Evan Wong is CEO and Co-founder of Checkbox. At only 25 he already has two successful startups under his belt. Checkbox is a Regtech solution that enables business people to build software without any sort of coding. Checkbox is to business applications what WordPress is to Web Design. Used by lawyers, accountants and bankers Checkbox is considered the ideal tool to fix the Regulatory and Compliance issues facing many financial institutions.
How did you become an Entrepreneur?
Evan: I founded my first business when I was 17, an education business called Hero Education. Until that point I’d never shown any signs that I was going to be an entrepreneur. Looking back, I did possess certain entrepreneurial qualities; constantly learning, the drive and desire to solve problems.
What you bring into the world as an entrepreneur is so unique and it really cannot be matched with any other experience in your life. Because of your hard work, your decisions, your creativity you’ve now put something new into the world. It is an unparalleled feeling when you know that this has impacted so many people for the better. I really got hooked on the drug of being an entrepreneur with Hero Education. So, when I left university at the age of 22 it felt natural to get started with Checkbox.
How did the idea for Checkbox come about?
Evan: Like every other startup, we didn’t begin our journey with this idea. People think you need to find the right idea before you launch a startup. Most startups aren’t successful because of the initial idea. It is usually through a diligent process of speaking with customers, understanding the market, and understanding a customer’s problems that an idea then refines and pivots. Eventually it becomes a viable business not just an idea.
In my experience it is best to start with a big, broad idea that’s anchored to a very strong and passionate why. Checkbox happened because I was passionate about two things: Simplifying the complexity around regulation and compliance. I felt that first hand running Hero education. And my second passion was empowering non-technical people to build software.
A lot of people ask me how did you start a software company when you don’t have a software background? Checkbox solves two of the biggest problems I faced when launching my first startup. I hated compliance and process and I hated that I couldn’t code.
How did you get the product out to market?
Evan: So here is my tip for people launching a startup and that is you should never approach new contacts with the intention of making a sale. If you want to sell your product you first need to build the right relationships. When you start out, you can’t make the sale anyway because the product isn’t there. The way to frame your approach is to always ask for advice and feedback. People are more than happy to help you out, especially if your product is in their space.
But what you’re doing is a presales process. The advice you get can be used to improve your product from a customer’s perspective. And the customer is now invested in the product from an emotional viewpoint. In a few months when you have built your MVP they can’t wait to see the demo.
Then it is a much easier presentation and sales process because you are not coming in cold. The client has contributed to the product, they are invested in its success and if the product delivers value they will buy.
Starting Checkbox straight out of University, I had no professional network to tap into. All our clients are Tier One corporates, banks, accounting firms, law firms etc. Two years ago, when I started Checkbox, I didn’t know a single person in these types of organisations.
How did you get Tier One corporate’s as your first clients?
Evan: As a founder you must be quite good at hustling. I had to grow our network of clients from nothing. Coming straight out of University, there were no existing contacts or network in Corporate land. So, I started out by creating a general profile of people I thought that would be interested in the product. Through a combination of research, Google searches, reading articles, blog posts and LinkedIn profiles I built a target list of ideal customers.
Next, I’d reach out by email asking to set up a short call for feedback, not to sell anything! Just feedback on the Checkbox value proposition. The discussion would usually be followed up a few months later with an in-person demonstration of the product. At the end asking for recommendations or referrals to other contacts in their network. Today most of our business comes from word of mouth and thought leadership marketing. Being active at industry events and conferences helps our profile a lot.
What is the secret to working with Corporates?
Evan: There is a lot of buzz and hype around innovation and technology. Bluntly speaking corporates are still learning how to integrate technology into their day to day processes. There is a lot of excitement surrounding startups and corporates are always willing to have discussions. But you must cut through that first layer and understand quickly who the real customers are. The real customers are people who take you seriously, treat working with startups like a project implementation and have the intention of purchasing a license. It’s tricky but you learn from experience how to prequalify the right opportunities.
How has the business changed since your early days?
Evan: Checkbox was under the radar for over a year. There was no product to show potential customers. No one knew about us until we won Regtech of the Year at the 2017 Fintech Awards. Fast forward 12 months and we have grown from four to twenty people. Today we have a product that is purchased by tier one enterprises. We went from bootstrapping to closing a $1.7m funding round. We have gone from no revenue to now generating revenue. And we won Regtech of the Year again at the 2018 Fintech Awards. It has been a totally crazy year.
Out of all the challenges we have faced, finding the right people has been the toughest. As soon as the business gets to a certain level you can’t do it alone anymore, no matter how brilliant you are or how hard you work. At the end of the day it’s going to be a team of great people who will realise your vision and build on the initial success of the founders.
I have learned people are the most important factor to business success. You need to be very, very precious about who you bring into your team. When you are a startup every new addition changes the dynamic and culture, way more dramatically than it does at a larger company.
How do you attract the right talent to Checkbox?
