Reggie Aggarwal is the founder and CEO of Cvent which is an event management platform enabling planners to manage all aspects of an event. Reggie raised over $130 million for Cvent from investors like NEA or Insight Partners before doing an IPO in 2013. He ended up selling his business to Vista Equity Partners for $1.65 billion.
In this episode you will learn:
- Structuring vesting schedules for cofounders
- Cofounder disputes
- Finding solutions in outdated industries
- Starting a business with no domain expertise
- Raising capital from over 100 people at a seed stage
- The IPO process
- The art of M&A
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About Reggie Aggarwal:
Reggie Aggarwal is the CEO and Founder of Cvent, the leader in meetings, events and hospitality software. A lawyer by trade, Aggarwal founded Cvent in 1999 as a two-person startup, with the goal of making meeting planning easier for his peers in the business community.
The Cvent business idea first came to light after Aggarwal spent years painstakingly planning hundreds of events for the Indian CEO Network of which he was president. Aggarwal found early success as a pioneer in the event technology space but had to lay off nearly 80% of his employees during the dot-com burst in the early 2000s. During this time, approaching bankruptcy and facing the possibility of failure, Aggarwal and the core executive team focused on the two things that mattered most for a successful business: their employees and their customers.
Driven by the desire to transform the meetings and events industry, Cvent has grown to over 3,500 employees on 4 continents under Aggarwal’s leadership, and the 2013 IPO boasted a market capitalization of more than $1 billion. In 2016, Cvent was acquired by Vista Equity Partners for $1.65 billion, providing a 70% premium for Cvent stockholders.
Cvent is now a leading meeting, events, and hospitality management technology provider, serving more than 25,000 customers and 300,000 users worldwide with the solutions organizations need to automate and simplify the entire event planning process and maximize the impact of their meetings program. The Cvent Hospitality Cloud partners with hotels and venues to help them drive group and corporate travel business.
Aggarwal graduated with a BS degree from the University of Virginia, a Juris Doctorate from Washington and Lee University Law School, and an LLM (post-law degree) from Georgetown University Law School. He has also received an Honorary Doctorate from Southeastern University for his contribution to the community.
Aggarwal has received numerous recognitions and accolades, including the #1 Top SaaS CEO, Most Admired CEO by the Washington Business Journal, Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, a rising star by Forbes Magazine, and a Tech Titan by The Washingtonian.
Aggarwal lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and three children.
Connect with Reggie Aggarwal:
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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. I’m excited about the guest today because he’s someone that has gone through the full cycle as a founder himself. So without further ado, Reggie Aggarwal, welcome to the show today.
Reggie Aggarwal: Well, thank you for having me, Alejandro.
Alejandro: Let’s rewind back and do a little bit of walk through memory lane here, Reggie. So, your parents immigrated from India, and you were born and raised in Virginia. Is that right, or where were you born and raised?
Reggie Aggarwal: I was actually born in Manhattan, but my father chose the wrong Manhattan because it was Manhattan, Kansas. So, my parents immigrated here. They moved to Manhattan. The good news is after I was born there, I think we doubled the Indian population. There weren’t many Indians in Manhattan. I was born in 1969.
Alejandro: Got it. Then you went to that Manhattan. How was life growing up there and before you actually went to school because I see that you went to the University of Virginia? Walk us, myself and also the listeners as to how was life all the way until going to the University of Virginia.
Reggie Aggarwal: Sure. As I mentioned, I was born in Kansas. Lived there for a few years. My father got his Masters in Mechanical Engineering, pretty typical for a lot of Indian immigrants that immigrated in the 60s and lived there a few years, and he kind of bounced around a lot around the U.S. following jobs. So, we lived in California, New Jersey, Ohio. We’ve lived in about seven or eight different cities. Finally, when I was eight or nine years old, we settled in the Washington area. So, I call Washington home. I went to the local high school there in Washington in a place called Alexander, Virginia. From high school, I went to the University of Virginia which some people might be familiar with because we just won the NCAA Championship the other day.
Reggie Aggarwal: I was a finance major there. Then after I graduated from college, I made the unusual decision because back then—again, this is 1991. When you’re from Indian immigrant parents, you have two options. Option one is to be a doctor. Option two is to be an engineer. So, I shocked the system when I said I wanted to be a lawyer, and I ended up going to law school. I went to law school for a few years and started practicing law in the Washington area.
