Silicon Valley Bootstrapper Success Story - SOA Projects
Working in a big-4 financial consulting firm is a “golden handcuff” for most people, but Manav has a bigger dream. He founded SOA Projects to provide Solutions for All Projects to mid to large size companies. He was not satisfied to be just another “mom and pop” shop in the consulting industry, and he set the goal to become a nimble one-stop shop of all services for his clients. Let’s listen in to see how Manav turns his dream into reality.
When did you start your business? Around 14 years ago. Why did you start this business? When I joined the industry, I realized that whenever anybody needed accounting and finance help, the model was run towards the big four. The model in the industry was, you have the big four and then you have mom and pop shops and nobody in the middle to compete with the big four with the quality. That was the whole idea behind the company when I left the big 4. The name SOA Projects is basically a solution of all projects. The idea was that we would grow to become a one-stop shop for all CFOs, for all services. In 14 years, we now have a technical accounting group, which is a big IPO group that does IPO’s in the Bay area anything to do with technical accounting and finance. Compliance is our second biggest group. We diversified into IT. We are helping companies do NetSuite and all the cloud applications. We acquired a search firm called alchemy search, now we are doing all the way from CFOs down to AP,AR,GL kind of accounting and finance, full-time searches, and interim support. We have a group in our company that does forensic accounting, fraud investigations and distribution audits, royalty audits, licensing audits. We recently started our own software within the company to do RPA, which is the automation process. The idea is that when we go to a client, we can tell them, you can use one person, one company, one vendor, or you can use five vendors, your choice. Who are your clients? Are they the bigger or smaller companies? We normally start to engage companies that are in series B plus. We help companies go public and we also help many public companies. Verne Harnish actually said in his book, “The Scaling Up,” that only 0.4% of all US company reaches past 10 millions in revenue. How was that journey for you? Starting a company is easy. Getting up to 5, 10, 15, 20 employees is easy but once you hit 20 employees, the overhead cost in our first 20 employees is easy. You can work from home and get part-time work, do all that kind of stuff. But when you hit 20-50 employees, then you must build an infrastructure. You must buy an office or get an office; you must get an HR director and operational director. You must have other partners come in to help you grow. That I think is the most difficult time in a company. Starting is easy. You are on your own, there is nothing but going forward. I started in my garage with a heater underneath my desk and it was fine. When you are in the middle, and you are in that threshold, how to get up from that threshold is the main challenge. [Yes, Verne Harnish called it the valley of death] What did you do well, looking back? I think customer service. Customers are very important. In my field, only two things are important, Customers and Employees. If people in the big four or other companies that we hire from, all treat their employees as a family, take care of them and don't just treat them as a number, nobody will leave them and join me. I think treating our employees like a family, keeping them close to you, understanding them, not from a business point of view but a family point of view. I think that is very important.
The other thing is customer service. Keeping your customers happy and understanding what your customers need, not just selling them what you think they need. Big four is the best training ground in the world, but big four has their challenges because they are big four. They can’t give you 100% on everything, but being a smaller company, you can give your 100% to every client. Where do you think you are in the growth curve? I think we are still in the growth path. We've gone through a couple growth curves. Like I mentioned before in our business, when you have nothing to look back on, you're just taking off. Then you suddenly get to a point where people look at you, and you must maintain your quality, your employees, and your costs. You must start building a company. When you first take off, you are not a company, you are a startup. When you finally become a company, then you have a dip, and then coming out of the dip is difficult. Then once you overcome the dip, all these ideas to keep growing emerge. I would say we are in that growth phase.
What do you believe to be the biggest challenge in the startup phase? Well the Silicon Valley Bay area is very small. People have old relationships. I have been doing this for 14 years, and I think I am still an outsider. Sometimes I’ve been told, “Oh, we have that old relationship. Even if you do a better job and your cost is better, we have this old relationship, we're going to go with them.” In the Bay area, I think it is because it's a small place and everybody knows everybody. Penetrating that whole environment is very difficult. There are certain industries, like the SAS industry or the technology industry is easier because people are new and open to it. Life science industry is very old fashioned; it is very difficult to penetrate it. After 14 years, we are just now starting to penetrate it. Like I said, when 15 years ago, 18 years ago, if a CFO had an issue, he will call a big four, but now at least that mind set has changed and they look at us and say, "Oh, there's another alternative that we could take.” How did you overcome that challenge initially? Basically try, try, try until you succeed. Don't give up. Yes. Don't give up. Even today when I lose a client to a competition, I tell the client that even if they don't want to go with me, let's meet up for a cup of coffee because I want to learn what we did wrong, or what could we have done better to learn for the next step. In that explosive or exponential growth phase, what is the biggest challenge? I would say keeping your quality right. Selling is easy, but then delivering and making sure that the delivery is done properly and timely. You need to make sure what you promise is what you deliver. Quality I would say is the main thing because once people know you, the business starts coming. You need to maintain that quality, and to do so you need to be re-vamping your own internal education. How did you overcome that challenge? I tell people I did not grow to this point alone. I got very lucky, and I have some great industry leaders who came and joined me. Every group has its own leader, and that is I think the best thing that ever happened to me, I found the right people. Team is all these. My IP is my employees. In the maturity phase, what is the biggest challenge? Well, I haven't reached the maturity phase, but I think in our line of business, I'm on the growth path, and I think when it comes to maturity, it will be the same thing. I think quality is number one. We are still hungry for business, and we are still looking for the best people out there that we can get to join our team. Maturity phase, what I think it would be, is to be open to businesses coming, and at that point, we will not have to run after people to come join us. People will recognize us and want to join us. That's where the struggle happens, are we hiring the right people? Will we be able to maintain the quality? How are we going to maintain that quality? I don't want to categorize that all big businesses are very successful. They're very big, but their model is ‘throw things on the wall, if it sticks, great, if it doesn't say, who cares.’ I can't afford to do that. I'm still very, very small, and still growing. So, anything that I throw to the wall should stick to the wall. I think quality is definitely something that if you don't maintain, you're done. Now that you have grown past your capacity, your own capacity, and you're relying on other people to basically have a team and have the system to follow. How did you transition from "I am the only one that calls the shot?” You have to learn what your strengths and what your weaknesses are. I think, what I know is good, but what other people know and bring to the table is better. So, for example, I am no longer the CEO of SOA Projects. I stepped down six years ago when we started that downfall and we started growing. I grabbed the tail, got us here to a certain level. I am the founder, but now I need somebody else to take it and make it into a bigger shop. At that point, I brought in a new CEO to run the company. I also brought in two new partners to run the different units of the company. I acquired a company and made sure that that person who I acquired the company from stayed with us. I think I realized that I can only do so much there is only so many hours in the day. I need more people to make it into a success.
Was it very hard to give up that control? To give up your control, yes. Now I'm not the boss anymore, and all the partners sit together and vote for everything. It is not just that I say something and it happens. Everything is voted by all the partners, and everybody's decision counts. What advice would you give to your audience? I think being humble is definitely number one. Bootstrapping, I like the idea of bootstrapping because then you're not answerable to anybody. It's your baby, and you can work hard and make it a success. Quality is definitely very important. Without quality, I don't think anybody can go anywhere. One drawback should not stop you. Your motto should be succeed, succeed, succeed. I always give that example of me when we were young, we all heard that story of a spider, when the spider is trying to climb a wall, but it keeps falling, but finally succeeds. So, I give my kids the same example and my employees the same example, to keep trying until you succeed. If you keep trying and keep working hard, you will succeed one day. Be persistent.
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