How I Launched This Company
How I Launched This Company explores the path of entrepreneurs and innovators in the Asia-Pacific region. From challenges faced to lessons learned, we will join them on their journey as they share how they got to where they are today.
Join us this week as we meet with Monel Amin, founder and CEO of DiligenceVault.
Good evening folks in Asia and good morning to people in the U.S. I think we should be live now.
I'm Aliza Knox from Cloudflare and today I have the pleasure of speaking with Monel Amin who is a founder and she's here as part of our series on how I launched this company.
And so Monel, welcome. Thank you for taking the time to do this.
Thank you for having me Aliza. I think the first thing I'd like to do, I'm not sure that everybody can tell that behind my head is the logo for Diligence Vault.
It's a D and a V. But before we get started on how you went on your entrepreneurial journey and what you've learned and what you can share, it would be great if you could tell us a bit about Diligence Vault, the company that you founded.
I'm sure some people know what it is but we've got people from different parts of the world listening to this and not everybody will know of it yet.
Sure, absolutely. So Diligence Vault, as the name suggests, it's a technology platform that helps people do due diligence, right?
So if you think about it, dating is a type of due diligence where two parties meet, exchange a lot of information and then make a decision to commit or not.
And then similarly in the world that we are in, the segment that we focus on, investment, making investment is also a type of due diligence when investors are diligencing investment opportunities and that involves a lot of information exchange between two parties.
And once the information is exchanged, they make a decision to commit or not from an investment perspective.
And then there is the ongoing monitoring as well that happens.
Now all of this today happens in a quite analog way. So lots of documents and emails are being exchanged, a lot of manual efforts for both sides and a lot of repeat and repetition and manual data entry and data management for both sides.
So Diligence Vault is a platform that digitizes the entire diligence experience for both the investors and their asset managers and it also automates a lot of the workflows around the diligence process and in doing so has created an ecosystem of investors and asset managers within the investment management industry.
And oftentimes we say we are the dating.com of investment management because that's what Diligence Vault helps alleviate is a lot of the pain points around that process.
So when you talk about, you talk about asset managers, so is this investment in listed vehicles?
It could be, yes. Venture capital or? Yes, so that's a great question.
So asset managers could be listed ETFs, they could be traditional mutual funds, they could be venture capital funds, it could be hedge funds, private equity funds.
So it could be a variety of different fund structures or separately managed accounts and the investors could be institutional investors ranging from say endowments and foundations, pension plans, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds or they could also be wealth investors which would be more private banks, registered investment advisors, family offices and such as well.
So it cuts across different spectrum and focuses on the process. Okay and how did you know anything about this process?
Where did this idea come to you from?
Not, you know, this is not a consumer good, this is not a consumer product, absolutely not.
Cookie or biscuit, so where did this come from? So before launching Diligence Vault I used to work at Citi and I did many different things at Citi but I would say the last role that I played at Citi was key in me coming up with this idea.
So there I had oversight for Citi's liquid investments businesses which was pretty much our Citi's hedge fund business where we were managing money for external investors.
So I had the good fortune of seeing this entire process from an asset manager perspective as to how mundane it was, how repetitive, how error-prone it was and how time-consuming it was.
I mean we had we had very highly qualified people pretty much doing copy and paste and getting documents approved via email chains which is just not good use of anyone's time and energy and then at the same time I had the oversight for risk oversight for Citi's pension and insurance investments where we were the investors and we were making investment in external managers, mutual funds, hedge funds, private equity, venture capital funds and we had seen how painful it was to collect a lot of the information.
It was coming to us in 40, 50, 60 page documents, a lot of unstructured information and again making sense of all of that information converting that to usable data was again a huge copy and paste marathon and then trying to make use of that was also quite painful.
So that's when I thought about the idea because I'd seen it from both sides, the provider of the information and the consumer of the diligence information and the idea of creating a centralized platform that eliminates this redundancy for both sides that provides data which is readily usable for both sides and it provides reusability for the managers was the idea that we started Diligence Vault with and it was purely from experiences, right?
This is not something that you just see and say okay this could be a great idea, you got to live through it to realize how bad it is and how painful it is and you spend millions of dollars trying to manage this process.
So you're saying the data is reusable so that if I put some data in Diligence Vault it's there for the next other buyer or seller to see so you're not only digitizing the process but you're actually saving some of the or alleviating some of the repetition.
That's correct, that's correct and of course right I mean this industry is quite sensitive about their data and their data privacy so it's not open for all but if someone's already asked a question and that question could be very simple as where in which city and state are you based and when did you start operating your business and what are the number of people that you have that's pretty static information that most investors would ask so why do you have to recreate that wheel why can't you just reuse a lot of that information then of course we get into more complex topics that's where we deploy a lot of the natural processing in pretty much saying if you've answered a similar question here are your potential answers that you could reuse so it saves people a lot of time.