Alejandro: Got it, and the law firm that you went to is Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.
Reggie Aggarwal: Correct.
Alejandro: You were doing M&A stuff?
Reggie Aggarwal: Yeah. I was a corporate lawyer there, so I did from M&A to IPO to technology transactions. That got me excited about this space because I was in Tysons Corner which was for the Virginia, D.C. area. That’s consider the Silicon Valley of the Washington D.C. area, definitely Tysons. So, my customer were all tech companies, and I got to know a lot of CEOs and stuff. That got me into technology because my background was finance. That was what was helpful to getting introduced to the technology scene.
Alejandro: Just out of curiosity, you have a very similar background to myself. So, we’re both recovering lawyers. Why do you think, Reggie, that people say that typically lawyers turned entrepreneurs, they don’t do so well?
Reggie Aggarwal: Yeah, that’s a great question. I have strong views on it. I’ll tell you some experiences. The first one is, when you go to law school, it actually teaches you not to be a team—it doesn’t teach you team skills. It teaches you, actually, individual. So, there are two things about lawyers. One is, it’s very academically-driven. So, it doesn’t matter about any activities you have. Look. I was very involved in my university. For example, I was the student body vice president at UVA. When I applied to law school, they don’t really care. They just want to know what your LSAT is and your GPA. Not that they don’t look at some of that stuff, but unlike let’s say MBA schools where they weigh other stuff beyond your academics. So, that’s one. Lawyers tend to be very studious, and very high academics which no one should apologize for that. That’s number one. Number two, when you’re in law school, it’s an environment where it’s individual performance. When I was at UVA, when I was in the undergrad business school, 60% of my grades were based on team projects, and you very quickly learn how to work with teammates which includes the basic skill sets you learn later as a CEO which is pick the smartest people and the best people in the group, and you’ll do well on your grades because it’s a team effort, and it teaches you a different skill set. I learned a lot of lessons from college because while in law school, I remember I was trying to get a group together to do some stuff for classes, and it was tougher because people are more individually performance spaced, and that’s their mentality. So, I think when you come out of law school, it teaches you a different set of skills. When you go start a business, it’s actually not necessarily the skills you learned in law. Now, that doesn’t mean that the law doesn’t teach you some great things like analytical skills, how to write well. It’s a hardworking ethic, very hardworking ethic. There are definitely some positives, but there are some contradictions there that you have to get through to grow your business that you may not have learned those skills in being a lawyer.
Alejandro: We’re going to talk about your entrepreneurial journey in just a bit, and we’ll go into detail, but how would you say that perhaps having that legal background has helped you in your professional career? More on the business side?
Reggie Aggarwal: Here’s what I’ll tell you. A lot of people say, “Hey, law must have been a big reason why you’re where you are.” Look, anything you do where you have a hard work ethic, where you learn to be analytical, where you learn to have goals and achieve them, learn to be more professional, learn to interact with customers. It doesn’t mean, again, as a lawyer you still interact certainly with your colleagues, and you interact with customers a lot. So, I want to stress you do lose skill sets there. I think all those things helped me. Probably, the biggest thing that helped me was when you’re a lawyer you have your competence levels higher, I believe, because you just know things about, for example, I advised entrepreneurs as a young person. So, I got to see the insides of how a CEO thought, or how a CFO thought, how a general counsel thought. It just made you more comfortable with the way corporate America works because you’re getting exposure even though it’s the legal side. Of course, as a corporate lawyer, your goal is to not get into litigations, so I didn’t do any litigation. I just focused on your general transactions like contracts and partnership agreements, and if they went public or if they bought an acquisition. So, you learn some general corporate things I think were helpful. It made you feel comfortable and confident when you went into your own business a little bit more than if I hadn’t had that experience.
Alejandro: Of course. I think that being on the transactional side as a lawyer, too, like doing M&As and all these financing rounds, and stuff like that, drafting up the agreements and seeing things coming to fruition, you also get to really capture that pattern recognition on what makes things click, and what makes things also blow up the deals, or have deals not even happening. What were you seeing on the founders that really were able to drive things to the finish line?
