to hire people: absolutely. But I think there are also some pros too. I lean into my kind of strengths, right? So look at what we have. We’ve never missed rent payments, mortgage payments, or employee payments as long as I’ve been running businesses. That’s one of my big kind of moments. I’ve never missed a payment to my employees. So you could argue we run conservatively, but it doesn’t really matter because if I miss a payment to you, then you’re going to miss a payment somewhere else. It’s a cascading sort of event. So I think that’s kind of one of our strengths. The other strength is obviously, we have a clean cap table. We know exactly what’s going on, how things are working. And the thing is, we run the business like a business. It’s profitable, it’s operational. We have ways of making money. Yes, we have to hustle harder because obviously, we are trying to do more with less. We don’t have the kind of capital. We can’t take out billboards in the metro buses and everywhere and just say like, hey, look,, ClickUp raises $100 million bucks, and now everybody knows about ClickUp. So it’s pretty easy to kind of go down the path. So we have to do things smarter from an operations perspective.

Vivek: So yeah, hiring is hard, and in many cases, I’ve failed. But in some cases, it has worked. And I really anchor on the autonomy part that I give out. That’s kind of our strength. We lean into it and people who’ve been around the block can obviously appreciate that. That is something that I can get behind. Yes, you’re not going to pay me the same amount of money that I can go grab from somebody else. But actually, after a particular point, the differential spread is probably not as relevant as much as it is trying to do some things that I really want to do and I don’t grind people down on stupid shit, frankly. As dumb as it sounds, I don’t grind people down on stupid shit. That fields a lot of people.

Greg: Anybody who’s been working long enough knows the game, right? Autonomy at a venture-backed startup is not autonomy, right? There’s a whole bunch of stuff you deal with at big companies, the companies you sell to there. So you grew this from your scrappy freemium model, early web days, and million dollar ARR game. So you started SaaS like, before SaaS technology was cool, or available, AWS and the rest. And now you’re at $30 million with all these global offers selling to bigger companies. How did you just drift up? Did you have a better product? There’s something viral about the survey game. You send out a million surveys, you get your brand in front of a million people. What were some of the inflection points that allowed you to drift up?

Vivek: Inflection points of growth, really for us were kind of like getting from $3 to $10, that was a good kind of momentum. That was really like putting systems and processes in play. I mean, the front-end business was coming, but we were not able to really imagine ourselves. So that was kind of the problem. That was the limiting factor, realistically. Having sales operations running, tech operations running smoothly and everything else.

Greg: You were just an early survey tool and everybody was growing. Was that fair or something?

Vivek: Yeah. The market was growing. Honestly, the market was growing exponentially, literally, right? I mean, we’re in the feedback business. I mean, everybody needs feedback one way or the other. Now, how do you collect feedback? Is it one on one? Do you and I sit down with each other and talk to each other. That’s obviously the one-on-one model and then it’s a one-to-many model. So the good news, is there are two things structurally that helped me. I won’t take all the credit. The survey business and the feedback business is large. The time on that is extremely large. If you start looking at it from a just pure kind of like industrial perspective. So that helps, right? If you’re in a space that is huge, like you’re doing email marketing, yeah, I mean you can get into it sooner or later. I mean, look, HubSpot came in super late and still crushed it all the way to the top. And the second part of our business is really we are intrinsically, we have a viral look. Not everybody understands this, but actually you clued onto it really quickly. More begets more. More people demand surveys, it’s powered by QuestionPro, people see it and then we get more customers. And that’s why it works both ways. SurveyMonkey was much, much bigger than us. That snowball is much, much bigger. So they are going to a bigger surface area than our surface area. It’s much smaller. So it goes both ways. And everybody’s smart in this game, SurveyMonkey knew it, we knew it. You get customers without actually, your CAC is completely skewed because getting a customer will get you more customers, literally. By definition you have to. You can’t find out what email marketing, what CRM platform I use, right? But you can definitely find out that my phone platform or email marketing too has the same kind of intrinsic viral loop. They can send out an email blast that says powered by and all that stuff. They all have an intrinsic viral loop and that’s why their inbound acquisition funnel is kind of like… You just get a few and then the snowball starts rolling on its own.