So you mentioned natural language processing and we've talked about the fact that you're a two-sided platform and I think you told me before that you're basically a SaaS model so I'd love to hear a bit about the technology how you built the platform what the technology is that you're using since we of course are also a technology company at Cloudflare and you know how you thought about that I don't know if your technology is by background or if you brought in someone else to help you think about this but I'd love to hear more.
I've learned job coding on the job so I've coded in the past before I switched over to a career in finance and that definitely helped in laying the groundwork but of course you know when you start the company you are the CTO and you start the product unless you have a technical co-founder but there comes a time when you decide to fire yourself and hire the professionals and I think that's what that's what I did is once you started signing up clients I'm like it's time to get the professionals in and that's when we had our first CTO who came in and focused on institutionalization of the tech stack.
So how far along were you either how many months or years in or how many clients when you I love that phrase fired yourself and got a professional like how far along were you at that stage?
I think our first paid client and I'm like okay this is not my thing anymore right we need to get professionals because once you start getting clients and if you think about because we were building an ecosystem if you will it was very important for us to get some of the big players in the industry to adopt the platform and some of the big players are actually bank platforms and once you do get a bank or a platform backed by a bank as a client their requirements from technology is not just about the product it goes much more beyond the product itself around the infrastructure and the security around the scalability and and that is something where you do need professionals to come in and help you.
I think if you would have not been a product like that we would have still waited a little longer because I think smaller businesses are not as demanding from those aspects so you can still get get going and then once you start getting the big players you start institutionalizing yourselves we had to do it from day one so we didn't have a ramp up to accumulating some clients and start becoming we had to do it on day one I mean day one as a day one as a revenue positive day one.
Okay and how did you go about building the company because I think what you're saying is that you didn't have a co -founder technical or otherwise you did this on your own is that is that correct?
That is correct yes. So that takes I think a lot of resolve it's a very brave move how long did it take you and why did you choose to do it on your own?
I don't think I chose to do it on my own by design it was just that when I started to do this there wasn't anyone that I was thinking about doing this with and there's always the need to find the co-founder and I didn't look into that but I didn't want to wait until I found the perfect co-founder to start something but what is the process of starting something is I think all founders would know it gets very lonely very quickly especially if you don't have co-founders you do need to surround yourselves with people you can actually talk to all the time so I did reach out to a number of entrepreneurs to learn from their experiences they don't have to be tech entrepreneurs because even if they are in the services or professional services industry you would see that a lot of the experiences are quite similar I think where it starts differing is when you start to scale I think tech skills very nicely compared to professional services or any other type of entrepreneurial world but it's quite a repeatable process so that was one group that I reached out to to talk to other entrepreneurs that are touching the industry my parents are entrepreneurs and that's been a great thing for me and then of course specific advisory panel.
So where did you find the other I want to dig into each of those three because I think there are other entrepreneurs watching and one thing we'll get to is asking for some advice where did you find the other entrepreneurs whom you spoke to are you part of H2 or another entrepreneurial organization like how did you identify them especially you said in your industry?
LinkedIn I mean I'm a big big user of LinkedIn and I reached out to people who had started businesses in the same industry and not everyone responds but this is just like anything else right when you start a new conversation the people who do respond they are just absolutely amazing on how helpful they can be and how open they are regardless of how successful they've been and that's that was a great learning lesson for me as to how accessible most people were when when you do get to them of course you have to recognize that everyone's very busy but LinkedIn was a great area for me to get started in this space in connecting with other entrepreneurs and I think I think further down the diligence world journey we also participate in an accelerator and that helped a bit as well to just understand with from other founders who are in similar journey resources from the accelerator as well.
Did you you're in New York right the company's in New York?
Correct yes. You are today and so did you participate in an accelerator in New York?
Oh we went to London for it. So think about accelerators so I think there are a ton in New York but there wasn't anything that was industry specific and given we were an industry vertical SaaS company it was very important for us to get the industry insights so a hedge funder and asset manager called Vinton Capital had launched their first accelerator and we were in the first cohort and that was a phenomenal experience of 10 weeks with them because you could tap into their resources their experiences and then they they also gave us a lot of the corporate accelerator experience so that was phenomenal.
Is there one thing or are there two things that you are willing to share that you got out of the accelerator program especially because it was industry specific like if you said there's some nuggets?
I think number one was user feedback it was tremendous to actually get a live user who could actually work through the platform play with your beta platform and give you feedback and second was the point that I was making earlier is how important security, scalability, redundancy, disaster recovery is to enterprise type of SaaS product the recognition of that because that was the first questions that they asked us and we had to shape up for that.
