Hanif Joshaghani is the co-founder and CEO of Symend which is a behavioral analytics platform that provides customer engagement products to identify customers having trouble with their bills. The company has raised over $52 million from investors like Ignition Partners, Inovia Capital, TELUS Ventures, Mistral Venture Partners, and Impression Ventures to name a few. 

In this episode you will learn:

  • Ways to deal with uncertainty personally and professionally
  • How Hanif screens and builds relationships with investors in advance
  • Picking the right investors over the highest valuation
  • His top tip for what to do before you start your own venture

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About Hanif Joshaghani:

Hanif Joshaghani is serial entrepreneur who is passionate about building high performing teams that deliver results for clients. Currently, Hanif Joshaghani is focused on growing Symend, an endeavor he believes in passionately since it represents an intersection between disruption, value creation and social good.

Hanif Joshaghani background includes 15 years of senior roles in capital markets, energy finance, business development and entrepreneurship in a broad range of industries including investment banking, energy and technology.

Hanif Joshaghani has raised about $100MM across the four companies he has founded with several exits to date.

Hanif Joshaghani is also passionate about helping other entrepreneurs and is an active angel investor in several technologies companies.

Connect with Hanif Joshaghani:

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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:

Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have a founder that the journey that he’s been on all his life is so inspiring. From being in a refugee camp to landing in Canada, and now to building a hyper, hyper-growth business: building, scaling, exiting. He’s done it a few times, so I think we’re going to learn quite a bit, and I think that the insights are going to be remarkable for all of you that are building and scaling, right now, your own companies. So, without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today. Hanif Joshaghani, welcome to the show.

Hanif Joshaghani: Thank you for having me.

Alejandro: Originally born in Iran, and I know that your family escaped when you were almost two years old, and that was quite a journey. Tell us about this, and tell us about how was your upbringing?

Hanif Joshaghani: Yeah, my family escaped. We actually escaped over the mountains, once I was old enough, using Kurdish smugglers. We didn’t make it very far. We made it as far as Iraq, and we were in camps there until basically, things got real dangerous there. The process got accelerated, especially in the beginning, for the most vulnerable people like young kids to get refugee status and move over to countries that were willing to take us in. So, I arrived in Canada. I stayed with a foster family that the government was supporting in the process, and then my parents came shortly thereafter.

Alejandro: How long did it take from the moment that you and your family escaped Iran to landing in Canada?

Hanif Joshaghani: Oh, I spent most of my younger years in the camps. From the time when I was 1 1/2 until I was 13 ½, I think I was in camps. 

Alejandro: So, 12 years almost in refugee camps. What was life like in those refugee camps?

Hanif Joshaghani: Honestly, if that’s all you know, it’s actually not that bad. People only really struggle with hardship. Hardship is a relative concept. If all you know is the camps, then you actually don’t think it’s all that bad. It’s only when you’ve seen better, and then you have a memory of something better, and then you end up in the camps, and it really affects you. Kids that came, like at one-and-a-half years old, I didn’t know anything, but the kids that ended up in the camps or refugee statuses that went through extreme adverse life events, but they had memories of a better time, they struggled a lot more.

Alejandro: Out of this experience, how do you think it has shaped who you are today and also the way that you view life and your own personality too?

Hanif Joshaghani: I think there’s an element of drive. It’s not just that. It’s the whole experience from the camps, to Toronto, to the hard work that went into catching up in academia and stuff like that, and getting to a point where I eventually ended up with a scholarship to the University of Chicago, to really working hard after Chicago to make a life for myself in capital markets, to getting a full scholarship to the University of Toronto for my MBA. It just became this mentality of never let adversity get in your way and always challenge yourself to do more. I think that the prevailing mentality ends up being something akin to challenging yourself and pushing yourself and fighting is like breathing. You should always be fighting, and you should always be challenging yourself. Otherwise, you are stagnant, and you may as well just lay down and give up. So, it became this mentality that life is about struggle, and life is about never being satisfied and always pushing yourself to do more. It becomes like a mentality.

