Leaders in Lyfts Getting Lattes with Aydin Mirzaee of Fellow.app

by: Stratford Managers

Stratford’s SaaS Customer Experience expert Lauren Thibodeau interviews CEO of Fellow.app, Aydin Mirzaee in the first episode of Leaders in Lyfts Getting Lattes featured on the SaaS Ottawa Meetup YouTube channel.

The Leaders in Lyfts series was created as a unique way to learn and share the stories of leaders in the SaaS community while also helping them get to and from the SaaS North conference.

In the interview with Aydin, you’ll hear insights on:

  • Aydin’s go-to morning routine – talk about dedication!
  • CEO perspective on differences between running a bootstrapped company and a venture backed one
  • Scaling a SaaS company from stealth to early access to growth mode 
  • Fellow.app in a nutshell. Pro tip: Sign up free at Fellow.app
  • A big disaster/flop/pivot that turned out well in the long run

Here are a few pieces of the transcript in case you want to take in all the great stories and information Aydin had to share, but don’t have the time to watch the video.

LT: Let’s start the beginning the morning, your morning routine. Do you have one? Red Bull? Yoga? What is it?

AM: Yeah, my morning routine is pretty consistent. For the past 18 years I go to the gym every morning. Every single day. Seven days a week for 18 years.

LT: Christmas? New Year’s?

AM: As a matter of fact my gym closes on Christmas morning so on Christmas morning I go to the Chateau Laurier which is still open you can pay to get in. So, every single day. I can’t start the day without the gym. And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. As much coffee as you can get.

LT: So that’s definitely something people wouldn’t know about you from looking on social media is there something else that you could share with people that we wouldn’t just find out about you from LinkedIn or other social channels?

AM: Ah sure yeah, I dropped out of high school in grade 10. Yeah, I did go to university though.

LT: Well I noticed that, right here in Ottawa.

AM: I did, University of Ottawa but yeah I did not do grade 11 and grade 12.

LT: Very cool, so how did that work when you went right into university?

AM: Yeah it’s a it’s a bit of a complicated story but there was a loophole involved and I basically just didn’t go to those two years and went straight to university.

LT: You’ve done a lot of interviews, a lot of interviews like this, you share generously. You found fresh fresh founders to share knowledge and connect other founders. Something that I noticed when looking at a whole lot of your interviews is that you just get it done quick. You’re really in for excellence and looking at all the deal terms, relationships for the longterm.  How do you reconcile with this mantra that “done is better than perfect”, “let’s move fast”? How do you balance those two things – excellence and getting’ er’ done?

AM: Yeah it’s a very good point. So one thing there’s a couple of really cool values that we have at Fellow. So one of our values is this concept of pace quickly and that’s something that we really live internally. So it’s not “move quickly” and it’s not “sprint” but it’s this concept of “pace quickly”. So, we’re very measured in our approach of figuring out what it is that we need to do, but when we do decide and the decision is made we move like a bullet train. So that that’s kind of how we balance the two concepts.

You know another value we have internally at the company is this concept of “set the bar high”.  And so, the way that we evaluate that concept is we want to be from the outside world. We want people to look at us and think we’re like a thousand person company. We want them to think that just like Slack is a company that they can trust and has incredible marketing and an incredible product, we want to be in the same category and they wouldn’t be able to tell that we’re a start-up you know with just over 20 people. And that difference is indistinguishable. Now, what that also means is like, we can’t do a thousand different things at the same time but the things that we do do, we do really well.

LT: So we can’t chat and not talk about this like huge congrats for your seed round back in in June, six and a half million US. And my question –that’s you and the whole team – Now you’re you know you’re running a company that’s venture-backed, you’ve also run one that was really boot-strapped, and so what stands out for you as a leader of these two very different worlds? Or are they very different?

AM: You know I think they’re very different. I think there’s merits to both. It really depends on what kind of business you’re building, but it also depends on the founder in your situation.

When we were starting in the last company I was 21 and we literally had nothing to lose. But, at the same time we didn’t require a lot to live either, so we really burnt minimal. So, I think I personally went without salary for close to two years. I think in the year three I made like a whopping 24 K, so it took me probably five years to make what I was making while I was at Nortel – just to get back to like base level. And then obviously year six and seven were incredible but it does take that long.

Now, all that to say is the only reason I mentioned that is because it’s sorta different and you have to be able to sort of make that work with your lifestyle. So, part of it is that every extra like dollar that we would make like, we have the option of “do we pay ourselves”? or “do we hire another person”? And the answer for us was always hire another person. Always put money back into the business. and so like there are some personal sacrifices that you make.

The other concept is that you know there are incredible companies that growing really large, MailChimp is worth over eight hundred million dollars, sorry my bad, I think they’re actually over 400 million in sales and they may be worth more than five billion dollars, and they’re you know bootstrap company done it really really well. And of course locally, we have the story of Shopify that is not bootstrapped and you know has done incredibly well as well. So, there’s great companies on both spectrums.

