Drift: A Tale of Two Transformational Leaders

By Pat Grady on behalf of Team Sequoia

Our first memories of David Cancel and Elias Torres go back more than a decade. We’d just gotten into business with HubSpot founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, who were doubling down on the “MoFu” part of their product — which dealt with the Middle of the marketing Funnel. David and Elias’ company at the time, Performable, had the best MoFu functionality in the market. If HubSpot acquired Performable, it would get that functionality and a bunch of engineers, and Performable would get the benefit of HubSpot’s thriving customer community.

As it turned out, the acquisition was transformative for HubSpot in other ways, as well. David and Elias did indeed bring functionality and a bunch of engineers, but also a whole new breed of startup energy. They were smart, they moved fast, and they got great people to follow them. It didn’t take long for them to go beyond the MoFu product and into the rest of the HubSpot platform. Within a couple years, HubSpot’s engineering organization was operating at a new level, and its product had become the best in the market.

HubSpot was full of great people, and Brian and Dharmesh had a practice of bringing them into board meetings. But even with the high bar set by his peers, David Cancel’s forays into our gatherings were memorable. We so enjoyed his appearances that when we had some extra time before or after a meeting, we’d seek him out just to say hi. We’ve met quite a few founders over the years, and we can confirm that David is truly one of a kind. He is brilliant, thoughtful and brutally honest. He doesn’t pull punches, and his hyperkinetic mind can leave you breathless. He is an utterly fascinating coffee companion. We couldn’t help but gravitate toward him. After a few wonderful years at HubSpot, David decided to scratch the startup itch once more. The next time we made it out to Boston we paid him a visit — and that’s when we started getting to know Elias.

Elias, we learned, was the perfect complement to David. Few people can match David’s pace — but Elias can. And while David tends to live inside his mind, constantly working through novel ideas, Elias lives in the world around him, constantly meeting people and building relationships. Elias is also a fountain of eternal youth, both physically (he looks a full 20 years younger than he is) and in spirit (his energy is infectious; the only gear he seems to have is “drive”).

Together, they made for compelling co-founders: a visionary and a team-builder, both of whom were already “successful” by any objective measure, and yet felt like they had something to prove. That underdog mentality is characteristic of many legendary founders, and it is catnip for us at Sequoia. When we had a chance to get into business with David and Elias, we leapt at it — and thus we became their partners in building Drift.

The early days of Drift were magical. The product was beloved by customers, and the team was stocked with younger versions of the founders — brilliant, energetic people who thought from first principles and took nothing for granted. (Exhibit A: Dave Gerhardt’s content marketing was equal parts startup wisdom and reality TV show.)

Winning was contagious, and Drift had caught the bug. The metrics were beautiful. Drift started to hire some of the best leaders in Boston, such as star CFO Jim Kelliher and AI genius Jeff Orkin. David and Elias knew that this was unusual — companies aren’t supposed to work that well — and we all tried to figure out what we could be missing. What issues could sneak up on us and cause the music to stop?

Soon, we found our answer. Drift’s extraordinary product velocity — which created raving fans and followers in the early days — left chaos in its wake. The accumulated debt, both technical and cultural, came due. Suddenly the wins were harder to come by.

But this is when we really learned who we were in business with. David and Elias embraced the pain and tackled the new challenges head-on, refactoring the product into a cohesive platform with a logical flow, capable of enterprise scale; refactoring the culture into that of a mature enterprise business; and refactoring the team by bringing in next-level executives like Todd Barnett, whose impact was nothing short of game-changing. There are plenty of clichés we could use to describe this period for Drift, but none would do it justice. Suffice to say that David and Elias were the best of what founders aspire to be: resolute, indefatigable, in some ways even defiant. They were beyond determined to see Drift fight through its growing pains and come out stronger on the other side. Thanks at least in part to the sheer force of their will, Drift won that fight. Their winning streak was back on track.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and the company has become the new way businesses buy from businesses. Drift’s enterprise business has been the rising tide that’s lifted the whole organization. They are the fast lane for B2B commerce — and the more people who travel down that road, the more Drift’s AI team turns the content of those journeys into a compounding advantage for customers. Rarely have we seen an ROI as compelling as Drift is able to provide.

As was the case with Performable and HubSpot, David and Elias have been wildly successful with Drift; they have hundreds of exceptional employees and thousands of happy customers. And yet, once again, they feel like they have something to prove. Drift’s partnership with Vista is the next move on the chess board — not an end to the story, but a new chapter. Just as David and Elias made for compelling co-founders, Drift and Vista are compelling “co-founders” for this next stage — a company with the creativity, vision and passion of the startup world, and a firm with a tried and true playbook for bringing operational excellence to at-scale enterprise SaaS. And just as the Performable acquisition became a transformative moment for HubSpot, we believe the Vista partnership will prove to be a transformative moment for Drift.

So from all of us here at Sequoia to David, Elias and the entire team: thank you for allowing us to be part of your journey and congratulations on this exciting new milestone. We believe you are just getting started on what Drift will eventually become, and your best days are ahead.

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From idea to IPO and beyond, Sequoia helps the daring build legendary companies.

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From idea to IPO and beyond, we help the daring build legendary companies. Follow our publication for more Sequoia perspectives: https://seq.vc/Sequoia-pub

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