Interesting yeah I can imagine just having had financial services clients over the years you know that the requirements are much harder it's interesting when you're a small company trying to deal with the many requirements that come from I suppose any regulated industry right they really can't take a chance on you and have confidential information misplaced or leaked you also mentioned your parents it's pretty interesting I've been doing a series on how I launched this company and you're the first person to mention your parents I don't need your entire childhood story but I'm here how I mean I'm sure it'd be fascinating but we'll run out of time you know be keen to hear how that influenced you did it make you less afraid to be an entrepreneur were they pushing you to be an entrepreneur I mean how did how did their support manifest so I think growing up I've seen them being entrepreneurs so I've seen both my mother and my father they had their own businesses and I had seen the process of being an entrepreneur and it was very natural to me because that's already seen that and I think that probably has helped me and then as I was thinking about living leaving city to start Diligence Vault and they were incredibly supportive and I think that that was a long way because I've seen a lot of entrepreneurs when they don't have the family support it gets very difficult very quickly and both of them had said listen you need to give at least a thousand days because you are going to be a b2b company and b2b companies and especially when you're talking and selling to banks and large financial institutions they will not give you a shot unless you have enough behind you in terms of number of years right so that psychologically helped me significantly to to be prepared for at least a thousand days and that's really three years right and I know what it is I can I can almost do the math it's not exactly mark them off on a calendar so I mean I and in your when when you do have the setbacks when you do have the failures early on you know that you know you are prepared for three years and that's very very important I think their support was tremendous I think negotiating my first deal I had advisors but you know when when you're negotiating your first deal you are not at the at the position of advantage so how do you do actually do that and how do you actually get it closed I bounced off a lot of ideas with them as well as to how to negotiate and stuff as well so I think that was tremendous for me so you've mentioned the advisors a couple times again I think it might be something other people are interested in particularly people who sort of forge ahead on their own without a co-founder two co-founders where did you find the advisors did you find them on LinkedIn too or did you have more LinkedIn and my network both right so I reached out to people and asked them for folks that I can talk with who are technically minded but yes LinkedIn was a big area as well I did leverage that quite a bit I leveraged my own alumni network so my business school alumni network and I reached out to people who are more entrepreneurial or were in a venture capital space or something like that to get some ideas and thoughts and build a network around that as well did you use your funders for advice at all I'm not sure what you've done about funding but if you have any funders I'm not sure if you're completely bootstrapping this did they provide any assistance or advice correct so I think when we did take funding so we actually took funding when we got revenue positive and our first round was more private investors so absolutely right there are a couple of them they were very active and I would reach out to them for some thoughts and ideas may it be hiring may it be from a sales perspective all of those and then I think late last year we also took our first institutional round of funding which was a minority investment from Goldman Sachs and that has opened up a huge amount of network for us because as you can imagine they have a ton of resources they have so many other portfolio companies so we can always reach out to other portfolios as well especially I think for us as we are expanding overseas we opened our Singapore office our London office as we're thinking about more we reached out to our deal team and said hey can you talk help us connect with other people who have global plans and you talk about things to do and what not to do as well right so that's that's been quite helpful so you've gone global pretty quickly right at at your size you've gone global at a stage that many companies have not perhaps because of the nature of your industry how did you make that decision we were getting a lot of inbounds from outside of the US right Europe you can still manage Asia it becomes very challenging both for the clients and for your team and we did end up getting a lot of clients in Asia as well as well as London and I think it was the right time for us to go global to support the clients and also to build upon the early growth right yes we we probably went global much faster than most people do but given the ecosystem we are building we have now over 16 000 users a lot of those users are sitting in Australia in Singapore Hong Kong Japan Taiwan so we wanted to make sure that we have the distribution network and the support network for that user base because if you think about it there are a lot of investors who invest overseas as part of their asset allocation and if we have to be there and if we want to be the dominant global network we need to have that presence you said you got a lot of inbounds how did you get to the point of getting inbounds again at a relatively small size is this the Goldman Network or this is something else I think it was pre -Goldman that we got some of these I think given the platform the way we have built right so the pricing model of the diligence vault as well is not per user and what that does is when you take away the per user requirement more people within the firm adopt the platform and that helped us grow quite a bit right so we were very very intentional about that pricing model because we are building this ecosystem and then too we blog a lot and I think we blogged with the consistency of at least once one blogger month starting from 20 I think late 20s 15 and we've been doing that and that has helped us quite a bit from a content perspective because people people like content and I think even though we haven't had a pretty aggressive marketing campaign creating consistent content which doesn't always talk about diligence vault was very helpful and are you doing that content yourself or have you wanted to do that well the early days yes but I think after that I pretty much tell every new person who joins the team is you have to blog next month right it's it's a bit crowdsourced we manage it internally it's it's fun too it's fun too it doesn't always have to be about diligence well so it could be quite fun and um how has covid impacted you or has it you know I think we're all it's hard to get through one of these conversations without raising covid but some businesses are obviously far more impacted than others you seem to be b2b right these equal people are still investing in fact you know there's all these questions about why the stock market continues to do so well but there are lots of investments so has it impacted you at all can you feel it or did it not make any difference no it did it did impact us right because if you think about it we have b2b and one segment or one large segment of our user base is college endowments uh hospital foundations uh pension plans sovereign wealth funds I mean there are trillions billions of dollars that have gone out of sovereign wealth funds as countries have needed to tap into those especially in the U.S.
