Launched in 2009, Mavenlink is a cloud based solution and mobile app that allows users to access and manage business projects and transactions over the cloud. This thoroughly robust project management solution allows users to manage projects, send messages or emails, negotiate, send payments, and many other elements of business and project management that are rolled out regularly based on user feedback.
Mavenlink’s founder and CEO, Ray Grainger, has over 20 years experience in technology and business in addition to being part of 2 expeditions to Antarctica. He’s a passionate individual who’s very much interested in top level customer satisfaction and service. He reads nearly every ticket, review, and tweet generated by users and this particular characteristic, and not surprisingly, I’ve repeatedly noted when interviewing other founders.
The focusing on problem solving, facing and overcoming obstacles, and listening to customers are part of Grainger’s vision and they’ve helped make Mavenlink the #1 installed app in the Google Marketplace.
We recently spoke to Grainger about Mavenlink and his vision for business. Here’s what he shared with us:
Can you tell me about how you first became interested in entrepreneurship?
I think I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurial adventures. For example, when I was 18, and just out of high school, I applied to and was accepted on United States government funded expedition to Antarctica. As the youngest member of the team, I performed all of the tasks that no one else wanted to do, including spending a month in 0 degree weather digging up snow-buried testing equipment. I loved it, and ended up on another expedition a year later for which I received a congressional medal. Later, when I went to work at Accenture, each day was an entrepreneurial adventure. Every few months, I had new clients, new projects and new problems to solve. Maybe it’s because I was born on Columbus Day….
Starting out with Mavenlink, what were the challenges that you hadn’t anticipated when you first had the idea for the company and how did you address those challenges?
I started Mavenlink in 2009 with Roger Neel and Sean Crafts, both of whom worked with me at InQuira. After 20 years as a consultant at Accenture, I had a good understanding of the major workforce and technology trends occurring in business. More companies were forming collaborative networks of specialized providers in order to be more agile and flexible with their businesses. Workforce collaboration tools were limited in their ability to address the entire internal and external workforces. Managing an external workforce creates many challenges that are made even more complex when those relationships are also managed in an online environment. The solution required from our technology was far more expansive and complex that we ever anticipated.
Additionally, hiring the caliber of software engineer we desire has taken longer that we expected given the resurgence of demand for talent in the Bay Area. Even though we were in a recession at the time we started Mavenlink, good engineers were still extremely difficult to find. We solved this problem by contracting with outside companies such as Pivotal Labs, to help us fill capacity. This strategy worked extremely well, and we were eventually able to expand our team to the size it is today.
Can you tell me a little bit about your daily routine from the moment you wake up?
Wake up. Get out of Bed. Drag a comb across my head. No really…it’s kind of nutty to the extent that checking my messages has become an obsession. We are so customer focused in our company, and I read nearly every support ticket and response, every tweet, to get a pulse on what’s going on with our customers. And we have 100s of thousands of customers. Anyway…I check messages starting at 6 a.m. …or while I’m watching insomniac theater. We have a daily standup call at 8:30 a.m. with my management team and we try to keep it to 30 minutes with updates from both the Irvine and San Francisco teams. Then we break and go get things done! It’s fast-paced and everything that we do, we manage in a Mavenlink project. As a result, I’m able to keep tabs on everything so I “simul-task” a lot. Customers get most of my attention, and then product strategy and sales. I head home around 7 p.m. on a consistent basis.
Do you have a particular business philosophy or vision that you can tell our readers about?
My business philosophy has always been excellence in service. It’s an obsession. Most people don’t deliver exceptional service…that’s why it’s exceptional. At Accenture, our clients expected high service, and my goal was to provide it every chance I got…If I didn’t I wouldn’t have clients. I have carried this philosophy to Mavenlink where I have instilled a culture of service throughout the company. Customer service has a clear and direct impact on our business, and it is imperative that we engage with our customers quickly and efficiently or risk losing them.
When customers think about their most satisfying experiences, great customer service is generally at the top of the list. Customer service is about relationships and just because consumers are interacting more via computers and their mobile phones than in-person these days, doesn’t mean that businesses should give up the intimacy of a 1:1 dialogue.