Vivek: And now it depends upon how big of a surface area you want to put onto that snowball realistically. So understanding that, which I think most of us understood in the game, but some of them actually did not. Some of our competitors did not understand the intrinsic viral loop in the business. And today I think everybody is smart like everybody gets it, but that’s why nobody will take it out and so on. So those were the key inflection points, I would say. Understanding the viral loop, that you have an intrinsic viral loop and then putting systems and process. And the third component, when we got stuck at $10, $12 was really M&A. So at that point, we were not prepared to know. Normally I would think that we are where we would do it, but it was COVID and we got a pretty good deal. It was high risk, but it actually paid out. So that added about $4 million bucks to our top line revenue while we…

Greg: So you bought an up-and-running complementary technology company, a software company.

Vivek: No, they had some customers that we just simply couldn’t penetrate, really, Almost a customer, customer, talent, and product. Product was not that big of the component of the conversation. It’s really like they had penetrated large OEMs, which we could, frankly, it would have taken us years to get there, but they had already kind of gone through the process. But they were highly concentrated revenue. We were highly diversified. We are horizontal, really. So we’re highly diversified. And they were like super concentrated, right? In terms of like, look, we only sell to automotive OEMs. There are only like so many car manufacturers on the planet really. So it’s like, okay, look, you’re not selling to them. It was like literally seven or eight customers really, but paying reasonably good amounts of money. They were highly concentrated, so for them, attaching them to us, for us it was just another division. And it was a high-risk investment, frankly, at the time. But we took it, and that was another that helped us kind of get some momentum. And that also got us internally saying that we can actually do M&A. It just gave us the confidence that we could pull that off really, internally. So that has helped, and then since then, we’ve done one or two more deals as we’ve gone along.

Greg: And acquiring as a bootstrapped company, with cash in the bank as opposed to a public stock or venture capital that you can snap your fingers and buy somebody, and the hope of the multiplication of everybody’s stock and so forth… Were these kind of cash deals?

Vivek: Mostly cash. That’s it. I mean, it’s cash and in some cases a little bit of stock also. I mean, we don’t go after every deal. We go after deals that, frankly, we can finance internally and have a shared sense of ownership. Like that’s why the earnout is there. If they believe, they want to cash out, well, I can still buy it, but it’s not going to be a huge amount of money. But if you want to kind of come with me and then kind of roll into this, and then we can make a decent amount of money both ways, that have been the kind of deals that we’ve been successful in closing. So we’ve tried a bunch of things. Those are the ones that like actually landed if you will.

Greg: Opportunistic is probably every other word around you these days, the executive team.

Vivek: It is. It is what it is. I mean, I understand my balance sheet. I understand my cash position. It’s basically some of the retained earnings over the last few years. So that’s about it. That’s the cash position I have. And those are physical limitations, realistically. And actually good, in another way, it also forces everybody to be financially prudent about these things. Not get super enamored like, “Oh, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this.” Like, no, this is a model that we can support. And if it doesn’t fit the model, it doesn’t. There’s a physicality to this problem, really, right? See, in a roundabout way, it’s actually good. It keeps discipline under control, at least from our perspective. It’s like, okay, we don’t get enamored by something where we go lose our fundamentals and say like, okay, look, we’ve got to buy this thing no matter what. That’s when I think you go upside down and then you have to pull yourself out of the hole and so on. So yeah, we’ve lost a bunch of deals where we’re not, the right fit or we simply cannot afford it. That’s the right way to put it is we just can’t afford it, and that’s fine. I can’t afford a lot of things in my house. I want a lot of things. It’s all right. It’s not the end of the world.

Greg: You also started with the free tool, and now you’re selling a more sophisticated set of products to larger companies. I would call it enterprise software or semi-enterprise, enterprise software. Did you just drift up from that? Eventually your survey tools found everywhere in every organization and they started asking for features and you started drifting, or was there a sea change that you had to change your sales motion, your product definition, your pricing, your business model, or how did that go, the shift from freemium to enterprise?

Vivek: The customers just kept asking for more complexity and more features. And then we realized that, well, if we add those features in, we need to charge more and we need to find a way to charge more, realistically. And being the kind of the geeks that we were, we wanted to build those features, I guess to some extent. So it’s kind of like, oh, it’s cool idea, and it’s a smart idea, like we should build it. We wanted to build them and then we were like, all right, if we build them, it’s going to increase complexity a lot of people that probably don’t care, first of all, don’t care about it because there is only like a very small subset who is asking for certain things that are like off the radar. One of the hacks that I did, I don’t know whether it can be done today anymore, is like we actually went back and said, look, you want these kinds of crazy things. You have two options. One, you can go build it, have some consulting company go build it, and it’s going to cost you, I don’t know, whatever they want to charge you.