Alejandro: I hear you. Obviously, this scholarship of New York really changed everything for you because that put you on track to also get the scholarship for the undergrad and then also for your MBA. So, how did that scholarship happen?

Hanif Joshaghani: My family agreed to sponsor me, and the money got taken care of for me to go to this great high school and just the last part of high school. The experience that changed in that high school was the mentality – every kid was trying to get into a top university, and every kid was taking advanced placement classes. The standards were completely different than the schools that I was exposed to back in Toronto. Not that there aren’t any good schools in Toronto. It’s just I wasn’t going to them, and I was in some rough neighborhoods. It really transformed my life. I went from someone that didn’t realize I had no exposure to anything other than my narrow scope of what the world was all about. Then, I go to this school in New York, and it’s like the status of the families, the businesses that the parents had been involved in, it exposed me to a part of the world that I had never seen before. I immediately knew that I wanted to aspire to achieve and earn a place in that world for myself and for my family. That became a motivational factor from that point on. There was nothing that was going to get in my way after that.

Alejandro: Got it. So, after your undergrad and doing some investment banking, then you do your MBA, and this definitely opens you even more to the capital markets. How did you develop this curiosity or this interest into business and economics?

Hanif Joshaghani: Honestly, when I first went to University, everybody was convinced that because I could do a good job talking and arguing that I would be a lawyer. I was on the debate team, and the mock trial team, and things like that. I was good in math, as well, and that was my one really strong area, where I was natural at it and didn’t have to work super hard at it. I didn’t realize that I was going to end up in economics and open up the world of finance. That happened at the University of Chicago. It’s a world-renowned economics program, and I decided to dip my toes in it first. I immediately fell in love with it, and I started to explore what the world could be about after that. I started to do internships at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange while I was in school. It exposed me, again, to a whole new world of business and finance. I didn’t know it was going to lead to entrepreneurship at first, but I loved it. I loved all of the stuff I did. The first time I stepped onto the Mercantile Exchange, it blew my mind. I was just like, “Wow! What an amazing – what an extraordinary place.” I worked really hard and focused on math and economics and things like that. I still was interested in all the other stuff. I took a lot of political science, and globalization, and all of these other types of courses, as well, because I felt there was a nice synergy between that and economics. So, that ended up being my main focus area. The University of Chicago has that impact on people. Even though you don’t love economics going in there, you end up loving economics once you’re there.

Alejandro: Got it. Then, you go into investment banking, and here you are; you have the safety of having the 9 to 5 and the nice salary too. For you, I’m sure that your family was super proud. Why did you decide to complicate your life and to say no to that and start your own business?

Hanif Joshaghani: The investment banking thing was interesting. Honestly, I learned a lot in investment banking, but I didn’t love it. I think investment banking cultures have changed a lot since I worked there. After I did my MBA in Toronto, and I went into investment banking, I learned a lot about business at a much higher level than I’ve ever had before working in capital markets looking at M&A deals, massive financings for public companies, and things like that. But working at an investment bank didn’t seem like it would be good enough to consistently drive my passion. Especially, as an associate or whatever it is – if you’re not a managing director, and you’re not running the show, you’re effectively a cog in a massive machine. While it was great from a learning perspective, and I built some good skill sets there, I knew quickly while I was in investment banking that it would be a stepping stone. No matter how much money was involved, that it wouldn’t be what was going to motivate me to work hard for the rest of my life. It needed to be something about passion. I needed to be passionate, and I had to do something for myself. I couldn’t be a small part of the massive machine.

Alejandro: Let’s talk about you coming out of that massive machine and launching CoreWest. What were you guys doing at CoreWest?

