Welcome to the fourth edition of Learnings of a CEO. You can read previous editions here.
Snapdocs is the leading digital closing platform for the mortgage industry. Today, the company touches 25% of all US real estate transactions and is valued at $1.5B. Founder and CEO Aaron King and his team have expertly navigated fundraising and market cycles. We sat down with Aaron to hear his insight into getting a business up and running with minimal outside funding and building through volatile market conditions.
Why did you decide to raise minimal funding early in the company’s history?
I never considered funding to be a requirement for building — but I also didn’t know much about fundraising early on in the company’s history. Snapdocs was started as a side project a couple of years before ever thinking about applying to YC. By the time I applied, we had a live product, customers, and revenue. Even after YC, we didn’t raise much immediately. We stayed focused on building and then raised a seed round later in the year.
It wasn’t until three years later that we raised our Series A. By then, we had spent about $1MM of our seed round and were at a $5MM revenue run rate. Around that time we started working with much larger customers, and it was clear we would need more capital to be successful in this bigger market. So, we raised our Series A. After we closed the round, our lead investor revealed how capital efficient we had been compared to our peers.
Do you feel you had to ruthlessly prioritize when building the product because you didn’t have the capital?
Yes, and I’ve learned that you should take the same approach even when you do have the capital to be less disciplined. Back then, ruthless prioritization was our only option. We couldn’t afford to build features that weren’t essential. There were always a hundred distractions that would result in a broader, less focused product. But our capital constraints kept us focused on going deep with our paying customers. That helped us avoid the common trap of building products no one wanted.
It also meant that when we decided to build a product, we had to think about the smallest version of that product in order to quickly ship. That helped ensure we had a short feedback loop from our users and ensure our resources were continuously being invested in building the right features. Looking back, I’m amazed at how much we were able to accomplish without spending much capital.
Being capital constrained forced good behaviors that served us well even after we raised more funding. We continue to be thoughtful about every dollar we spend. But, there is a cost to this approach, and we’re paying for it today. We built many things that weren’t engineered for scale or flexibility. However, now we can afford to reengineer those unscalable solutions because we built something people want.
What did your product cycles look like before you raised your Series A?
We were always heavy on customer involvement when building product. We spent a lot of time in our customers’ offices watching them use what we were building and understanding their work. We also kept a lot of our prospects in the loop as we built new features. Some of the best feedback came from people who had chosen to not yet work with us. Responding to that feedback with a killer feature was a great way to ultimately get them on board.
We built a lot of trust and rapport with these early customers, and the in-person interactions helped immensely. As a result, they would call one of us the moment they thought there was a problem or if they thought a competitor was doing something compelling. Customer churn for Snapdocs has always been incredibly low as a result.
We created a disciplined product release process, even in those early days, but we were still able to move quickly. We shipped code every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Customers were impressed by how quickly we could respond to issues and feedback.
Interestingly, not having too much pressure from investors early on allowed us to experiment more in an underappreciated part of our market. The Serviceable Available Market (SAM) of our initial product was roughly only $20MM, but we believed it would allow us to expand into more critical parts of the mortgage ecosystem. It was the type of opportunity that would be hard to discover through market analysis or spreadsheet exercises. You had to get deep into the problem set to see the opportunity and develop the right strategy—and that ultimately worked to our advantage.
Founders need capital to hire employees. As a bootstrapped company, what was your strategy around hiring?
Hiring was hard, but we did a few things that worked well. Even before the company could afford full-time employees, I worked with talented contractors. I also leaned on friends to help me work through both technical and business challenges. Someone would come over and whiteboard with me or we’d get into the code and work through a problem.
When I could afford to hire full-time employees, I treated them like founding team members. I was generous with equity and shared everything about the potential and challenges of the business. We built a lot of trust as a small team. Getting a few really good people into the company early on was foundational to the company’s success.
The first person to join full-time was an engineer I had worked with in a previous role (and one of the friends that would help in those early days). The second and third hires were applicants from job postings on Hacker News. All three turned out to be excellent. None of us initially had large networks in the startup world, so most of our early hiring involved lots of interviews and hiring a few of the wrong people. We couldn’t attract well-known talent and took risks; invested in people we thought had a lot of potential.
One mistake I made in the early years was being too timid to approach more of the people I respected. I should have tried to convince them to quit their successful jobs and join our small (yet risky at the time) startup. I’m fearless on this approach now, but back then I was intimidated to try to convince a friend to join a company that might fail. In hindsight, I did them a disservice by not trying to recruit them. The truth is that these people are smart and you’re not harming anyone by sharing your vision and the potential of the company with them. As long as you’re honest and transparent about the inherent challenges, you should give them the opportunity to take a risk on you.
As Snapdocs grew, it became easier to pull from the team’s networks. We continued to build a lot of trust within the team, and they started referring their friends to apply. Eventually, we attracted well-known investors, and that, along with our culture and growth, made hiring easier.
Because we were capital constrained, we also didn’t hire anyone until there was a clear and painful need. It made running the company harder because we were all spread thin but ultimately made us incredibly productive, as it meant we were always working on the most important things.
