Growth in a time of COVID-19
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Last month, the Ramp team hosted a webinar with some of the top young business leaders in the finance space. Led by our first business hire, Sasha Piltch, the panel discussed the challenges they’ve faced trying to grow their businesses in the midst of a pandemic.
Below, we’ll give you a brief runthrough of what you may have missed!
For the event, there were three panelists involved:
- Liz Owens, Senior Director of Finance at Triplemint – Triplemint is a real estate brokerage based in NYC that has a pre-market platform that attempts to match buyers and sellers before the home hits the market. They seek to help real estate agents throughout the process by optimizing their workflow.
- Co Founder, Eric Glyman, at Ramp – Ramp is the only corporate card that ultimately strengthens financial performance. It provides a built-in expense software, which helps companies automate expense management, the receipt collection process, and accounting and categorization.
- Alon Devorah, Director of Finance at Vise – Vise is a software technology company that builds investment management software specifically for the independent financial advisor, empowering them via custom-made, individualized client portfolios. The platform leverages artificial intelligence and automation to help brokers.
Answers from the speakers have been lightly edited for brevity.
Can you provide a few insights into how you managed to thrive during these uncertain and strange times?
Liz: We were one of the first to act early. We soon realized the risks to our agents and clients and started remote work about a week or two before the rest of the city. We took out PPP loans and, like many others, had to furlough certain employees.
Eric: We launched February 12th, three weeks before COVID hit. So this has been our normal. We were (are) in a growth phase—we’ve grown by almost a factor of 10 during the period. One of the things we focused on was trying to be there for customers during this uncertain time. We did this by offering complimentary audits using our software. We were able to identify an average of $130,000 in savings opportunities, which is meaningful and saves them jobs.
Alon: We were in the middle of a large funding round when COVID hit. All of a sudden, the entire process had to transition into fundraising via Zoom and remote work. We’d just signed a new lease on an office, which was never used. But you have to adapt as quickly as possible. Like Eric, we found opportunities to see what our customers were really asking for. On top of that, we began hiring aggressively despite it being remote work.
- Planning is good, but you have to be willing to pivot when the situation demands.
- Don’t simply offer a product, but deliver something that is useful to clients in the moment.
- You have to be flexible and respond to forces. If something doesn’t work, reevaluate, then make changes.
As sales and business operations have increased for you, were there new challenges from a finance perspective? How were you able to solve these?
Eric: We’ve seen an uptick and risk of fraud across a number of different vectors. From a credit perspective, there’s never been anything like COVID. In past recessions, you could look at economic factors to figure out which businesses would perform well. But for this, we saw businesses that had revenue drop by 99.9% overnight. Entire industries shut down—cities. This made estimating and underwriting very tricky.
We had to take a first principles approach to match what data we could find against general macroeconomic underwriting as we verified customers. In response, we’ve had to bolster underwriting and risk protocols.
Liz: [Because of the legality] We had to ask, what can we do? What can be open? How? The real estate market was a bit more antiquated than other businesses. Pre-COVID, 90% of our revenue came via physical checks that were dropped off at our office. But when you suddenly can’t go to the office, then what do you do?
We started encouraging our agents to pay with electronic payment methods and had to set up a brand new notification subsystem for agents because all of our processes were set up for physical checks. Once this is all over, we’re gonna stick with the e-payment method.
- There’s been a significant uptick in fraud (credit card, ACH, wire transfer). Financial companies, especially lenders, must take a first-principles approach to underwriting in order to cut through all the noise.
- The old ways of doing things (even if they’re comfortable) may not always be the best. Sometimes it takes a bad situation to help you find efficiencies.
What did you do differently with your marketing spend? Did you increase or decrease?
Alon: We had just finished fundraising and were preparing to go to market, so we had no choice. Increasing market spend was the plan all along, so with COVID, it was just about adapting to the times and meeting the customers where they are. And, in this case, it’s almost easier since they’re at home, online.