Hanif Joshaghani: CoreWest was a boutique advisory firm. A couple of us guys got together, and we were going to introduce bulge bracket banking capabilities to smaller deals using a very lean business setup and infrastructure to generate value for small-time entrepreneurs in Alberta, which is a very enterprising entrepreneurial place. It worked. We had some decent success, and what the business ended up evolving to is, as we started to generate [12:18] and build a half-decent business, we decided to parlay those [12:24] into investing directly in some of the deals that we were getting involved in and becoming business partners with some of the people that were coming in the door looking for business support. So, we would do strategic reviews, help bring in lending, and then put in some of our own money as well. That was my first foray into entrepreneurship through the merchant banking process. Then one of the businesses that we got some exposure to, I really liked what they were doing. I thought there was a great opportunity there, and we decided to run with it. I then decided to focus more and more of my time with it to help evolve the business concept, and I brought in some of my close associates. For example, it was a hardware product. We had a vision – it needed software and satellite connections and reengineering. So, I brought in some of the resources to help make some of that happen, and we built a good business out of it. We landed a bunch of contracts. The business was called Aspes. Then we monetized our stake in that to them parlay the into our first true SaaS company, which was initially called InvistaWare. Eventually, it was called Aimsio, and we built that into a decent business. We did a part capital raise, part divestiture, where a family office took over half the business basically. Through that process, I created some liquidity for myself, and I took that liquidity. I had the idea for Symend, and I led our initial round into Symend to launch the business using the initial round, a friends and family round, which I led.

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Alejandro: Obviously, here, you’re jumping from the advisory side to the operator’s side, and to seeing the full cycle. So, out of Aspes and Aimsio, what were the top three lessons that you took away from those experiences?

Hanif Joshaghani: There were a bunch of important ones. I think one of the things that I learned that was super important is that you have to make sure that you have the right team, and you have to make sure that you have an idea that you’re very passionate about. But most importantly, you have to make sure that you don’t let the passion take over the common sense stuff around doing your diligence and validating the idea, and doing the research, and validating the demand and the viability and feasibility of the idea and whether the people would pay for it, and whether it’s doable, what the size of the market is, like really doing your work before you start to build something and then try to jam it into the market. I say this all the time: it’s a lot easier to pivot with an idea than it is to pivot with a product. That was one key part of it. Setting the business up the right way, early on funding it the right way – those were all key lessons that I learned. The other important lesson that I learned, for me anyway, is that, and it works for some where there’s no CEO. There’s no single person that the accountability rolls up to, but I knew that wasn’t going to work for me again. At Aimsio, I had great friends of mine, and I’m still close to all of them. There was a sense of this is an equal partnership between a couple of people that got this business going together.

Alejandro: Yeah.

Hanif Joshaghani: Sometimes, I always felt like, especially if those people aren’t always in synch, which never happens, it creates a lot of – and now they do have a CEO. It creates a lot of inertia, and it creates some conflict, and are we moving in the right strategic direction? That was one of the important lessons that I learned. The other important lesson that I learned is that no matter what you do in a business, running a business is incredibly hard. No other business venture that I got myself involved in – was I really down to my bones passionate about solving? It was an opportunistic thing every single time. Whereas, with Symend, it wasn’t like that at all. It was an idea synthesized from scratch at a dinner, and it wasn’t like some opportunity was sitting in front of me, and I tried to capitalize on it. There was no opportunity. I came up with an idea, by chance, and then I went deliberately, and I got super passionate about solving it, and I very methodically and deliberately put together the opportunity to go chase it. That north star, that passion for the Why, really, in my opinion, pushes you to work harder, to see a bigger vision, to align people to lead your team to new great heights, to create culture, to all of those things that are, in my opinion, the ingredients of success in a company. Whereas, if the primary driver is just making money and having success, I think it’s a lot harder to make all of those things happen. That’s the key difference between what I’m doing in Symend and everything else. The tip of the spear at Symend for me was my personal passion and obsession with solving this problem that helped so many at-risk, vulnerable people in society get to a better place. That north star didn’t exist for me until I started Symend, and it’s been a huge difference-maker.

Alejandro: Let’s talk about how you meet your partner at Symend.