Vivek: But what we cannot do is just increase our price by linearly to give you that feature. So let’s say you’re paying us $10 grand. I cannot come back to you for $15 grand. That in my mind is a linear increase for, let’s say, something that is very niche. So we said like, look, that side is going to cost you, let’s say $300, $400 hundred grand if you just go out and build something all the way from scratch. And then on my side, it’s like, I’m just making numbers up, you’re paying $10, I’m not going to go to $15. So you have to pay us $100. It’s still less than $300. You have to pay us $100 to get this particular thing and we’ll build it. And it’s a value for you, right? And that’s how I learned in sales. It’s valuable to you. So is $100 grand worth it for you? And they were like, well, it’s a huge problem and my CEO needs it. Well, it’s probably worth $100 grand. That’s it.

Greg: So was that an interesting moment when you discovered that, because you were kind of this free to paid with the paywall in the early days of all of that, and then people said, “We really want this feature.” You said, “Well, we just can’t incrementally do this. But I don’t know, how about $100 grand a year?”

Vivek: Literally, that’s what happened. Somebody said, “Hey, I really want this.” I was like, “Well, you’re paying me $5 grand instead of paying $3 grand, I’ll do it.” And they said, “Sure.” I’m like, “Oh, sure, this can be done. Here we go.”

Greg: Did you get more profitable when you started doing those kinds of deals? I mean, there’s more development and there’s more sales weight, you know, sales touch.

Vivek: Yeah, but we wanted to do it anyway. I mean, obviously, like for us, like doing this development, we are not doing custom development. Effectively what we did was enhance our product, like to a point where that satisfied that user. Ultimately, if you think about these things, these are use case driven problems, right? I have a use case that’s reasonably complex, and reasonably complicated. And if you have good product managers and/or engineers on the other side, they’ll look at the complex problem and then they make it generate, realistically. That’s our job. You think it’s a complex problem, it’s unique to you, but it’s really not unique to you. It’s can I find the pattern in it and then solution it in that way so that I can solve your problem? And then kind of like, everybody who’s got a similar problem as yours, really. Like use-case-based modeling. Then you are configurability goes up, really. So you have to build a system that is super configurable. So actually it does increase the complexity. It’s easy to just say, “Hey, put the logo, I want the logo to be on the left.” Okay. Just we can hack it in, put the logo to the left, or you have a configuration model that says like, well, if a customer wants a lower left, right, center, down, back up, then they have like eight different options. You have to build that option. So as the complexity became higher, people were ready to pay more because it was unique and therefore we kind of kept it going down the enterprise route. That’s how we kind of like meandered into that.

Greg: We’re pulled as opposed to you envisioned it as some market research guru, right, that said, “Oh, this is the way the world wants it.” You waited till somebody flinched and paid you $100 grand annual contract and follow the trail, right? Yeah. That’s excellent. And what a journey here from, it’s more than 15 years, Vivek. And you bootstrapped it because you could in the beginning, but you started to grow this. And I don’t know how many times through the years, especially in the boom time of the last few years, I’m sure you get people saying, “Can we help you fund this and buy it?” And so far you’ve said no. So we know everybody’s asking because you’ve got something valuable that’s growing and a really big market. And you played in Silicon Valley and you have profits and I’m sure you’re distributing some profits and doing just fine with all of this. Why haven’t you raised money or sold it like, quote, normal entrepreneurs? Is it just you’re fiercely independent and love to grow this business or do you have a bigger number in mind? What is it in your head that has gotten you to this point without flinching?

Vivek: Yeah. I mean, why have I not sold it is like, yeah, obviously I have a bigger number in mind. That’s kind of the simple answer. Nobody’s offered me the right number. Obviously, I’ve talked to everybody else. It’s just the number. And I understand their viewpoint also, it’s a higher-risk environment. From their perspective, it’s high risk. They’ve not had external funding, so therefore, obviously it’s high risk. I understand their viewpoint also, but I’m not going to change my viewpoint, independent of theirs. So that’s why I’ve not sold the company. And also from a professional perspective, I have actually changed my role over these years. So what I did even three years ago is… And so I’m actually enjoying what I’m doing, Look, I don’t know whether I would get a job as a CEO of a $30 million business if I just went out and tried to find a job. I don’t even want to try doing that anyway. So the point is, I’m experiencing in my life how to grow a company from $30 to $100, really. Again, that’s new for me. And I like new things and new challenges. So a brand new challenge for me. I’ve never done that, same way I never did an M&A deal ever in my life before and we pulled it off, and then we did two or three of them.