Liz: We had the polar opposite approach since our agents couldn’t work and clients couldn’t move. So we cut print advertising and a lot of digital. Some other changes were moving many of our meetings from in-person to virtual with Google Hangouts or Zoom. We have better attendance now that we’re virtual than we did previously. We also realized that certain positions (such as mine) were doable remotely, whereas others are not.
- Adapting to tough situations means identifying where spending is worth it or not. When marketing, always to keep the customer in mind and meet them where they are.
- COVID has made it possible to reimagine the way businesses operate, whether it’s conducting meetings online or having certain positions work remotely.
What have you done to build culture in these crazy times?
Alon: We’re encouraging people to hangout safely in person if they’re in the same place. We’ve done common things like virtual trivia, happy hours, etc. On top of that, we’ve really been developing our own core values and making sure people that are brought in align with Vise’s culture.
We invested heavily in our hiring practices—brought in a new VP of People, who has been doing incredible work in building around our values, mission, and ensuring everyone has a voice and is heard. For instance, recently she coordinated a virtual ramen and sake night. Our mission is to have a shared answer to “Why are we here?” “What gets us excited everyday?” and “How do we continue to feel connected to each other despite what’s going on?”
Liz: We have weekly team meetings for everyone to connect. Also have a monthly meeting for full-time staff. We gave everyone in that $50 of snack credit so everyone could have snacks from home.
Our Co-founders offered summer Fridays for the first time. They’ve been encouraging people to work remote, to take vacations, so you have time to recharge. With remote working, it’s easy to just keep working nonstop and not take a break. Giving people half-day Fridays until Labor Day has been a really nice way to keep people engaged, happy, and have time for themselves.
Eric: This has been hard for everyone. We all miss being with people in person. There are these little things you can do, as Alon mentioned with the Ramen drink nights. But I think it's the question of what genuinely brings people together? What gets them excited? We created a goodie box that we sent to employees that they’d open up and it would have personal meaning to them, helping them feel connected to us.
- Especially now, you have to be very careful with your hiring practices to ensure that you’re bringing in people who can mesh with your culture and embrace your values (even remotely).
- All work and no play makes for unhappy employees and a poor culture. It’s important to encourage employees to take time to themselves away from work in order to recharge.
- Little kindnesses and personal touches can go a long way toward building a healthy work culture.
How did expenses change?
Liz: Expenses have gone down precipitously. Credit card spend has been a lot easier from an accounting perspective to manage because it’s so much lower. The main cost that we’ve had increase is recruiting, especially since agents may be more willing to switch firms when there’s down time.
Eric: Standard office expenses obviously went down, so we reallocated that money into raising spending on other items. For instance, we put together a wellness stipend for everyone at the company that could be spent to improve the home setup with things that make you more productive.
I’d be remiss to say that, funny enough, it was the perfect time to use our own service. We could spin up Ramp cards so that each employee got their money (since we couldn’t just give it to them in person or pass along a credit card number in Slack), and we were easily able to automatically track spend, collect receipts, and justify the books.
As we plan to reopen, there are certain expenses that will increase and are worthwhile in order for people to come in. First, ensuring that there’s PPE available (masks both surgical and N95). Next, it’s a requirement that we clean the office every day. So that will naturally increase in costs. But in many ways, it’s just about shifting expenses.
Alon: Line items were always in flux, but now even more so. One of the bigger things for us is we reached an inflection point where we were maturing as a company, which meant introducing tighter controls and understanding our spend on a more granular level.
We’ve been trying to corral what’s happening within the line items, especially in an environment where, now, no one is in the office together. At this stage, the most important thing is visibility and being able to govern what people are doing. Luckily, as Eric was saying, there are tech-forward tools that make it so you don’t have to micromanage every single detail.
- When the situation calls for it, be willing to take the savings and reinvest them elsewhere in your company where they’d be more advantageous.
- In addition to focusing on expenses in the here and now, you also have to prepare for what’s to come as we eventually return to normal life.