Hanif Joshaghani: Yeah, Tiffany. Tiffany and I have been friends for a very long time. When I was at Aimsio, she had come in and done some consulting for us, and I immediately built a strong relationship with her, and I immediately saw how talented she was. Over the course of the next six months to a year, I kept coming up with ideas. “Hey, I’m investing in this thing,” or “Hey, I’m doing that thing.” I would keep bringing her ideas, and she said, “Hanif, there’s no Why here.” Unless there’s a strong social good and strong Why, I’m not going to leave what I’m doing today. She was working in a company called TinyEYE to do something else. So, I never quite understood her strong connection to Why, and she can’t get behind any business, no matter how lucrative, unless there’s a Why until I had the idea for Symend, and it finally dawned on me why a Why is so important. The only phone call that I made was to Tiffany. We went out for some drinks, and really on a napkin, I wrote down the business plan and the idea, and we sat down there. She had a job offer to go be CEO of an established company with like $10-15 million in revenue or something like that. She picked this highly speculative business plan on a napkin with me instead of that sure thing. It finally dawned on me how much she meant that stuff that for her, the Why matters more than everything. It’s been an incredible partnership, and we’re incredibly complementary, and I think the rest is history.

Alejandro: Then what ended up being the business model so that the listeners can understand Seymend?

Hanif Joshaghani: It’s interesting, actually. The business model has been consistent since day one because we did so much work upfront like six to eight months of research before we even wrote a line of code. We were very deliberate about the way we started to build the company, which I think is another important lesson. We built a platform to help orchestrate and execute customer engagement and treatment campaigns that are very intelligent for massive organizations where they have to do that for millions of at-risk customers. If you think about any big company that has a large base of people that are at risk of leaving due to delinquency over retention issues or whatever, say a large Telco or bank, all of those companies are trying to engage with millions of customers every single day, and a lot of it they try to do through brute force on us, like lots of call centers, lots of unintelligent, like the things that don’t learn and iterate and aren’t highly targeted, so they just overwhelm you with a bunch of emails and SMS and a bunch of call center stuff. It’s almost like trying to overwhelm the customer into submission. Instead, what our platform allows them to do is to be a lot more behaviorally targeted, so that you’re getting the right message with the right tone of voice to the right consumer so that they engage back with the right mindset that it’s not about hammering you and overwhelming you and submitting you. It’s about valuing you as a customer and treating you as an individual instead of a transaction so that these people engage back the right way, so that not only do you cure whatever is going to cause them to leave, whether it’s delinquency or unhappiness or whatever, but you fortify the relationship with the brand so that you extend and improve the lifetime value of that customer. If you can do that across millions of customers, not only can you create a bunch of operational efficiencies, but you can extend the lifetime value across the entire portfolio.

Alejandro: Got it, and how much capital have you guys raised for the business so far?

Hanif Joshaghani: Probably just north of 63 million USD. The reason why I’m guessing is because some of the early raises were in Canadian dollars. Our Series B was 52 million, and before that, we raised about maybe 10 or 11 million USD. So, 63ish.

Alejandro: The latest, the Series B, we’re talking about an announcement of early May, so how did you guys pull off a financing round of this nature in the middle of a pandemic?