Reggie Aggarwal: Yes. Here’s the first thing. I learned a lot of lessons when I did venture capital deals. I’ll just tell you it starts with some fundamental things. The first fundamental is the way you structure your equity. So, for the new entrepreneurs, it is so important to make sure you realize—I’ll just take two lessons. The first one is founder or no founder, if you have a group of you, you make sure you vest equity because what happens if three people start a company, and after one year, someone leaves. They own a third of the company, and they leave. They still own a third of the company. Then the other founders are dying saying, “We’re working. We’re busting our butts 80 hours a week, and this person owns a third of the company, and we’re working basically for them. That can literally tear a company apart, and I’ve seen it happen. There’s a lot of emotional damage happens when one of the partners leaves, and they still own their shares. So, you should do something like a vest even on founders if you’re a group of you because circumstances change. Like, it takes longer to build your business, and one person says, “I can’t work for very low salary. I have a family.” That’s fair, but you should know your equity, and that creates a lot of damage. That’s what I’ll tell you is one of the biggest reasons companies explode because they can’t get through that emotional; it’s a very emotional thing. The second thing that I’ll tell you is that people tend to give up their equity way too much too early. Look, candidly, if you start a company with four people, you’ve just given away 75% of the equity where six months later, you can hire the same person for 1% or 2%. That crushes a business because you’ve already given away your equity, so as you grow your business, you don’t have any equity to give up because you dilute down to a very little amount. That’s the second lesson I learned as an example. Those were very important lessons where I think a lot of companies go bankrupt or don’t make it through even when they have a great idea and a great team, just because of those two reasons. So, that’s an example of things that you learn as a lawyer to see the negatives that happen, so you’re not so “Everything’s great.” When you start a company, you’re excited, you’re confident. Nothing can stop you. You’re going to build a billion-dollar business, and we all believe that when we start a company. Otherwise, we wouldn’t risk so much to do it, but people don’t look at the downside. Being a lawyer teaches you, you better look at the downside because that’s actually the most likely scenario.
Alejandro: Also, you see the nightmare stories, so you get to really see things as, “I absolutely don’t want this for myself.” I actually agree with you on that because if you don’t structure things right, let’s say like with a four-year vesting and a two-year cliff, which is what I think is fair nowadays—
Reggie Aggarwal: You’re exactly right.
Alejandro: The problem is that you get the free riders. So, if you want to build a hypergrowth business, and you have someone that you’ve given, let’s say, 25% to 50% of the equity, and they leave, then investors are going to be like, “I don’t want to just finance their remaining 50%. So, it’s a problem.
Reggie Aggarwal: It really is, and so I think there are so many lessons from a legal team side that I’ve seen that, or broken M&A deals, or venture capital deals that go bad because the entrepreneur didn’t read the details and realize. Entrepreneurs, frankly, they’re built to be optimistic. If I would say one of the biggest lessons I learn is, you always have to do what I call Sensitivity Analysis, which is show the best case, worst case, and the base scenario in almost anything you do. And you do [10:46] in the worst case on any major decision. So, a lot of what you do in life is if you just do that, then you will automatically say, “Well, what happens in the worst-case scenario? If “Mary, you left me as my business partner.” What happens? So, if you just realize that that’s a worst-case scenario, then you would protect against it. You do that in anything you do in starting your business or growing it, and these lessons are good lessons learned. It’s just sometimes helpful to have seen it and seen the emotions. I’ve seen two brothers start a business. Things didn’t work out, and not only did the business fail, but their personal relationship is obviously gone. It’s just interesting to see what a business startup can do to tear friends and people apart when circumstances change. So, that’s just some examples.
Alejandro: I hear you. Those are great pointers. Also, during this time, at the same time in parallel to your duty as an attorney, you founded the Indian CEO Tech Council. I guess this taught you one thing or two about networking. Is that right?
Reggie Aggarwal: Yeah. So, here are a few things. What I did is basically in 1996, again the technology community was very sleepy. People were not connected at all, and you certainly didn’t have the technology and the tools you have now. So, back then, it was the old-fashioned way. You pick up the phone and call people. Cell phones were barely out. Email was barely out. So, basically, what I did is I got to know a lot of CEOs through a variety of my legal profession. I was also the president of another business association, and so I got to meet people. What I saw is that people didn’t know each other. So, I started this organization for CEOs for Indians. So, it was called the Indian CEO Technology Council. Basically, in the Washington area, I just got anyone who was Indian who was a CEO of a company. You had to have at least 10 million in revenue and 75 employees or have raised 10 million in venture capital, which is a lot now, but back in ’96, ’97, that was huge.