Vivek: So to me, the challenge of doing something new is obviously exciting, like everybody else, really. And that’s what keeps me dry, even though you can say, like, I’ve been doing this for many, many years. Yes, that’s absolutely true. But my role literally has changed. Every three years, at least, I’m doing something completely different that I never did three years prior to that. I don’t do sales anymore, I’m just kind of like recruiting, so a lot of things that I’m doing today are completely, kind of completely different. So that keeps me motivated to kind of keep going. And yeah, I mean, I think I have a professional ambition to take a company to $100 million bucks. And in my mind, it’s a professional ambition, not an economic ambition. You touched on selling. To me, that’s equally important, that professional achievement is an important element. And I don’t think I’ll get that option somewhere else, really. Personally, I don’t think I can sell this and then go start another thing and bring it all the way to $100. I know how hard it is.

Greg: How hard it is, right? Lucky.

Vivek: Yeah, It’s lucky, exactly. So I’m lucky I’m in a business that has high time as intrinsic virality and all these things we talked about. So even if I start something new, it may not have those characteristics, realistically. It may have different sort of characteristics, but it will completely different. And I love my team. I mean, honestly, they’ve been with me for a long. They like me, hopefully. So I definitely like them. I like hanging out with them, and working with them. I love spending time with my team and doing things. It’s very fulfilling from a personal perspective. And so that’s why I keep doing it.

Greg: And one of your full-time jobs is not fundraising, like most CEOs. I’m serious. Like, half the CEO’s job is to get the next funding round and keep everybody happy.

Vivek: That is true. That is true.

Greg: When you’re getting to a million and you’re making stuff up and learning and so forth… In the old days there wasn’t blogs and books and all the rest of and conferences and the cult of startups that is today, you just make it up. But getting from $30 to $100, one of the advantages of being venture funded is you have people who’ve been through the journey and there’s a community of people going through that journey and a network. How are you learning the game of going from $30 to $100 besides just trying things and seeing how it goes? Do you have advisors and therapists and friends?

Vivek: I mean, I have a couple of trusted advisors that I talk to fairly often about a lot of things. And no, I wish I had like a brilliant answer here. I actually don’t have a reasonably brilliant answer. We’re still trying new ideas. There are some principles that I follow. We’re all learning as we’re going along. So to some extent, I don’t think we have like a set of trusted advisors that are like, “Okay, we’ve done this.” And frankly, to get some of those people… I’m very skeptical about general-purpose advisors. Everybody claims that they know what they’re doing. I’m generally very skeptical about this. A lot of people will come and talk a good game. So yeah, short answer here is that I don’t have a clear kind of a… I have a clear roadmap from a revenue perspective. The question is around execution of that roadmap, realistically. And so I don’t have like a group of people that I go to that can reliably give me advice in one way, shape or form. And in fact, I think I go to my internal team more often than anywhere else. A couple of folks that I’ve hired recently, they have been part of larger, kind of like either Glassdoor or a couple of different companies. They’ve seen some of that growth, so I’m kind of frankly relying on them also as much as anything else to shepherd us and push us in the right direction.

Greg: Well, most people who would be capable of advising to $30 to $100 million, I’ve done it twice. Usually part of the formula is: to raise more money. Series C and D, which is a totally different perspective. So I could see why when people start talking in the back of their head, there’s this funding fuel lever that you’re not going to pull out there. It strikes me, Vivek, that your entrepreneurial leadership attitude of, “I don’t know, let’s go find out, let’s figure it,” is a match with the market research, right? If we knew what customers, what their attitudes were, and we could see it through their data, our customer data from Facebook or they’re on our website or they’re using our products, digital product, but you don’t know. Let’s go ask, let’s give it a try. And that’s really interesting.

Greg: Well, congratulations on an amazing journey and sitting at an inflection point without the firefight. Like, “Oh my God, we’re going to die. We’re running out of money,” and all of that. You’re heading towards this shift and you can do it at your own pace and you’ve got a smile on your face. You’re smiling at me right now. That’s very awesome.

Greg: So, Vivek, what would you say as an experienced bootstrapper, a practical founder? What would you say to modern SaaS founders who are getting through their scrappy $1 to $2 million, get it up and running and get the flywheel going. And they have their version of their number and their dream and their impact and what they’re good at, it’s all different. What’s the best advice you could give them that they’re not going to hear going to SaaStr and all the other funding-oriented ecosystem events here? What could you say to them that would be useful?

