For the Founder Project this week, I had the good fortune of speaking with one of New Zealand’s superstars, the Founder and CEO of Populate, Kirsti Grant. Populate sits at the intersection of Finance & HR, helping teams and companies plan & manager their headcount, without the traditional spreadsheets. With data insights, true collaboration capability and the ability to track decisions and changes made over time Populate allows companies to grow smarter. Starting out in Auckland, this company has quickly grown to have clients all over the globe and has been growing fast.
How did you develop the idea for Populate and what drew you to this problem?
The idea behind Populate came from a challenge that I experienced every day in my previous role as VP Talent at high growth tech company, Vend. All of our headcount and hiring plans were managed in multiple spreadsheets but we also had data relating to people across lots of different products in the business. There was nothing really pulling it all in together so regular meetings and multiple spreadsheets were a necessity to keep people aligned. I always felt like there had to be a better way of planning headcount and managing people costs better but there wasn’t a product on the market that could bridge together Finance, HR/Recruitment and Manager requirements, particularly for SMB.
How did you find your co-founder?
My skills sit on the People side of things with a dash of Sales & Marketing and even though I had been a part of a technology company I knew almost nothing about building a software product before starting Populate. Fortunately for us my fiancé Lance Hodges knows a lot about how to build a great product. Lance was previously VP Product at Vend and had built a few products prior to that. He loves building things from scratch, he’s technical enough to be dangerous and our skills are really complementary. It works well and our success with the product to date is down to the amount of work he did up front to make sure we were building the right thing, that people wanted and would ultimately pay for.
What are some of your strengths that really helped you build the company?
A huge advantage for us is that I have done the VP Talent job, I know the problems our customers face intimately so when I’m talking to senior leaders in HR or Finance and anyone else in their teams I am able to quickly build a good level of trust.
Another strength is our network. With a background in recruitment I have naturally built a quality network across the globe. That network has been really valuable as we have progressed through the stages of building Populate — development, talent, investment and now sales. We get a huge amount of referrals and this is largely because of the network we’ve built.
What was the catalyst that made you take the plunge and start Populate? What would you be doing if you hadn’t started it?
Unfortunately the catalyst was a pretty tough experience. In my role prior we had experienced explosive growth. That level of growth is tough to manage and requires a lot of focus and care at an executive leadership level to ensure that all the other important pieces of the puzzle like general costs, revenue growth and access to funding are all under control. Like many high growth companies we hit a speed bump and that resulted in a restructure of the organisation. This tough experience really motivated me to help other companies better manage their people costs and growth plans. I don’t want other companies to experience these pains unnecessarily.
That said, in the beginning it was really important to us that we truly understood the problem we were trying to solve and also figure out whether we could even build a solution. We didn’t have the luxury of a huge amount of capital to build a solution and then going looking for a problem, so we had to be very disciplined with our research and design process. And we had to be okay with pulling the pin if anything didn’t feel right.
If we hadn’t started Populate at all perhaps I would have joined another startup earlier in their journey and taken a broader People role. I think I would have naturally chased the rush of being a part of an earlier stage startup.
How did you get your initial funding to get Populate off the ground?
We bootstrapped for as long as we could. We had some money going into starting Populate but not a huge amount given starting a company wasn’t exactly planned. I contracted out as a Head of Talent for a couple of companies for 24 hours a week to keep the rent paid and to maintain some level of normality when it came to our families lifestyle. When I wasn’t doing that I was on Populate time, mostly researching and pitching designs to companies (we did 120 pitches of our designs before writing a line of code). Lance focused full time on Populate right from the very beginning as his skills were essential in ensuring we were building the right thing, in the right way.
We were super fortunate that we had two Engineers and a Designer who we had worked with before and were good friends with who were excited about the challenge of building something from scratch. They moonlighted with us for a mixture of cash and equity which got us through to April when we knew that we were close to onboarding our first customers and we knew we needed more than some moonlighting engineers to support them.
From there we were offered a small investment from the Punakaiki Fund. They specialise in early stage Kiwi SaaS companies and I’ve known one of the partners for many, many years. They were excited about what we were building and we were really happy to have them come on board. This helped us hire 2 Engineers full time and reduce my contracting hours (I still do some). They’ve since given us further funding too which is great.
What resources have been most helpful to you in starting up?
One of the best things about starting a SaaS company today is there are a heap of great Founders, Investors and Leaders that are sharing their knowledge with the masses. It can get a little overwhelming sometimes, there are always lots of conflicting opinions but overall blogs are our biggest resource. Mark Suster, Tomasz Tunguz, Jason Lemkin, Christoph Janz, Fred Wilson & First Round are all really solid. I do a lot of learning via Twitter too, especially industry specific stuff.
Aside from reading there’s nothing better than hanging out with other founders at various different stages of the journey, it’s even more awesome when they’re friends.
What has been the most surprising part of running your own company? What were you not expecting?
Firstly, I’m still amazed at how much we’ve been able to achieve in a short time with a small team and a small amount of money. And that we actually have customers, that pay us money.
Secondly, and this might be a little confusing or even controversial but I’ve been surprised by how much time I spend not working. I mean, in many ways I’m always working — there aren’t many moments when I’m not thinking or talking about Populate but I’ve managed to find this really good balance that I definitely didn’t have in my last role. Now I always have a full day on the weekend off, sometimes even two and when we have the kids (we share 50/50 custody) we’re usually able to cut back the hours during the week a bit.
We talk a lot about needing the way we work to be sustainable and that we’re going to be doing this for a while so we probably shouldn’t smash ourselves when we’re just getting started.
Who have been your greatest mentors in this journey and what are the key things you’ve learnt from them?
While I’ve got a lot of direct and in-direct advice and insight from a variety of people in the SaaS, People Tech, HR & Finance spaces which has been super great the person I’ve learned the most from is my co-founder Lance. He’s just really good and has this natural ability when it comes to the craziness that is startups. We’ve worked together before and I have always admired how he works but there’s nothing quite like this experience to really get to know how someone operates. I probably learn something new from him every day but most importantly I’ve learned to calm down, slow down (and listen more), and ask more questions.
I’ve still got a long way to go though….