Steve Lau and Rameez Ansari, AutoLeap — Founder Q&A
One big learning was that it’s okay to be wrong. Also, having a partner to make mistakes alongside me — that continues to be a powerful thing to this day.
By the time Steve Lau sits down to breakfast, Rameez Ansari is getting ready for dinner. But even though these two former college squash buddies live on opposite sides of the world, they’re proving that time and distance has only enhanced their successful partnership.
The two share CEO duties at AutoLeap, a Toronto-based startup that’s modernizing the car repair process. AutoLeap provides an auto repair shop software package which car repair and mechanic shops can use to understand, manage, and grow their operations
AutoLeap is their second venture together. In 2015, they worked to convert a decades-old field service management software provider called FieldEdge from on-premise to SaaS. Three years later, they exited that business for more than $100 million.
Their partnership thrived despite having to deal with quite an unexpected change in plans. Ansari returned to Pakistan two years ago to spend more time with his family. He intended to visit the Toronto office on a regular basis, but that idea got upended, both by Covid and a baby on the way.
Nonetheless, Ansari and Lau found a way to overcome the challenges posed by geography, dividing their responsibilities as they manage what has become an increasingly international workforce. Despite their physical separation, working in split geographies has been an asset, allowing the company to be responsive on a 24/7 basis, while also allowing Ansari and Lau to dip into a global source of tech talent. We caught up with the pair recently to find out how they’re managing the evolution of their company.
Q: Rameez, let’s start with your back story. You were born in Pakistan and relocated to Canada when you were 16. How was the culture shock?
Ansari: It was a shock, and I don’t think I’ve yet adjusted to the weather (laughing). Later, when I was working in Canada, Steve enjoyed watching me squirm every single winter. But when we moved to Florida after buying a business there, I enjoyed watching Steve deal with the humidity. Karma!
Q: In Pakistan, your father is a small business owner. Did his example rub off on you?
Ansari: I grew up in an entrepreneurial family and watched him get a lot of fulfillment and purpose from his work — not only for himself, but also for his family. And it was uplifting for all of us — including a lot of the members of the team that grew up in the business alongside him.
Q: So, you’re literally learning at the kitchen table about things like vendor payments, receivables, etc. as a teenager?
Ansari: Yes, you’re 13 years old and talking about things like import duties and shipment containers being late while sitting at the dinner table. Years later, when we bought our first business and I moved into the position of having to run a company, all of those learnings started coming back. I saw the same thing with Steve [Lau] when we started to run our investment fund. Before then, Steve had done mega-cap, private equity, and billion-dollar transactions. And now I saw him in action working with lenders and lawyers and this ecosystem of partners, and I witnessed that pattern recognition coming back. It was interesting for both of us. I suppose it took us both by surprise.
Q: Steve, unlike your business partner, you were born in Canada, still you lived an immigrant experience in a different way.
Lau: Yes. My mom and dad were immigrants to Toronto from Hong Kong, where they grew up. My dad’s father passed away before my father became an adult. He didn’t come from a well-off family and his older brother inherited the responsibility of running the household with two brothers and two sisters, and he couldn’t afford to raise his whole family. So, effectively, my father was kicked out of the house and shipped off to Vancouver.
Q: That couldn’t have been easy.
Lau: It wasn’t. When my dad got to Canada, he only had a few hundred bucks in his pocket. But he worked his way through school and grinded it out on his own without anyone to rely on.
My father had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but he never had the luxury of becoming one. I think that financial safety net was incredibly important to him because he had nothing to fall back on.
Q: Did that inform his approach to business and risk-taking?
Lau: Job security and reliability of income were way more important to him. But I always heard him talk about wanting to be an entrepreneur. And that really inspired me when I had that opportunity. It was a major influence that led me to pursue entrepreneurship.
Q: You two first met at the University of Toronto. Do you recall the circumstances that brought you together?