college and college endowments have struggled with budget issues as schools have gone remote and admissions have declined and stuff like that hospitals have struggled a lot because of a lot of elective surgery going going away for a bit with the lockdown so there has been a lot of budget pressures right I mean a lot of pension plans that we have as potential clients or current clients they are very tightly coupled with state and city budgets and even country budgets depending on what level they are at and that does put a pressure right but I think what has also helped us is yes there is that downward negative pressure but the tailwind is that people are having to work remotely they can't travel they have to get the information to make the decision investment decisions or even to monitor their existing investments and technology is the way to do that and given that we help them with a lot of the workflow automation helping them collect data in a much more efficient way has been a key driver as well so I would say we definitely did see a slowdown temporarily but we continue to hire through the period because we were also seeing the acceleration in other segments and I think both the expansion that you're referring to that we did pretty quickly which is London and Singapore happen after April of this year right so we continue to post the onset of COVID that's right and we continue it and we are like you know this is a good time to just build our bench strength and train everyone so we can be ready yes yeah another interesting thing you mentioned maybe 10 minutes ago was that the entrepreneurial journey is predictable I find that kind of interesting because I feel like people are always saying it's so unpredictable and that's why it's hard you don't know what's going to happen you don't know how your product's going to be received you don't know how potential clients will react so tell me why you've come to that view that it's predictable I see it from a macro perspective it is predictable only because when you do start right it's going to be difficult so that's predictable number one it's not going to be easy no matter what you do if you are a product company you have to build a product finding those engineers if you're not a technical person is going to be a challenge convincing your first investors you have to knock on a lot of doors no matter who you are or how connected you are you will always have to try very hard to raise capital I mean there are some exceptions where it just comes easy but for most people it's going to be very very difficult if your product is not very well received in the first go around you're going to have to iterate to make it work right all of us iterate I think when I started delicious world I had this grand admission of doing certain things and I've iterated into something completely different because you listen to your clients and you listen to what the users are asking for and if I talk to every single founder that I've known right it's successful or not they've all gone through the same exact journey of getting burnt out learning the lessons making sure not to get burnt out in the future challenges of growing the team it's the same thing I think it's the product if you're a product company it's the funding and the team and the clients are four different elements they may come to you at different points in time but each of them the very very first experience is just so difficult and and you just you always think you're going to be more successful at a much faster pace when you get started and you realize it's always going to be slower and more difficult and I think that's what I say is predictable right I mean some some people may have a zero to a billion dollar in five years others could have zero to 100 million dollars in 10 years but the journey itself is quite predictable the outcome could be very different you have you know we're almost at the end of time I think we're at two minutes um and I want to not cut you off uh this has been really interesting and I think there's a couple real standouts for me I I like the idea about predictability I think the fact that your parents are a sounding board is is unique or at least unique amongst what I've heard I think um you know it's good great hearing about you having the background of coding but knowing that you needed to fire yourself I hope you got it I hope you got a good package um on your way out um do you have any sales did you have any advice for other entrepreneurs I would say have a plan um because I think things will not go according to plan but have a more longer term plan and and just patience is just so such an important virtue when you are an entrepreneur uh you will get many more rejections um early on but you just have to learn from them and then that's all part of the plan right I mean early on I would say when I get when I got like three rejections a day I would just give myself the day off just to maintain my morale um but I had to switch that right once I once I got to being revenue positive and once we started having teams and I'm like you can't give up after three rejections in the early days it worked now it doesn't right so also be flexible to change that plan and strategy as well um and surround yourself with other entrepreneurs and other people who've done this because you will make the same mistakes even though they give you the advice it's very likely you're going to make the same mistakes and it's always good to learn from other people as to what they did when you did those mistakes right yeah and I really like the fact that you shared that a lot of these people you found from your industry on LinkedIn it didn't have to be somebody you already knew and that you reached out and people were forthcoming so at time thank you we've just spent a great half hour with Monel Amin from Diligence Vault um on how she launched her company so thank you again have a great day and good night in Asia bye you