Founderoo caught up with Robin, the founder of Pearler. This is a great story of a software engineer with a smart strategy to start his own business. Working with artificial intelligence, Robin found a real business problem to solve.
Robin, what's your backstory?
I was born in Scotland to migrant parents and moved to Adelaide, Australia when I was ten. My wife and I have two primary school-aged kids and a miniature Dachshund.
I’ve worked in various businesses (telecommunications, health, sports, business productivity) in software engineering and product roles. I was the Director of Engineering at a scale-up before I started my business.
My first adult job was working as a Dial-up Internet tech support rep for a large telco. I followed my interests and tried different roles to figure out what I enjoyed, leading me to software engineering, cybersecurity, and eventually engineering leadership.
I’ve wanted to have my own company for my whole adult life and looked at each job along the way as an opportunity to add skills, learn tactics and strategy, and generally prepare myself.
Along the way, my wife and I had our children, and I pursued some qualifications to validate and round out my experience. I am particularly proud of the Master’s degree I earned whilst working full time, which was only possible thanks to my wonderful wife managing literally everything else in our life.
Tell us what your company does?
I’ve always wanted to run a product company. The financial realities meant that it was smarter to start two businesses; a services company, to grow my skills, knowledge and network, and pay the way, and the other a product company to build interesting products that solve business problems.
When government and large companies procure software, they require vendors to complete questionnaires as part of their Request For Proposal (RFP, or RFx) process. Completing these questionnaires is non-negotiable and the answers are make or break for the deal.
Our product is called Pearler and is an application that makes it easier for businesses to sell into government and large enterprises by automating much of the RFx questionnaire process. These questionnaires are long, complex, time-consuming and a hard requirement. Our AI engine looks at the question being asked and proposes relevant answers based on your prior responses.
We built a workflow engine and collaboration tools to simplify how distributed teams work together and close deals with better answers.
How did you come up with the idea?
I’ve worked on both sides of the process, both procuring software (and evaluating the security responses provided by the vendor), and as a vendor selling software to large clients who require these questionnaires.
Responding to tenders is an intense, consuming activity which is stressful, complex and has highly uncertain outcomes. The questions are often very similar but asked in a unique way. I saw that the process was flawed for both parties and decided that it was a worthy problem to solve, and it sat at the intersection of my interests.
How did you go about launching and building the business?
I started by planning out the product MVP, which went through many rounds of wireframe design, functionality refinement and eventually some minor proof of concept validation exercises.
Once I was satisfied that it was all technically feasible and valuable, I started talking to potential customers and looking at the competitive landscape. Once they told me it was valuable, I began to take some early steps.
We started with the ‘crown jewel’, the heart of the application - the answering experience. The answering experience is the place in the application where users spend 90% of their time, which really solves the problem.
Designing this out took multiple rounds of design iterations. Once we were happy, we ran it past some of our early prospects to get their take. Once we were satisfied, we started building it out.
Getting the answering experience right took a long time. It’s big, complicated and essential to our product. Once that was in place and being validated, we started working on the supporting aspects of the product. The parts that exist in most products and were more obvious (user management, login, signup, etc.).
Because the product is used in the security assessment space, having a gold standard infrastructure was really important for us, and we wanted to get it right from day one.
We used a tool called Terraform and the best DevOps engineer we could find. We started on this early on and took the time to refine and have a secure, scalable infrastructure that was easy to deploy, maintain and create extra environments.
How have you grown the business?
Most of our growth has been through word of mouth; building a strong network and always staying true to our commitments has been the most powerful force for us. Customers getting what they need and coming back to us with confidence and more work has paved the way.
What’s your biggest selling product?
The service-based business has been going from strength to strength, building cutting edge, complex business products for our customers. Our RFx product is still new to the market, but we’re aiming for the product company to be cash-flow positive within twelve months.
What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?
Getting second rate advice costs you a lot more than you’ll save. Finding the right people to have on your team may cost more but will pay off in the long run. Feeling confident in your legal and accounting team members is worth a lot.
I think I learnt in other businesses to treat everything as an experiment and assume that you won’t get it right nine times out of ten, but that your second and third attempts will be much closer to the mark. Also, that trying something and expecting it to give you learning is far more productive than analysing endlessly in the hope of getting it right the first time around.
What day to day digital tools do you use?
What book has been a great inspiration to you as a founder?
My journey all started with Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. These days I tend to read about Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and world leaders.
Hacker News is a great source of interesting founder stories and insights into the software ecosystem.
Paul Graham’s articles give an interesting perspective and dispel commonly held myths.
What quotes do you live by?
“Measure twice, cut once."
What do you do to look after your mental health as a founder?
Spending time with my wife and kids is the best decompression for me. I try to keep a clear distinction between work time and home time, which can be tricky when working from home.
The hardest part for me is the feeling of guilt that there is still work to be done and leaving it for another day. There is always more work than there are hours in the day.
In a few words what does it mean to be the founder of a business?
"It’s exciting and fulfilling to see your vision come to life. It takes a lot of energy to take it from zero to one."
What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?
"Build a company that represents the best qualities of your personality and disapproves of your worst. Invest in people and create a culture where you’d want to work. Do work you’re proud and passionate about."
Where can people find out more about your business?
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