Ansari: Yes, we had become squash buddies as undergrads — and I regularly would kick Steve’s butt back in the day. Then we reconnected in business school. I think we both knew in our bones that we eventually wanted to do something entrepreneurial. And this concept of raising an investment fund — a search fund — was really appealing. Steve had been working on it and had all his ducks in a row. But he needed someone who could help run a company, and so we were fortunate to find each other.
Q: If I have this right, the idea behind a search fund is to buy and build a troubled business for a period of time.
Ansari: Correct with the caveat that they’re not troubled. You buy and build a stable business, and then try to put its growth on steroids, so to speak. So, we uprooted ourselves from Toronto to Fort Myers, Florida, after convincing our wives to move there and live out the “sunset by the beach” dream.
Q: It worked out well.
Ansari: It did. When we bought FieldEdge back in 2015, there were about 20 folks at the company. When we sold it, we had built it up to about 200.
Q: And you sold it for something like 5X the original purchase price? What did you need to do to turn things around?
Ansari: There were things that worked before we came aboard, but it was owner-operated and wasn’t run with a focus on growth. You had blue-collar contractors in a market that needed a deep technology solution, but also had to be easy to use. We recognized that and rebuilt the product from scratch, winding up with a phenomenal product backed by a really strong team.
Q: As business operators, this was your first practical experience out of school. What did that experience teach you?
Ansari: One big learning was that it’s okay to be wrong. Also, having a partner to make mistakes alongside me — that continues to be a powerful thing to this day.
Q: Fast-forward to AutoLeap. What led you to the company and the business approach you forged?
Lau: I would say our journey started with FieldEdge. The clientele we serviced is like the type of customer that we’re servicing at AutoLeap: blue-collar, typically non-tech-savvy folks, but salt of the earth types who are good natured and authentic. Historically, they haven’t had access to modern technology to help run their businesses. Most of them are technicians by trade and businesspeople secondarily. We saw a tremendous amount of impact that we could have on people’s businesses. By saving them 10 hours of administrative work a week, they could now go see their kid’s baseball games and do stuff outside of work that they had never been able to do before.
Q: When you approached the repair shops with your idea for how to help them, what were the challenges you encountered?
Lau: Onboarding was one of the bigger challenges. Ripping out and replacing the core system that they use to operate their business is super painful. It’s like a root canal: Everyone underestimates how much work it takes. So, we dedicated a customer success person to every single customer to help them successfully get up and running on the software.
Q: When you took over FieldEdge, the company wasn’t a startup. But you’re growing AutoLeap out of that early-stage. What sort of strategic challenges have you faced?
Lau: It’s a different journey than the one we took at FieldEdge. We certainly have made fewer mistakes this time around, and that has allowed us to hit the ground faster.
Ansari: Hiring more senior people earlier in the process has helped. The other piece is on the product side. At FieldEdge, it was a race to go to market. You want to go to market early and then iterate on the feedback. But what we realized is that by doing it that way five years ago, you take a lot of shrapnel. With AutoLeap, we went to market with a product that had three or four more layers of polish.
Q: How do you split up responsibilities and how have you had to do things differently to navigate the company over the course of the pandemic?
Ansari: The remote setup has been tricky in some ways, but interesting. I focus on sales, marketing, product, and engineering. Steve oversees operations and the capital side of the business, along with customer success, finance, and HR.
Steve and I don’t have a lot of formal touch points, but we wind up staying really coordinated. Even if he’s calling me to talk trash about my golf game, he updates me on what’s going on in his work streams and vice versa.
Q: It sounds like there are benefits to being in different geographies?
Ansari: Our team is spread across Toronto, Boston, Atlanta, and Pakistan, which is a great hub for engineering and product talent. The remote aspect has done a really nice job culturally of keeping everyone on an even footing. Of course, we’ve had to be artful about arranging weekly management meetings and gathering everyone across our geographies.
Our team is excited about what we’re creating at AutoLeap, and we believe there’s a great opportunity to disrupt this big underserved market.