Hanif Joshaghani: Yeah, that was an interesting one. We have a great shareholder base, and that’s been deliberate. One of our top priorities in selecting investment partners has always been the quality and character of the individuals and their reputation through time. So, whoever the lead investor is, we always wanted to make sure that person had the right values and the right character. So, our Series A was led by Ignition, and the GP there, John Connors, is on our board. The Series B was led by Inovio, and one of the lead growth partners there, Dennis Kavelman was the former CEO of Research in Motion. He’s on our board. These guys’ reputations are amazing. In the case of Dennis, who led the Series B, there was a lot of conviction at Inovio about the mission and the problem that we’re solving. We communicated with them regularly. They had given us a term sheet right before the pandemic got really, really bad. When the pandemic got really bad, we were able to demonstrate that, “Listen, guys. The mission that we’re on to help solve this problem of customer engagement for large companies is more important than ever because COVID is negatively impacting call center capability, and the behavior of consumers is changing faster than ever, and the more violent and volatile the change of consumer behavior and consumer risk is, the less reliable backward-looking, risk, and adjudication models are going to be, and the more relevant real-time analysis of consumer engagement intent and behavior from the actual engagement strategies will be. And that’s exactly what our platform can do. It’s like run campaigns, measure intent and behavior, and learn and iterate at a high velocity so that it’s live and dynamic all the time, and it stays up with the change and behavior of your consumers. We made the case that, “Look. Not only are we going to be okay through COVID, but more importantly, the mission that we’re on is now, instead of being on the fringes, is taking center stage. The consumer, instead of being like 10-20% of all consumers that need our help, this could get up to like half the consumers that need our help. The call centers aren’t going to be as helpful as they used to be. So, this is exactly the time that Symend should be well-funded so that it can stand tall and live up to its social mission, which then automatically results in building a great business very quickly.” That’s exactly what’s been happening.

Alejandro: And you were talking there about values and getting alignment around the mission with the lead investors. Especially for the folks that are listening, how do you go about making sure that the alignment is for real, because, in many instances, as you know, it’s like the dating phase. Everything looks beautiful, but then eventually, the entrepreneurial journey is full of ups and downs, and you want to make sure that these people are going to be there, and they’re going to roll up their sleeves and jump in if they need to do that. Rather than maybe like treating you as a write-off and going to the next investment. So, how do you make sure that the alignment is for real?

Hanif Joshaghani: There are a couple of things. The first thing that I’ve consistently done is spend a lot of time – don’t treat your finances as transactional experiences. If you run a broad-based financing process, and you’re talking to everyone, but you’re only talking to them right when you need money, it’s hard to get a feel for how authentic those relationships are, and exactly to your point, how they’re going to persevere through time. What we’ve always done instead is have a mentality around treating financing as a journey rather than a set of transactions. So, we engage with people. We engaged with the Series B guys right after the Series A, and with the Series A guys the same, and with the C guys the same. We spent a lot of time with each one before we needed a bunch of money, and we made sure of it. The other thing is, we did a lot of diligence into – instead of just taking their references, we went to our network and found either longtime multi-decade friends of theirs or companies that have flatlined and hit hard times. You can go on Crunchbase and be like, “Okay. What did they invest in that didn’t go well? Let’s go talk to that CEO.” It was a very deliberate process of accessing their character over time, their reputation over time, and how they handle adversity, but finding the way to assess those things through our own network. For example, in the case of Dennis, the fact that I knew Dennis was the CEO and CFO of Research in Motion. One of my investors who led our seed round, Myor, who I’ve known for a very long time to the point where he was at my wedding, and he’s become one of my best friends in the whole world. Myor was an institutional equity guy. We used to travel all over the world with the Research in Motion guys helping them raise capital in their high-flying days. So, I made sure that I had really strong references for the character of the individual. And the same thing with Ignition, I went and found companies that “If something didn’t go well, how did they treat you guys?” I took the process of finding the right partner very seriously. And, frankly, the valuation was not even – I always figured that if you find the right person, and you spend enough time with them, they get a non-transactional view into your abilities as an entrepreneur and an executive, and you get a view into them outside of the shotgun financing process, then that rapport, that authentic bond will ensure that when you do get down to valuation and stuff like that, you’re both going to treat each other fairly. Our priority was never to go chase the highest valuation. It was, find the best partner to create long-term value.

Alejandro: I love how you say that because, at the end of the day, in a true partnership, everyone wins, and it’s not a negotiation where someone loses, and someone else wins. I like that you touched on that. Hanif, you also were mentioning that times like this definitely have given a nice push to Symend. I want to ask you here, where do you see things heading for you guys and for your space as a whole?

