Business travel is fraught with tiny inconveniences that add up into misery. From the tiny airplane seats to the long lines at the cab stand, every step of the way can be grueling, and often the process of expensing things like cab fares, client dinners, and other per diem necessities is just as frustrating as the travel itself. Relying on word-of-mouth and a bottom-up adoption curve, David Barrett founded Expensify to make this process easier using the technology we all carry with us on a regular basis: Our smart phones.
David was kind enough to take a few moments and tell us how he came to found Expensify, his philosophy of how the company should be grown, and some of the challenges he’s faced running his own business.
Q: Please tell us a little bit about your background and the startup story behind Expensify?
David: I’ve been a lifelong programmer — I started when I was 6, often programming on the Tandy computers in Radio Shack while my parents went shopping in the mall. Through middle school and high school I got into games and computer graphics; and in college I worked in the virtual reality lab at the University of Michigan. After school I went to the game industry in Texas, but then took an unusual hiatus from programming to do technical writing, product management, and project management. Around 2005 I joined Red Swoosh, which was acquired by Akamai in 2007. I left Akamai in 2008 to start Expensify.
Q: What are some of the projects you are working on right now?
David: So many. A lot of startups have a single path they need to follow, a long sequence of events leading up to a big pot of gold at the end. We’re in the weird situation of being surrounded by opportunity — so many little projects, each of which makes the product better for one more group of users. At any point in time we have as many independent projects as we have employees — some take a day, some take a week, but all just chip away at the product to make it cleaner, neater, faster, and more powerful.
Q: Do you or have you owned any other businesses in the past, If so what happen to them?
David: Expensify is the first real business I’ve started.
Q: How do you separate yourself from your competitors?
David: The major difference is how we sell: most companies have some big marketing budget and sales team that beats down doors and makes people buy their products. We don’t — we don’t have any marketing or sales; we never “push” anyone to use Expensify. We just build the best product we can, then people sign up, use it, and tell their friends. So while most companies build a product designed to be “sold”, we build a product designed to be “used”. It’s a major mental shift that influences everything about the company.
Q: How many people are currently using this platform and how do you plan to keep growing?
David: About 1.27M people use Expensify, across perhaps 180K companies. We’ll continue growing it as we have in the past: by building the best product and encouraging people to tell their friends.
Q: What would you say was the tipping point for your business?
David: When mobile phones got auto-focus cameras. This enabled high-quality receipt images on the road for the first time, coupled with the mobile app stores which allowed people to discover Expensify. This powered the whole “bottom up adoption curve” where people submit expense reports to their companies and, over time, convince the whole company to do the same.
Q: What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew before starting your company?
David: That there are no silver bullets or magic beans. You can’t hire people to solve your problems if you don’t already have a pretty good idea of what that solution is going to look like. Just keep an open mind and trust your gut, but always calibrated it with whatever real world data is available.
Q: Starting out what was the worst mistake you made as an entrepreneur and what did you learn from it?
David: Hiring people who made promises they couldn’t keep, but not knowing enough to know that they wouldn’t (and being overly trustful even when I suspected they couldn’t). As a small company it’s incredibly, *incredibly* hard to maintain good hiring standards, but it’s critical at every stage.
Q: What is one thing that you on a daily basis to grow as an entrepreneur?
David: Thicker skin. It’s not good to be overconfident, but neither is being *under* confident. Just make sure you know your stuff, and be honest when you don’t.
Q: How is running a successful business different than what you thought it would be?
David: I assumed competition, customers, or product development would be the hard part. But those are easy. The hard part is assembling a team of really amazing people and keeping them going, day after day, toward goals that will take years to realize.
Q: What was the best entrepreneurial advice you have ever been given and by whom?
David: Honestly, I think most advice is crap. I would suggest asking for less advice, and just get really making and learning from your own mistakes.
Q: What’s your definition of success?
David: Every day, doing the best I possibly can. It’s not fashionable to say this, but I believe more in inputs than outputs. At the end of the day, you can’t control what happens, you can only control what you do.
Q: What is your favorite entrepreneurship quote?
David: “Don’t hire brilliant jerks” — Reed Hastings.
Connect with David Barrett
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