What issues would you say are commonly overlooked when someone is interested in launching a startup?
Having an idea for a business and starting a business are two completely different things. There are a lot of smart folks out there with incredibly interesting ideas. Getting a business started, funded, staffed, and launched to a point of success is really hard. Mavenlink recently released an Infographic that I think really highlights one of the biggest challenges facing any entrepreneur—The issue of Time.
There are so many things that you need to get done, you need to really prioritize, or exercise “selective negligence”. You just won’t be able to accomplish everything and, in fact, shouldn’t. Focus on small, meaningful progress. Where there is uncertainty in your business concept, test it quickly and see if your hypothesis holds up. Where you’re more certain, execute quickly.
In doing interviews with entrepreneurs off all types it’s been said that finding funding nowadays is relatively easy. Would you agree?
While VC funding has rebounded somewhat in the last year or two, it’s not yet back to 2007 levels yet. The good news though for software companies is that it takes much less capital to get started, so there is a lot of innovation going on out there right now. The challenge for young companies is making enough progress in the business to get to a Series A funding event. We had talked with several traditional VCs in the very early stages of our business but were surprised to see how much progress they wanted us to have before they typically invest.
My sense is that if you are a first time CEO of a startup, the most likely way you’re going to raise capital is from friends and family. Think of it like concentric circles, you go to the folks who trust and believe in you. It’s also dependent upon geography. In the Silicon Valley, entrepreneurialism and startup investing is endemic. It’s like no other place in the U.S. In Southern California, the investment market is tougher. The good news is that you don’t need funding all at once, and there are a lot of Angel investors who may not typically have startup deal flow, particularly here is Southern California.
Can you tell me about the company culture at Mavenlink?
At Mavenlink, we have a great culture. We work hard but we also have fun. We have been lucky enough to hire some very intelligent, motivated and also kind people. Our conscious decision to hire employees based on these criteria really shows in the products we develop, the customers we serve and even how we talk to each other around the office. Our engineers follow a practice called pair programming, where two engineers are working on the same computer all day long. I’m guided in this regard by Ernest Shackleton, the early 20th century Antarctic explorer. For example, he needed a good navigator. He also needed a banjo player. He was lucky enough to find someone who could do both…so he hired him.
What has been the most personally satisfying part of launching Mavenlink?
My aspiration with Mavenlink is to enable every business on the globe to do business together online, with the best workforce available to them. When I get asked this question, I boldly respond that I’d like to see Mavenlink move the needle on the unemployment rate. I want to see people be able to work in new ways, with more choices and more independence. I’d like to enable people to take charge of their lives.
How do you keep yourself motivated to addresses the tasks at hand?
I find it very easy to stay engaged at Mavenlink because I know that our product addresses and solves real customer problems. Every day, I am lucky enough to receive feedback from customers on how they are using the product and how we can make it better. Knowing that many of our customers run their entire business on Mavenlink is extremely motivating.
What advice do you find yourself usually giving to others interested in launching a startup?
Find a real issue and/or customer need before you develop a product. Make sure you really understand the need and can identify with it viscerally. Determine if the solution you’ve envisioned is green-field, i.e., people really aren’t using anything today, or if you are you replacing an existing product with a better one. Then take a very hard look at your competition to determine if your solution is both differentiated and difficult to replicate. The problem your solving must be understandable, and your approach to solving it clearly articulated. Then, focus on customers more than your competitors. Focusing on competitors too early will cause you to end up looking like them. I think when you look back at successful companies you kind of say, “of course…what a simple idea that was.”
When you’re not directly engaged with Mavenlink, how do you like to unwind?
I’m an avid scuba diver and I enjoy spending my vacation time diving with my family. I’m also on the board at Harvey-Mudd and get a great deal of satisfaction helping to improve educational opportunities for young people.
What’s your method for balancing your work life with your personal life?
This is a really tough one for any entrepreneur. I try to carve out time every day to be with my family and also spend some time on the weekend diving or taking family trips.
If you could visit a foreign country that you’ve not already been to, where would you and why?
I’d like to travel and dive throughout Southeast Asia. I’d go on a live-aboard for months on end.