In this blog series, entrepreneurs share their venture capital experience. From funding to mentorship, we’ll take a look at how Elevate Capital invested in their success. We recently sat down with Ganesh Shankar, Co-Founder and CEO of RFPIO. If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, check out Ganesh’s insights to fuel your own success story.
Ganesh, tell us the story you’ve told a thousand times. What compelled you to start RFPIO?
I always joke with my team about this, but we don’t have the cool Apple or Google story about four friends working out a big idea in a garage. The idea for RFPIO purely originated from the pain we shared when we responded to RFPs at enterprise companies.
This firsthand experience drove us to figure out an answer to the problem. When we looked at the market, we couldn’t find anyone offering an automated RFP response solution. So, we decided to jump in and create one...RFPIO.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you “grew up?” And, how did that dream turn into this one?
Everybody has their own idea of what they want to be, but it changes over time. At one stage in life, I wanted to be an actor. Later it was a doctor, then a pilot. By the time I was a teenager, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur.
When I look back at my life, I always enjoyed sales. At the age of six, I went door-to-door selling gooseberries in my hometown. That was my first business, and now I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of RFPIO. This is a dream come true for me.
Can you tell us a little bit more about RFPIO?
RFPIO is RFP response automation software that helps companies respond to RFPs efficiently so they can win more business. We focus exclusively on people who respond to RFPs, whether they are on sales, marketing, product, or proposal management teams.
Today we are fortunate to work with many enterprise organizations, such as ServiceNow, LinkedIn, and Google Cloud. Our clients respond to RFPs all the time, but many clients also leverage RFPIO for other use cases: security questionnaires, SOWs, marketing materials, sales calls, proactive proposals, and grants.
RFPIO has become a primary tool for the sales enablement team. Our solution is a mission-critical, revenue-generating application for a lot of organizations, helping teams close more deals in less time.
What seemed like the impossible challenge when you were in the early stages of RFPIO?
Challenges happen at every stage of a business, not just the early stages. The first big challenge with RFPIO was getting the product out the door. After that came the funding and getting the first dollar from an investor.
The challenge moves to acquiring your first paying customers—eventually, the first 100 customers then the first 1,000 customers become your targets. Every time you achieve one critical milestone, another challenge is there waiting for you. However, when you get your first paying customer, it is one of the greatest achievements you will ever experience as an entrepreneur.
Can you share an “aha” moment from your first year in business?
One of the first “aha” moments we had was when the first customer signed us on. We sent a link to the customer to fill in credit card details. We were waiting and waiting and waiting...until finally, we received the alert that the payment came through. Our team was so excited. That first dollar arriving in RFPIO’s account is a moment our team will always remember and cherish.
Running a company can be tough on work-life balance. Do you have any rituals that help you stay healthy and productive?
Spending time with family is my ritual. Yes, I work out at the gym and make time for play. But, looking at my family’s faces every day is the one thing that keeps me happy and motivated. Spending time with my wife and kids trumps everything else.
Elevate Capital works with underserved entrepreneurs, such as women and minority-owned startups or those living in areas with fewer business opportunities. What are some of the challenges underserved populations might experience when launching a startup—and how can they overcome them?
There are a lot of ways you can overcome these challenges as an underserved entrepreneur. I know, because I am one myself. I’m a minority, an Indian man with a dark complexion. A lot of times people think an Indian coming to the United States is an engineer. That perception was a big obstacle I had to overcome in the business world.
I’m not an engineer at all—my educational background is in business. My business background comforted our investors, including Nitin and the Elevate team, because they knew I understood the power of sales. They trusted we would succeed at RFPIO.
The United States is a country of opportunity. If you demonstrate your capabilities, people will trust what you are capable of. The opportunities I have found would not have been possible elsewhere in the world. I’m fortunate that I came here, worked hard and had the encouragement I needed to be successful.
Why did you decide to put your trust in Elevate Capital to fund RFPIO? And, what was the experience like working with Nitin Rai and the Elevate team?
Back in 2016, the conversation began with Nitin at a networking event. We had a lot of similarities, besides both of us being from India. I quickly realized Nitin had this unique combination of being a successful solo entrepreneur, and also being an angel investor who was starting his own fund at Elevate Capital.
Nitin understood the impact he would make on an upcoming entrepreneur like myself. At the time, there was a lot of risk for him to invest in RFPIO. He was willing to take the risk and he assured me that we would get through this. Working with Elevate from such an early stage has helped us get to the great position we are in today.
Venture capital is, of course, important for a startup—but so is having continued support. What specific type of mentorship has Nitin and the Elevate team provided to guide you toward success?
The Elevate team knows their boundaries. They don’t interfere with daily operations and allowed us to run our own style of execution. Where Elevate really helped us is at the strategic level. Nitin was instrumental in bringing Raghu Raghavan, former CEO and Founder of Act-On Software, onto our board of advisors.
Nitin is the one who taught me that cash is king. You must be mindful where and how you spend. He was very knowledge with financial elements, and he complemented Raghu’s business strategy to scale RFPIO. This combination of expertise helped us from day one.
How has networking with others in the Portland and Greater Oregon community helped your business?
I strongly believe we are in this position as a company today because of networking. The first six months after RFPIO launched, I networked a lot. If you look at the way RFPIO has grown, word-of-mouth really helped us. We had so much support from local companies here in the Portland area, and we are certainly reaping the benefits now after only two years.
Meeting Nitin at a networking event was like opening the door to funding and mentorship at a very early stage. You won’t get customers on day one, and you won’t get funds on day one. You need to go out and understand the landscape, and connect with people who will help you succeed.
If you were in an elevator with another aspiring entrepreneur—and you only spent five floors together—what lasting piece of advice would you give them?
Networking is key. Be open-minded, get out there and talk to people. Don’t expect anything to happen immediately. You never know who you will meet—it could be your next investor, customer, or partner.
Join us at the upcoming Elevate Inclusion Summit