Hanif Joshaghani: That’s an interesting question. I think the view of what Symend is – it’s not just a technology company. We are synthesizing at a foundational level in a way that’s never been done before, a bunch of sciences. We are synthesizing in equal parts at a foundational level of human sciences like behavioral sciences, psychology along with computer science, and then lending it all with horsepower with data science and AI. We’re doing it in such a unique way that I think the future will become expanding the user cases of this thing. If you remember what I said, Symend is all about engaging at-risk customers. Today, if we define that risk as people that are past-due, tomorrow, at-risk could be anything. If you think about what Seymend is, we are the world’s best, in my opinion, designer Nyquil for consumers. It’s like if something is ailing you, we can understand what it is and give you the best Nyquil in the world so that it doesn’t get any worse, so you don’t need prescription medicine or a hospital. That’s really the business that we’re in. Eventually, we’re going to expand the definition of that and get into the [32:27] business and get into more and more user cases. We won’t be the only company that does this. I think there’s a big push into this. I’m a big believer in focusing on consumer empathy, which is going to be the new focus of strong brands. So, any company that’s all about lifetime value, that values their brand and use their brand with consumers as a pillar of their overall organization, and they view themselves as a social-good company as much as a profitable company, they’re always going to be about understanding customers and consumer empathy. So, I think the trend that I feel I started to pioneer will start to expand into all parts of these consumer companies.

Alejandro: That’s amazing. One of the questions that I typically ask the guests on the show is – now, your experience is remarkable. You’ve done multiple rodeos and now, with Symend, really taking it to a whole other level. If you had the opportunity to go back in time and have a chat with your younger self, with that younger Hanif, that was maybe thinking about starting and doing something. If you could go back in time and tell that younger Hanif one piece of business advice before launching a business, what would that be, and why, knowing what you know now?

Hanif Joshaghani: It’s interesting that the key thing in launching a business and having success at it – there’s the old proverb that amazing founders and amazing execution people can take average ideas and turn them into phenomenal companies. But an average entrepreneur or a below-average entrepreneur can take the best idea in the world and take it nowhere. I truly believe that. If I was going to look back to my younger self, the first thing I would learn to do is to a) work for some amazing entrepreneurs. Even if you have to take a massive pay cut or do whatever, I think the value of working for amazing, successful entrepreneurs and being a student of the game, not just doing the tasks that they assign you, but learning and sucking in every – imagine – I am where I am, and very proud of it, but if I had to look back, I would have picked to go work at early days PayPal, or early days eBay, or something like that even if I had to go work for free and bus a restaurant at night. Learning from the best and learning from these high-growth companies, I think, lays an incredible foundation for your future. The second part of it is, don’t chase money; chase passion. If you chase money, you’re never going to achieve greatness, whereas, even if your passion is cutting the best hair in the world, you could end up owning the biggest hair franchise in the whole world, and stuff like that. The thing that fuels you, and the thing that allows you to persevere and to convince other people to join you, and investors to join you, and lead teams, and all of these key things is how much you believe in your mission. Can you get other people to believe in that mission as much as you do? I think that’s a key to entrepreneurship because, at the end of the day, being an entrepreneur is fundamentally being a leader. 

Alejandro: Absolutely. And I’ve never done this before. There’s always a first time. I’m going to expand on this question, and if you could go even earlier to that time when you were 13 years old, and you were in a refugee camp in Iraq, what would you tell yourself?

Hanif Joshaghani: Hang in there. Things are going to get better. That would be the big focus. Just be tough. I was tough, but I could have – just hang in there and be tough, and things will get better. That would be the advice.

Alejandro: Wow. Very profound. Well, Hanif, so powerful. Really, thank you so, so much. And for the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?

Hanif Joshaghani: Obviously, on LinkedIn is one way. The other way is my email address. I always try to be responsive: hanif@symend.com.

Alejandro: Amazing. Well, Hanif, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.

Hanif Joshaghani: Thank you very much.

 

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