- Due to the decentralization of the workplace (at least for now), it’s more important than ever to rely on technology to help you gain visibility and control over expenses.
Can you share any best practices for virtual interviews or remote hiring?
Alon: Hiring in general is hard, regardless of the pandemic. At the end of the day organizations are nothing if not their people. I think it’s really about trying to build the right culture and if you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not trying hard enough.
For us, everything from sourcing to onboarding changed. To Eric’s point, how do you make sure that someone feels connected when you’re onboarding remotely? It’s scheduling time with everyone on the team. It’s asking questions and then acting on that information.
In hiring and interviewing, it’s making sure schedules are coordinated, that they know what to expect and what to wear. On our side, it’s about constructing that process so that they can have a flawless experience from start to finish. There will be hiccups along the way, but I’d encourage more experimentation and finding out what works for you.
Liz: Be open to hiring remote work for certain positions. We’ve hired someone from Canada, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Technology has made it possible for main roles to be done from wherever. Also, consider using a recruiter. If you want to hire really quickly, use a pro. If you’re in a heavy growth mode, while recruiters are more expensive, they’ll allow you to scale quicker.
Eric: Working through areas of ambiguity early and often is key. Answer general questions from the outset like “Do you do remote work?” or “Where do you see this going.” I think there are a lot of critical elements to recruiting, but a lot of it comes down to expectation setting. Then once you’ve landed on a candidate, preparing them so that they’re set up for success.
- A people first approach matters. Building a culture of connection starts from the first interview.
- If you want to scale quickly, consider using a recruiter.
- Managing expectations is key to building an honest relationship. Let new hires know what you expect from them from the outset.
With COVID, we’ve seen a lot of conservation happening. Do you think this will continue long term?
Eric: In April, this was very much a Black Swan event. There was a lot of cost-cutting, with a dramatic drop in both revenue and spending. Some businesses are still in that state. For other businesses it’s been a huge ramp up. There’s been a huge transfer from physical purchasing to massive growth in digital work.
I think this has been a good lesson for people to realize the importance of a rainy day fund, leaving room in budgets for a worst-case scenario. It’s good to be conservative and then to act decisively when the moment calls for it. Lately, we’ve really started to see a major comeback which has been pretty remarkable.
Liz: Even before COVID we were cost conscious. I think that theme will always be there. But we’re a startup that’s trying to grow quickly. If you’re overfocused on being cost conscious you’ll stunt your growth.
- COVID has demonstrated that you never know what’s going to happen. It’s critical that you put away savings so that you’re prepared for any market shock.
- It’s good to cut costs, but do so strategically. An overemphasis might hamper your ability to scale, especially if you’re a startup.
How have your finance departments used Ramp to optimize performance?
Liz: Ramp’s great. Pre-Ramp, expense management software was really hard to figure out. Going through Quickbooks’ line items, trying to justify a receipt, or see who spent what was a super painful process. Being able to give someone a one-off or a monthly card is so nice, especially when I no longer have to hand out my COO’s credit card to different people in the company or ask them to give me the log in so I can make the purchase.
We also were able to use the AWS credit through Ramp, which was really exciting because we'd already gotten an AWS credit in the past. So, it was like another $25,000 worth of development that we got for free.
Eric: For scale teams, it comes down to accounting, automation, and expense. One of the biggest alleviations we’ve seen is the 5 days before and 5 days after where accountants are scrambling to get receipts. It causes a lot of wasted time, it means books are inaccurate, and have to be reopened or at least treated at a later point.
Finance teams are working on really valuable things and they’re being put in a position where they have to waste time on low value work. We help alleviate that.
Easier life, saving time, and saving money are the use cases.
- Ramp makes it easy to spin up multiple cards and has the software that makes reconciliation a much simpler process.
- Many processes with manual expense reconciliation are labor-intensive and frustrating. Ramp helps optimize those processes, freeing up accountants to do the job they are specialized for.