Vivek: I mean, I live my life with the same kind of principle, like have fun while doing the work. If you stop having fun, it becomes all about the work and all about the target. I used to say, it’s not the journey, but the destination or whether it’s not the destination or the journey, but it’s likely the destination and the journey, right? You put equal weight on both sides. You cannot say like, “Hey, I’ve got a target. I have a target, I’ve got to get $200.” It’s not that. But the journey, 50% of my weight in my head is to make sure that the journey is also fun. And it’s not like, $100 at all costs, really. So I think that would be my biggest advice. Like if you stop having fun, if you stop enjoying the ride, then it becomes a chore. It becomes a chore. Then you get stressed. You get stressed, you get annoyed, and then it’s a shit show after that. So if you can make it fun, which means reducing the pressure on the target really, right, somehow. But you can go down to zero and say like, “Hey, look, I don’t care about the target.” That’s also doable, but that’s not what I’ve done, and since you asked for my opinion, it’s like, okay, reduce the pressure on the target by, let’s say, 50%, and then use that 50% kind of energy to kind of have fun. In my mind, at least, it’s a healthy balance between the target and the journey.

Greg: That’s actually one of the most invisible but powerful benefits of being bootstrapped and practically funded. You’re in control of your pace. There isn’t a gun to your head that says you need to triple next year, and if you only double, then people get fired and things like that. It’s really quite crazy when you sign up for the big venture-funded Everest climb.

Greg: Vivek, when you grow the company and somebody says, here’s your number and there’s life after QuestionPro, do you have a vision for that? What do you imagine you would do in your second life?

Vivek: I honestly haven’t thought about it. I’m not punting the ball, I have not thought about it. I know I would do something. I don’t think I would, quote-unquote, retire. I mean, I like skiing and mountain biking and shit like that. But I mean, skiing, and mountain biking all day long for 3 to 6 months, I think it loses its charm. I love when biking because I get to do it like, once a month, go to Santa Cruz and do it. And it’s awesome because I do it. If I was able to do it literally every day for the next 3 months, I’m not sure I would be into it. I mean, look, we’re all intellectuals, so personally, I like solving problems, solving big problems, coming up with innovative ideas. And I mean, I’ll probably be doing something in the tech space because I can understand that and I know it fulfills me. And the way to pull it, whether I’m good at it or not, I don’t know, but it fulfills me.

Vivek: And I wanted, obviously, the flexibility and the freedom to do what I want to do. So obviously, it’s part and parcel of that game. And working with amazing people. I think those are the three vectors that I would look at. If I can find a team that I love working with, that trusts me and I trust them and they’re smart, they’re intelligent and they’re driven. So like, the tribe is super important. In my mind, it’s super important to have that tribe with you. So actually, we’re all social human beings, obviously. We want to do it for each other with each other. So that’s an important element. So getting all those things right, and then we can find the right group of people. Hopefully, money won’t be the issue at that time. So that’s kind of likeof the conversation. So it’ll be something like that is probably what I’ll do.

Greg: Well, congratulations on your success and best wishes on your continued journey of growth and change in the world and doing it with amazing people. Thanks for sharing your story and your journey and your insights on the Practical Founders Podcast, Vivek.

Vivek: Thank you, Greg. Appreciate it. Appreciate this time. It was fun hanging out with you.

In this episode, Vivek explains:

  • How they grew fast and profitably in the early years with successful search marketing with a freemium survey tool product and chat sales support
  • How his role changed at important revenue inflection points at $1 million revenue with scrappy founders, then stalling at $4 million, growing to $10 million with an organized team, and now to over $30 million with a global organization with systems and processes
  • How they have grown with regional expansion with autonomous sales offices and multiple products including several acquired products
  • Why he doesn’t say they are a “US company” as they have fully remote employees around the world with no headquarters
  • Why they charge an additional fee to big customers to develop new features that eventually enhance their core products

QuestionPro Software Company Facts

  • Founded: 2005
  • Description: QuestionPro leading provider of online survey and customer experience research software for companies and organizations around the world.
  • Number of Employees: 300 employees with 160 employees in India, with employees in offices in the US, Germany, Dubai and Latin America
  • Funding: Bootstrapped to start with profitable growth with no outside funding. $35 million revenue run rate currently.
  • HQ Location: Fully remote global company with no headquarters office. Vivek lives in the San Francisco, California area.



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Greg Head recorded this on episode on February 3, 2023 for the Practical Founders Podcast see all of the episodes.

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