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A Decade of Planning To Grow: Looking Back (and Forward) After Vena’s First 10 Years

May 27, 2021 Evan Webster  
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On an evening in November 2010 when Rishi Grover sat down at his local watering hole, he was just looking to unwind a little after a hectic couple of months. 

He’d just moved back to Toronto, the pressure at work was mounting and his company, Clarity Systems, had recently been acquired by IBM. Clarity was an FP&A software tool and Rishi was an up-and-coming solutions consultant, which means he spent long days running demos and getting finance leaders excited about the product. 

But even as he sipped his cocktail and relaxed into his chair, Rishi couldn’t help thinking about a challenge even a merger with IBM wouldn’t fix. No matter how hard he worked or how tailored he was with each demo, there was one major objection he always seemed to run into—and that was his clients’ reluctance to give up their Excel spreadsheets.

“I’d spent a lot of time learning how businesses really used Excel. The pain points with manual processes and data consolidation were common denominators,” says Rishi. “Clarity was your traditional ‘replace Excel’ kind of finance product, but the implementations were long and users had to learn a whole new language. We found that even after our customers rolled out Clarity, they were still doing a lot of their budgeting and planning work in Excel. That made it a bit harder to convince people to adopt the software and to sell existing clients on using Clarity for other spreadsheet-heavy tasks.” 

George Papayiannis—a childhood pal of Rishi’s who also worked at IBM as a software developer—had heard his friend lament over this on plenty of occasions already. So when he joined Rishi at the bar that night to catch up and swap some war stories, they started thinking of ways they could just solve this problem themselves.  

“Customers wanted Clarity to act more like a spreadsheet, but there was no escaping the fact that Clarity just wasn’t a spreadsheet,” says George, who’s always been an entrepreneur at heart. “So we said, ‘Why don’t we build a product that leverages native Excel, but gives you all the enterprise controls and functionality you could ever want?’”

The two friends mulled it over, curious how their idea would evolve. Rishi knew there was a market for this and George was confident he could build it, so both men quit their jobs to pursue the idea full time. They didn’t have a name for their concept yet and they hadn’t written a single line of code—but Rishi and George knew they were sitting on something special.

“We started doing some cold calls and described the idea to see if there was interest,” says Rishi. “When a VP of Finance picked up and said she’d never get rid of her spreadsheets, that’s when it really hit me that we could actually make this thing real. ”

Spring - Fall 2011: Vena Comes To Life 

Rishi and George incorporated Vena Solutions Limited and officially launched the business in April 2011. They chose the name Vena, which is the Latin word for vein, to signify the interconnectedness and streamlined data flow the software delivers.

“We liked the comparison between the flow of data in business and the flow of blood in humans. Both are so critical, but they’re things we often take for granted,” says George. “The name Vena stood out for us because it felt warm, but also assertive. Simple, but with a greater meaning. And when we tied it back to Excel with the green logo and branding, it became really clear to us that this was a powerful name for our company.”

Meanwhile, back at the IBM office, sales VP Don Mal could tell something interesting was going on. It didn’t quite make sense to him to hear that Rishi—his most promising Clarity solutions consultant by far—had left the firm out of nowhere without telling him his plans for the future. 

“Rishi was a very smart up-and-comer. His time as a solutions consultant had shown me just how capable he was with product and technology,” says Don. “So when he told me that he was leaving, I knew he was going to do something big. I told him, ‘I know you’re up to something, Rishi, so call me when you’re ready to talk about it’—and he did.”  

George, Rishi and Don met at a coffee shop in North York later that summer. This, it turns out, would be Vena’s first official founder’s meeting. It was there the three men decided to form an equal partnership—Don would lead the sales team and serve as CEO, Rishi would run solutions as Chief Solutions Architect and George would oversee software development as Chief Technology Officer. Like all successful startups, the collaborative dynamic between founders was crucial—because all three individuals brought something totally different to the table.

