Spenmo's CEO and Co-founder, Mohandass Kalaichelvan, details the company's next steps following its recent Series A Funding announcement.
Celebrating 1,000 Days At Spenmo
Spenmo CEO and Founder, Mohandass Kalaichelvan, reflects on his learnings since surpassing his 1,000-day mark in the company.
SFF 2019, Our First Event
Time flies when you are having fun.
In the blink of an eye, I recently passed 1,000 days at Spenmo. From it just being me and Isaq at the hotdesks of WeWork, to having almost 300 teammates across the region, it has been a crazy journey.
I wanted to take some time to pause, reflect on this journey and pen down my thoughts, which could be helpful to someone else embarking on this arduous task of building a company.
Spenmo's first corporate card
1. The job changes every six months
I had never been a CEO-Founder prior to Spenmo, but I must say I underestimated its difficulty after learning that the role constantly evolves as the company changes. As the CEO, my job is to be the person Spenmo needs me to be at a particular point in the journey.
Looking back on the last three years, it has become clear that my job has evolved roughly every six months. The first six months of Spenmo, for instance, were focused on conducting initial customer reviews, building a scrappy team, and launching an MVP in Singapore in the fastest and most economical way possible. On the other hand, the last six months focused on scaling the team with domain experts, building market-leading finance software and expanding this across multiple countries simultaneously.
This rapid role change happens for everyone in a scaling startup but is more acute than ever for Founders. Adapt, level up, skill up or step aside and be replaced–it’s hard to apply that maxim to everyone in the team except yourself.
You have to hold yourself to the highest standards of performance.
2. The people around you make or break your company
One of the most common questions I get is, “What is your superpower as a Founder?”
I always answer that I am not particularly good at anything (I think I am an above-average generalist). But if I were forced to pick a superpower, I would say I am pretty good at getting people better than me to join Spenmo. Our talent pool is at a different level today than when we started three years ago.
A+ talent hires A+ talent. Meanwhile, B-level players hire C-level talent to protect their turf to the detriment of their company. One of the most important roles I play is to convince A+ talent to believe in our mission and join our team.
Another important thing I learned along the way is that an A+ player who is perfect for a seed-stage company may not grow into the right person for a scaling company (relating to point #1).
At this point, you have to make tough decisions to transition some of the early core players out of the company when it is no longer working out. Easier said than done–we have always done it respectfully, and I will never forget their contributions to where Spenmo is today.
Spenmo Management Team L-R: Kevin Fitzgerald, CRO; Mohandass Kalaichelvan, CEO; Isaq Ahmed, CTO; Ruddy Wang, COO; Andika Prasetya, CPO
3. Learn from senior executives around you
Since we’ve built a solid team (relating to point #2), I have had the opportunity to have court-side seats to A+ senior executives such as Ruddy, our COO previously from Uber, and Kevin, our CRO previously from Xero.
Watching them practice their craft leveraged the most returns to me as a founder, challenging my performance levels. If you are lucky enough to have such talent around you, make a mental note to observe how they run their teams, how they run their meetings, how they operate, how they make sure targets are achieved, how they write and communicate, etc.
You don’t have to change yourself completely to emulate them–just pick the best pieces to become the new and improved version 2.0 of yourself. Your company depends on you to bring the best version of yourself every single day.
4. Take the rejections and failures in the right spirit
I have probably gotten more rejections and experienced more disappointment in my three years with Spenmo than any other period in my life. No's from customers, partners, potential hires, investors etc., can have a debilitating effect on morale, and of course, it was disappointing.
When I started in 2019, I took every rejection of Spenmo as a rejection of me. I used that anger to drive myself and Spenmo forward, but I soon realised that relying on negative energy was not sustainable. I was missing the crucial lesson behind every rejection–that they held the opportunity to teach me something that Spenmo or I could do better. Some of our best product releases came after multiple prospects had refused to use us until we had built a particular functionality.
Today, I am better at taking rejections. Don’t get me wrong–it still stings, but I allow myself a few minutes to be disappointed and then go into problem-solving and retrospective mode to glean what we can do better.
Sulking around for too long will never help you build a $Bn+ company.
5. Staying alive is the only thing that matters
As CEO of a startup, my primary job is to keep the company alive. If you run out of money, you have failed your company, and I was very close to failing Spenmo in early 2020.
We launched our very first MVP in January 2020, and I had delayed raising a seed round because I wanted to get more traction and ultimately a higher valuation for the company. As luck would have it, COVID-19 hit Singapore in February 2020, and the fundraising scene completely disappeared.
You know the situation is bad when you read articles like this from some big-boy investors. At one point in June 2020, we were left with a few months of runway and funding payroll off personal credit cards. We continued to hustle and eventually got into Iterative and Y-Combinator accelerator programs in the same month. These two investors were the only folks deploying money at the peak of the crisis in 2020. (Fun fact: our YC application was 4 weeks past the deadline!)
Our YC interview in the middle of the night in May 2020, with legends like Michael Seibel, Jared Friedman and Harj Taggar who eventually became our Group Partners.
Getting grilled for 1 hour during our Iterative interview in April 2020 with Brian and Hsu Ken
We have raised much more money since then, but that US$300K we raised that month might be the most crucial investment we ever closed–the difference between dying and staying alive.
When the recession hit again early in 2022, with public markets collapsing, it was a sense of deja vu. Except for this time, Spenmo has years of runway ahead to keep focusing on building a world-class payables product across the region and not worry too much about the macro-environment.
Since 2020, I have tried to take more than enough cash for the business because you never know how things will change. Most VCs will tell you not to over-dilute or take too much money, and have just enough to get to the next milestone or funding round. But as this 2022 recession shows, you never know how things can pan out.
So take the cash when it’s right in front of you and don’t optimise for valuation or dilution; optimise to stay alive because that’s the only thing that matters. I couldn’t care less whether I owned 5% or 50% of Spenmo as long as it stays alive and has the chance to become an iconic company.
With one of Spenmo's first few hires
6. We are the only team who can build this product for this region
When we started Spenmo, we had always pitched it as a fintech company focusing only on corporate cards. Fast forward to today, Spenmo is the only company building payables software that governs every single dollar going out of the company spanning teaming, approval workflows, cards, bill pay and accounting reconciliation for Southeast Asia (SEA).
What makes Spenmo exciting is the intersection of fintech and software that no one else is focusing on in this part of the world. The usual gripe we hear is, “no one wants to pay for software in this part of the world”, and our customers are showing us every day that this belief is entirely false.
What's the craziest part of this journey? This product has been extremely challenging to build, even after focusing on payables for SEA with a 100% local team. I have been working on this problem for over three years, and we consistently run into new insights and complexities that we have to solve.
With the intricacies of local compliance on the fintech side, coupled with the localisation of a payables workflow on the software side, it is evident that our category will see a regional champion (of course, I believe Spenmo will be the winner here). The regional winners of this category in other parts of the world, such as the US, Europe, Latam, and South Asia, will not be able to do what we do in our home.
Now more than ever, it is clear that we carry this immense responsibility to build the best finance software for companies in our backyard.
I am excited to see what the next 1,000 days have in store for me & Spenmo.