At our Founders Circles – Connect & Learn, we invite guest speakers who are a true inspiration for our founders. This time we had an unforgettable Q&A session with Jan Hollez & Zhong Xu, founders of Deliverect. This amazing venture – rooted in our imec.istart program and community – is taking the global hospitality business by storm, and is well under way to become Belgium’s next unicorn.
"In 2010, we established POSIOS, and created the first iPad point-of-sale in Europe. People thought we were crazy and nobody was going to use the iPad. But we prooved them wrong and besides some imec funding and our house as collateral, we grew with pretty much no funding to a company of 30 employees, offices in Singapore and New York and with thousands of customers in 40 countries."
The investor landscape was not as mature as now and it was way harder to scale. That's why we merged with Lightspeed, a quite small company at that time, but now it's by far the biggest POS solution for vendors, retailers, as well as restaurants, with a market cap over $10 billion.
When we see a market shift or a momentum, it's difficult to keep us in our golden cage. In 2018, when we saw the shift from offline to online restaurant businesses, I said to Jan: "We need to jump again.” So we went through exactly the same journey as with POSIOS, but scaled even faster.
One of the things we learned is that you don't need money to start, but you definitely need the resources to go quick. So we raised over $90 million to conquer not the world, but the galaxy! :)
“I think it's extremely important to have these big ambitions. Even at POSIOS, we always looked at the global market right from the start . Belgium is too small and the markets we are in are grow-or-die markets. Always keep challenging yourselves on how you can go quicker and how you can do it as globally as possible, because it's very important to have that mindset.”
When 2 founders take on a startup adventure, it's worse than marriage. In a marriage, you can still walk away. In a business, you can't do this or there's no business. We had up front discussions on how we would handle things and on which terms. It's very important to talk a lot to each other. We talk every day. We're like two old people that always need to chat to keep that alignment, but as well, making sure that we feel good about where we are.
There needs to be an enormous amount of trust between founders. It's a rollercoaster, with a lot of ups and downs. So having that trust and knowing that each of you will do whatever possible to get things done, matters a lot. We used to believe that we needed to combine our talents and our energy to get as close to 100% as possible, whereas we both learned that we have our own way of doing things. "I know if I ask Zhong to do something, it will happen. It will most definitely not happen the way I want it to happen, but it will happen and it will be good enough." Jan laughs.
“In the startup phase I often worked 16 hours a day. That's no secret." says Zhong. The first six months to a year, it's tough. Even with Deliverect when we had the resources, we didn't hire people to help us. You don't hire when often you yourself don't have a clue about what you’re doing.
Now, my agenda is quite clear because, as you grow to our size, I think the founding team has a responsibility to lay out the mission and strategy. But one thing we learned is to always take our weekend, because it's a marathon. You cannot keep this up forever.
Jan: “To be honest, at POSIOS, there was no weekend. We did whatever we needed to do, to make it a success. In the beginning, every bit of extra effort you put in makes a massive difference. Once you're with 250 people, and a small effort still makes a massive difference, you're doing it wrong and you need to learn to delegate.”
Jan: “We always started with making a product and first made sure we had paying customers. When we started with POSIOS, we didn’t pay ourselves. If you use the money for yourself, you immediately need to start looking for funding, which means you need more people because now your time goes to funding. It's a vicious circle, which is very hard to get through.
Once you have customers, you can start hiring people. As you’ve been doing a lot yourself in the beginning, you'll be able to guide the people you hire a lot better.”
When hiring people, you should focus very hard on your first ten. The rest will figure themselves out. And when hiring those first ten, don't focus on hard skills. It's more about the cultural fit. If they're a developer, they need to know how to develop, but it's really about the passion in them. If it's 5 a.m. in the morning and some shit happens, will they wake up and start helping you to deblock the servers? Especially in the beginning, you need a couple of very motivated people to make the needle move. But it’s a balancing act: complementary to that, you do need to have some co-founders that are senior enough and know how to build a company, otherwise you will hit a lot of roadblocks and not be able to grow.
With the first 50 employees, it’s quite easy: culture-wise, you're all sitting next to each other, you know everyone by name, you can talk often. Above 50, you really need to work on your culture. We hired over 200 people in the last 12 months, but we haven't seen them face-to-face due to COVID. So keeping the culture alive to make sure that they have the same vibe we have – we all still are very passionate people that really love our mission and love working together – is extremely important. I think the perfect word in English is ‘grit’. That’s what we’re looking for in our people.
Zhong: “If I learned one thing, it's this: go and sell the product and then make it. Don't try to make it perfect and then go sell it. Then you're always too late. Actually, it's even worse. You have no idea what you're building because, who is paying you? So really go to the market as quick as you can. Speed is one of the defining factors in your success. And once you feel that you have 5 to 10 customers ready, then you can go to the next level.”
Jan: “A quote I read a while ago and really liked is ‘Fast gets good quicker than good gets fast.’ You always learn a lot from from the customer. If you want to be a global player, you have to make a product and you need to know what customers want before they fully know what they want, and you need to solve it in a better way than they know how to solve it.”
“When you start a product-focused company, you don't need to be the best sales guy yourself. Even as a technical person you should be able to sell, because customers like it when someone is knowledgeable and is trying to help them.
Zhong: “Funding is pure relationships. Of course, you plan, product and market need to be in place, but the reason investors really put money on the table is because they know someone that knows you well, or you’ve built a relationship with them. So trust is the main factor when raising capital.”
Jan: “People start to raise money because they need money. But you should raise money because you can tell someone: "What I'm doing works perfectly, but with money, I can do it faster."
Jan: “We also applied for grants in the beginning. imec.istart has the expertise and can help you to get acquainted with all possibilities. Don't rely too much on those, some can also cost a lot of your time. You always need to look at the trade off if you need to write heavy reports. The number two detrimental thing for startups after founders not being aligned anymore, is a lack of focus.