“Don was this legendary sales guy at IBM. We felt it was really important to get him involved as a founder because he knew right away what an amazing pitch this could be,” says Rishi. “George and I had never actually closed any software deals ourselves, so Don’s influence was huge for us there. And as George was doing the coding, I was working on the pitch, the demo, the PowerPoint slides and the website. If it weren’t for all three of us and the unique roles we played, it would’ve been a lot harder for us to close those early opportunities.”

Winter 2011 - Summer 2014: Finding Success in the Market and Redefining the Product

In December 2011, following a summer without any sales, Don and Rishi travelled to Boston to meet with First Wind Energy. This was Vena’s first close meeting and our founders had run a flawless deal cycle—First Wind’s finance team loved the software, they’d agreed on a fair price and they were excited about the white-glove service they’d get from such a young company. 

Stakeholders from both camps were sitting in a boardroom when First Wind’s Chief Information Officer walked through the door. After reviewing the terms of the contract without breaking his poker face at all, he turned to Don and Rishi and said, coolly, “So how many customers do you guys have?”

“I looked him right in the eye and told him, “You’re going to be one of our first 20 customers,’” recalls Don. “I think Rishi was sweating a bit, but it all worked out in the end. We’d finally signed our first client—and that’s when things really started to take off for us.”

Vena expanded rapidly over the next couple of years as the deals started rolling in and the team got bigger and better. The company moved its office to Islington and Bloor in Toronto after raising $3 million, including an angel investment from Klass Capital. The sales team continued to smash pretty much every target they had, signing some major clients in the process including Nando’s, McDonald’s Canada, Wells Fargo and Kobo.

But the most significant early milestone came in June 2014 when George’s Product and Technology team transformed Vena into a cloud-based SaaS solution. The product had previously worked as a strictly on-premise software—and the shift over to cloud laid the groundwork for the next decade of innovation. 

“Competitors in our market were moving into the cloud space and there was this huge demand for cloud products in the SaaS industry as a whole,” says George. “Making that transition was a challenging moment for the company because we basically had to rebuild the entire software from scratch. But once we made that decision, everyone at the company was aligned. It’s actually quite remarkable to reflect on how we managed that as a leadership team.”

Fall 2014 - Winter 2019: Building a Winning Culture With a Measured Approach to Expansion

By the time September 2017 rolled around, Vena had moved once again to its current global headquarters in Toronto’s Liberty Village. The three years leading up to that had produced plenty of exciting growth moments, including:

  • A $30 million Series A funding round led by Centana Growth Partners in July 2016.
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  • Significant investments in headcount for the Professional Services and Customer Success functions. This would help ensure Vena’s growing customer base was well taken care of.
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  • Major C-suite appointments such as Darrell Cox (Chief Financial Officer), Debbie Lillitos (Chief Customer Officer) and Tracey Mikita (Chief People Person).
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  • Vena’s first-ever user conference, VenaNOLA, in May 2017. Hundreds of customers and prospects gathered in New Orleans for the occasion.

When Rishi had any free time in between meetings at the new office—a gorgeous, open-concept space within the walls of a refurbished bread factory—he would often take a few minutes to walk around and just take it all in. The buzz of the office, the clattering of keyboards, the excitement of winning new business—there were moments when even Rishi couldn’t believe how far Vena had come.

“They might not seem like much, but those little ‘micro-moments’ really stood out for me,” he says. “We always tried to maintain a vibrant, collaborative culture, even as we hired more people and started to evolve into a scale up. We always wanted to ensure our people felt like they were part of our success—so when I walked around the office and saw hundreds of people building their careers here, it really helped me reflect and deeply appreciate that mission.” 

Unsurprisingly, our founders weren’t the only ones marvelled by Vena’s trajectory. The firm had caught the attention of JMI Equity, a massive capital investment company and partner to the world’s biggest SaaS brands (including Adaptive Insights, who are Vena’s biggest competitor.) JMI injected Vena with $115 million in January 2019—ultimately laying the foundation for yet another aggressive expansion period.