So far, I really like the venture-backed approach because from our perspective we get to try a bunch of things in parallel. What I found that in the previously in the bootstrap company was a lot of sequential things. You do a lot of things and potentially waste a lot of time. Sometimes you get lucky and find the right thing, with venture you can do a bunch of things in parallel and when something really works you can obviously pour fuel on it. You can scale it very very fast.

Yeah so we have raised a lot of money but we’re still operating from that bootstrap mentality in that we’re being very frugal, making sure to spend the money wisely, we’re not going burn the capital in a very short amount of time and we’re spending money on things that we want to double down on.

LT: Tell us a little bit about Fellow.app. Can you tell us a little bit in a nutshell what you’re doing?

AM: Yeah, for sure. So, Fellow is basically a tool for managers and their teams. So the pitch is really easy, if you’re a manager you should be using Fellow. And so you know managers do a bunch of things: They host one-on-ones, they run team meetings, they run they provide feedback, they set goals, they provide recognition, they manage who’s working on what, they hold themselves accountable, they hold other people accountable. So all these different things that all the world’s greatest managers do, what we’ve done is we’ve boiled it down into this super simple, lightweight app, that feels very much in the same way that you know Asana or Trello or Slack feel. It’s that kind of a feeling.

So it’s a productivity tool for managers and their teams, people who use it love it, they run their day on it. So, it’s a sort of tool that you use every day, not the sort of thing that you log into once a year to fill out some things, it actually helps you work better with everybody around you. Yeah and it’s also free!

So, you can just sign up at Fellow.app. It’s a freemium model, obviously we have a pro version which you could also upgrade to but also the free version. One of our goals was to make it great in that you know most of our users would always be for users.

LT: Got it! And it’s, I mean, I was a people manager for many years. I loved it. It’s one of the most important jobs in a company and people often will leave a job because of their manager. It’s such an important tool to enable great management, great people management.

AM: Yeah, a hundred percent! You know it’s like you said, if people leave managers and our companies then when people are happy it’s actually due to who your manager is and not that you have a ping-pong table. So for companies as well it makes sense that you know like why not get every single manager your company to practice all the right workflows and to practice them at scale and that that’s kind of our viewpoint.

LT: So you’ve had a lot of success you know throughout your career. Nothing goes in a straight line. Can you tell us (because it’s important for other founders and leaders to know) can you tell us about a time where you thought “this is a disaster”, “this is a complete and total disaster” and yet when you got through it and look back it was a really good lesson?

AM: Yeah, sure. I mean so like, all the companies that I’ve been involved in have had multiple pivots. So you could look at a pivot in multiple ways, but you know one way to look at it is that “hey this is no disaster, wrong turn” .

LT: That’s a nicer word pivot than disaster

AM: Exactly! So, one of the ones that I distinctly remember was first startup that well you know first like real startup that I was doing working at Nortel as an engineer. And you know we had this thing that we were doing on a nights and weekends basis, it was another company. And you know everybody that I approached in Ottawa said that definitely like and nobody’s gonna invest in you in Ottawa you’re 21 and also you’re doing this internet stuff and this is a telecom city”. This is back in 2006 a long time ago. So yeah so they said “why don’t you go and try and raise money from Silicon Valley?” and I said “okay”. So I went home and I was like “I don’t know anyone there”, “what do I do?” So I have this idea of that basically I would record myself pitching what that company was called BOC. I would pitch that and then I put it on YouTube and then I basically went out and found every venture firm in Silicon Valley and guess the email addresses of all of the partners. And then this was like a full weekend thing and then I emailed all of them and said “hey like here’s what we do and so on so forth and here’s this video”.

So now that might seem commonplace but at the time everybody responded! Like every tier one firm that you could think of responded not because they liked the business that we were doing but they were like fascinated that someone would put their video pitch on YouTube and then send it to them. And that was like, to them, astonishing someone would do that. And then so what was interesting about that experience was that it then got posted.

So people started writing about it they’re like “what is this guy” like “this is not how you raise money” like “what are you doing” and so there’s this blog in Silicon Valley called Valleywag (I don’t even know if it’s still around) but they basically wrote this big piece and like everybody was commenting. There used to be this YouTube character that was famous at the time called LonelyGirl15 and so they named the blog post LonelyDork15 with my beautiful picture right there on the front page. So for the longest time you googled my name and like that’s what would show up. And you know, here I am working at Nortel, and I’m like, someone’s gonna find out and I’m gonna get fired! Like what is this nonsense?!

But all that to say is like, that episode is what led to us thinking of the next company idea was which was called TriedIt and and then TriedIt also didn’t work, and then that became FluidWare. So all that to say is it’s all part of the process, we learned a lot, even though it was a disaster at the time.

LT: That is an amazing story, and yeah to get out of that and to just keep going, and keep grinding, and keep trying, and use that to fuel other ideas.

AM: Yeah, I mean we laugh at it now, I was really stressed at the time.

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