Evan: I hate to say this, as it’s a love hate relationship, the best way we have found talent is through recruiters. But they’re expensive. We started off hiring through our personal networks, but we didn’t know the right people. Then we tried out some of the newer recruitment platforms. They were okay, again the quality wasn’t quite there.
Then the pressure hit, and we had no other option but to use recruiters. The amount we’ve paid in recruitment fees over the last year is enough to justify two full time in-house recruitment resources. So, we are exploring tools like LinkedIn recruiter. But we are still finding it very difficult to find the right quality if I’m being honest.
The secret is to create partnerships with the best recruiters in their field. Using multiple recruiters was probably our greatest recruiting flaw. Maybe that is the right thing to do at the very beginning because you don’t know anyone in the market? But eventually you realize that by working with so many different recruiters you don’t get the best talent. Recruiters will save the best talent for the clients they have the strongest relationships with. People are the most important asset in a company. It is the one area where you can’t afford to cut costs, even in a startup.
We have gained the best results by working in partnership with select recruiters and paying their fees. I have found if we give exclusivity we can negotiate cheaper fees and still get access to the best talent. It is all about creating a win/win relationship. We get great talent at a reduced fee; the recruiter gets repeat business and knows they will get paid for the work they do.
Attracting the right people is massively important.
Evan: Getting the right talent to stay is even more important. Especially when you consider the pain and the cost for finding someone. Founders can sometimes be a little complacent and don’t fight for employees when they resign. How expensive was it to get them into the business? How much time did you have to spend convincing them to join? How much time and money have you invested in them as a person? Then why aren’t you figuring out ways to make the person want to stay? Especially when replacing them is an extremely expensive exercise. Will the replacement be a fit to your company and can they perform? Retention of good people is more important than acquisition of good people.
How do you retain your people?
Evan: Retaining the best people is about leadership. It’s about being a good leader. Good leadership includes understanding and listening to your employees. You need to understand what your peoples career goals. When issues arise, you need to act quickly and resolve in a professional, mature and empathetic way.
Culture has the biggest impact on retaining talent, especially if you’re a startup. If you’re a startup with a crap culture, then you are a crap business and a crap place to work. As founders you need to work out exactly what your culture is going to be. Get your vision, your purpose and your values set early days. The values of your company must flow from the values of the founders. I feel very strongly about this. When you are starting a business, the founders are the brand of the company. The founders are going to set the energy, the expectations and the culture of the company as well.
Similarly, the values of the company must reflect the values of the founders. We have three founders at Checkbox. Now all three of us may not have the exact same personal values. So, we have spent days working out what we truly cared about. Collectively we decided on the top five shared values. Values we could demonstrate and action every day, values our customers and employees would also care about.
The Checkbox values are:
Practice positivity, master empathy. It’s about creating a very positive outlook no matter what happens. It is about choosing positivity over negativity and keeping up morale in the team.
No ego, no blame, no mercy. No mercy means having an open company culture where if there’s a problem we talk it through. There’s a mutual understanding within the company that there are no personal attacks. We are just calling issues as they are but bringing no ego and no blame to the discussion.
Simply first class. We strive to over deliver in everything we do. We want to exceed expectations.
Empowered as a team. This is a concept whereby we provide autonomy to all team members, so they can direct the company in a way they see best, as a team. If it’s not done as a team everyone is just running around like headless chickens. But if we are all aligned to the same target then people can make autonomous decisions.
Be Bold. Suck less. Be Bold means taking calculated risks and experimenting. Learn so that you can Suck Less. If you understand what you suck at then you can fix it. It’s about continuous improvement.
I feel aligned to all five values but the hardest one to practice daily is Simply First Class. As a startup we’ve got limited resources. You often compromise. The quality of the code, the type of talent you can hire or the product you present to the customer. There’s always going to be a compromise. It is tough because you don’t want the company values to be something you aspire to. They should be the expectation today.
What does the future hold for Checkbox?
Evan: We are considered a Regtech startup. For now, we are focusing on regulation and compliance. But there’s no reason why we can’t extend the software for other purposes. Our mission is to empower business people to build software. The vision for our company is to become the industry standard for anyone who wants to build software. In the same way Microsoft Office is used to create documents, presentations and spreadsheets. We see Checkbox as the tool to create software. But today we are focused on business applications to manage processes, policies and decisioning.
Over the next 12 months we have a major project in Asia. International expansion is very much in our sights. In my role as CEO, right now is about laying the right foundations for scalable growth. We are past the phase of product validation, but we are not quite ready for high growth.
We are in a period where we need to hire the right people so that when we hit the ‘Go’ button the business won’t fall apart in the process. We have just hired a Head of Finance and Operations, Head of Professional Services and a Customer Success Manager. These are examples of the more operational roles we need to hire right now. But we are hiring across the whole spectrum; engineers, developers, sales people, operations. In two years, we could have two hundred employees, so we are always open to conversations with talented people who have what it takes to grow a business and share our values and culture.
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