“Every round of funding was always so validating for me,” says George. “It reinforced the reality that we’re building great technology, hiring the right people and really making a difference for our customers in the markets we serve.”

Spring 2019 - Summer 2021: Maximizing Scalability Through Product-Led Growth

Product-led growth is a go-to-market methodology that relies on SaaS companies using their product to attract and retain customers. Vena accelerated this strategy in the summer of 2019 when Hunter Madeley stepped in to replace Don as Vena’s CEO.

“It’s important to never lose sight of the trust customers place in us as we continue to innovate our offerings and prepare for the next phase of growth,” says Hunter, who joined Vena after a decade of leadership scaling the revenue engines at Salesforce and Hubspot. “We have to keep our promise to serve as strategic partners and to keep inspiring our audience with powerful business planning solutions.” 

The founders and the rest of the leadership team were quick to rally behind Hunter as everyone started thinking about how to make Vena more accessible to the masses. The firm was serving hundreds of customers, but it was time to scale up to the thousands. The first two years of that journey included a lot of important milestones, such as:

  • Bringing on Allison Munro (Chief Marketing Officer), Tina Golbourne (Chief Operating Officer) and Peter Gilfillan (Chief Sales Officer) to refine the revenue engine. 
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  • Replacing in-person conferences with Vena Nation week in May 2020. (After shifting plans quickly in the wake of the global pandemic, Vena hosted a virtual conference experience for the entire finance and operations community.)
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  • The launch of Plan To Grow™, an online learning platform for business planning professionals. 
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  • Releasing the first product-led growth initiative—the Vena Preview—in November 2020.
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  • Developing and strategically advertising Pre-Configured Solutions for industries (Vena for SaaS, Vena for Banks and Credit Unions, Vena for Professional Sports Teams, etc.)  

“We’re still early on in our Pre-Configured Solutions strategy, but it’s been really awesome to see all these product innovations start coming to life,” says Rishi. “The fact that we designed Vena to work like a platform right from the start has made it easier to listen to the market and solve for a bunch of unique use cases.”

For George’s Product and Technology team, the drive to keep on innovating is relentless. But Vena’s original value proposition will always be their guiding light. 

“Companies will always have to pivot at times and there will always be challenges associated with that,” says George. “Vena is in a good place, though, because the fundamental value we deliver—using the tools you know and love to solve your business’ problems—is just as relevant today as it was when we first started.”   

Planning to Grow for the Next 10 Years and Beyond

In May 2021, after a decade of savvy leadership, George announced his decision to step down as Vena’s CTO. It was a bittersweet moment for sure—especially for Rishi and the rest of the leadership team—but it marked yet another milestone in the company’s remarkable history. Vena was finally ready to emerge as a business planning juggernaut with a world-class product, brand and culture that transcends the generations. 

“The timing has never been better to work through a transition like this,” says George, who now plans to get back to his roots as an entrepreneur. “The company is in the best position it's ever been. We continue to win and delight customers and are ready to scale into this next phase of growth. We have something incredibly special at Vena. Culturally, as a group, as a brand, we have the opportunity to build something that could outlive all of us.”

The next few years will see Vena double down on its current priorities—which means more product-led growth projects, enhancements for Microsoft 365 and scaling to support thousands of customers around the world. George will continue to help Vena grow as a strategic advisor, while Rishi is primed and ready to help Vena win for the next decade and beyond.

Today, as both men look back on everything they’ve accomplished together, they can’t help but smile with an incredible sense of pride. It’s been a long, winding journey since that life-changing night at the bar—and the last 10 years have proven there’s a whole lot more to come.

“It really gets me excited to think about where we’re going,” says Rishi. “And the culture we’ve been able to build here is definitely what I’m most proud of. It’s the people behind the product who have made sure Vena is built to last—and I’m excited to keep it all going with our awesome customers, partners and support teams.”

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