How have you navigated different market conditions? When do you decide to react?
A big part of our success has come from selectively ignoring some market changes while reacting quickly to others. It has always been a question of how the change aligns with our resources, vision, and north star metric of market share growth.
For example, the biggest and most dynamic change we regularly experience are fluctuations in the number of mortgages that happen in a given month or year. This can change quickly based on a host of economic factors. When we are well-resourced and growing fast, we can ignore some of those market downturns and stay focused on market share growth — knowing we have the momentum and capital to power through it. Other times we’ve had to scale up or scale back based on the size of the fluctuation.
But other market dynamics can change quickly too, like the industry’s appetite for new technologies and the competitive landscape. There have been times when the market was demanding a technology but we believed there were underlying factors in the industry that would prevent that tech from scaling. If we built the technology, it would pull resources away from the priorities that drove us toward our long-term goals. And so, sometimes to the protests of our sales team, we ignored it or invested minimally in these trendy areas. By doing so, we were able to stay focused on the things that were truly going to transform the industry.
It’s also worth noting that navigating change was relatively easy in the first few years of building the company. It was a lot easier to adjust course on company direction or strategy when the team was smaller and could all fit in the same room. The product cycles were relatively short and malleable. The cost of making a change was low.
As the company has grown, we’ve had to be a lot more thoughtful and methodical about changing the speed or direction of the business as we react to market changes. The cost of making a change has increased a lot. Investments take longer to play out. Changes to headcount take longer to scale up or down. There are more people on the team and more layers in the organization to communicate the change through.
In March 2020, Snapdocs made a huge shift because of changes you were seeing in the housing market. How did you communicate this shift to your team and ensure their goals were aligned with the new priorities?
COVID accelerated demand for our product, but with that came a shift in what our customers wanted from a platform like ours. We had to expand quickly to serve their needs, and we had to pivot our roadmap on a dime. It’s a testament to the team that we were able to pull that off.
To make decisions quickly and then communicate them, we worked in concentric circles. We started by discussing the change in a smaller group of 3-4 people. This is where the hardest and messiest conversations took place. We moved quickly to define the problems and opportunities and set a direction for the company. We then looped in the senior leadership team for further discussion and to arm them with everything they needed to share the directional changes with their teams. Finally, we held a company-wide meeting to share the new direction and answer questions. All of this happened over the course of about 2 weeks.
Now, our business required more speed and flexibility as information was coming in and changing week on week. We dealt with this by creating temporary pods of 4-5 team members focused on solving specific challenges that would spin up for a few weeks and then dissolve once the challenge was addressed. We also increased the frequency of our company-wide all-hands meetings from monthly to weekly so we could keep the whole company up to speed.
Luckily we had a deep culture of transparency that goes back to the beginning of the company. We’ve always tried to share everything with our entire team — our cash balance, monthly growth rate, burn, our biggest challenges. This got harder as the team grew, but we’ve largely continued this transparency to today. It’s much easier to be transparent in times of great change if you’ve laid a foundation of trust and transparency in the past.
We also worked hard to be intellectually honest about the growth we were experiencing. It’s easy to take credit when the business accelerates, but our message to the team wasn’t, “Look at how great we’re doing.” The message was closer to, “This industry works in cycles. We’re in an up cycle now and that’s great. There’s going to be a down cycle. We don’t know when or how strong it’s going to be. But we should not overly congratulate ourselves for the current situation, just as we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we’re fighting through an inevitable downturn in the future.”
In 2021, Snapdocs announced a Series D round. How did this change your mentality around resources?
It was clear that the pandemic would be an accelerator for our business, and we needed to move fast to stay ahead of the market. We went from being frugal to raising larger rounds of capital and hiring seasoned executives who could help us scale. It’s important for companies to evolve at the right points in time and ask themselves, “Is what I did yesterday the thing that’s going to get me to where I need to be tomorrow?”. We asked that question and decided we needed to change parts of our culture and capital investment strategy if we wanted to win.
When we raised capital in 2021, transactions on Snapdocs had steadily increased to millions of closings a year and thousands of lenders and title companies were using our technology every month. Demand for mortgages throughout the pandemic was strong, and we deployed an intentional strategy of prioritizing effectiveness over efficiency. We needed to get aggressive and expand our market position, which required capital.
The market turned again later in the year, with demand for mortgages cooling. It was clear that it was time to go back to some of our old ways of doing things. We ditched the motto of being effective over being efficient. This meant a return to ruthless prioritization of our focus. We shifted away from investing so heavily in future scale as we wouldn’t need to tap into these systems for a few years.
I find it helpful to remember that market fluctuations are normal and unavoidable. Startups should scale up at times and scale back at others. It’s hard and painful. There’s nothing easy or enjoyable about being understaffed to meet customer demand on one side, or needing to let team members go on the other. But these ups and downs are natural and a necessary part of building an enduring company. In a startup, you’re always making hard decisions based on insufficient information. You’re never going to be able to perfectly predict the future. You need to keep making the best decisions you can — knowing all the while that you may be wrong and need to change course again once the future becomes clearer.