Reggie Aggarwal: Basically, I got a good group of folks. There are a lot of Indian folks that didn’t realize how big the community was. Personally, it was great because we started getting coverage. A lot of the community people started realizing the impact on the business community that Indians were making which is powerful for me as an Indian. But, frankly, we got people together, and we were about 20 of us, 15 of us at the beginning, and then we grew to 75. Eventually, we grew to 150. Once we got 150, we basically got every CEO in Washington who was running a substantial company in more of the technology area. Not 100% of our members, but let’s call 90% were in tech. It was a great experience for me to get to know CEOs. I’ll tell you the lesson I learned there. The lesson I learned there is that a lot of people look up to CEOs and think they’re something special. I realized they weren’t. They were no different than me, and frankly, they just did something like maybe they took a high risk. Maybe they were very persistent. Whatever their attributes were, I saw a commonality, and especially with Indians. I was like, “Man, these people, for most of the members, this was their first generation. They moved here when they were 21 or something. So, they didn’t speak the language great. They weren’t necessarily inspiring and super articulate. They didn’t have a lot of money, and they weren’t connected, and they had a family because a lot of them moved here with families, and they somehow built great businesses. The lesson I learned there is they built it because 1) They were willing to take high risks. 2) They were persistent and consistent, and they just never gave up. That’s what I saw as the common attribute. It wasn’t being super smart because I knew a lot of them, frankly, weren’t that smart. How did I know that? Because I worked with a lot of them, and you could just tell if they were really smart. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t intellectually smart, but they weren’t necessarily super-savvy businesspeople. Yet, they succeeded, and that’s because of taking risks and being persistent and consistent and believing and being patient. So, I learned those lessons. I got to know so many CEOs, and that’s why I was very lucky to be brought up in an environment to know so many CEOs so that when I started my company, I wasn’t scared because I was able to see all these people and say, “Hey, if that person can do it, I can do it.” That was an interesting experience for me.
Alejandro: You definitely learned the lesson of persistence and patience because you’ve been with your company now for 19 years and counting.
Reggie Aggarwal: Yeah.
Alejandro: We’re going to go into detail now. How was the incubation process of Cvent, and how did that happen? Were you seeing as a lawyer all these different founders that you were working with changing the world, and here you were pushing paper behind a desk, and you said, “I must have a bigger life purpose than this.”? How did the incubation of the idea happen?
Reggie Aggarwal: Alejandro, for me, I was always very entrepreneurial. As a kid, I ran a paint company. I ran a lawn care service. Obviously, snow removal which a lot of entrepreneurs have all done when they’re young. I did literally everything, and I rarely worked for other people. I was always very entrepreneurial. So, I had that bug, but I went to be a lawyer because it was a good, great, steady career, and it was prestigious, frankly. So, I did that. What I realized when I was doing it is very entrepreneurial. 1) I run a business as a young lawyer, and I try to work in the confines of a law firm. But what I realized is that I really got excited when I was growing the Indian CEO Tech Council. That was where a lot of my passion was, and it got me excited. That really got me excited to see that thing grow into something that I built. So, that was #1. What gave me the idea was simple. The idea really came from when I started running the Indian CEO Tech Council. I was organizing 15, 20-person events. We eventually grew to over 2,000 members, and we expanded it beyond Indians because like a good marketer, once we got 100% market share, we have to increase our TAM. What we did is we let in anyone. You didn’t have to be Indian, so we grew to several thousands. We became the largest CEO network and group on the East Coast at the time by far. We started having 500, 600 CEOs/CxOs, CFOs, and so forth, CTOs come to the events. It forced me to start manually doing all of this, and I was going crazy. I was working 60 hours a week as a corporate lawyer. I was actually getting my post-law degree. I noticed that you have, my LLM at Georgetown. Then I was running the Indian CEO Tech Council. I was doing all three of those things at once, and I was going crazy, and I was working about 30 to 40 hours a week on this nonprofit organization that I started.
Reggie Aggarwal: Really, what ended up happening is that being around entrepreneurs was one thing, but you have to have an idea. My idea came from running the Indian CEO Tech Council; so painful organizing these events, that I found the pain point which is these events. I decided I needed to create the aspirin, and that’s how we started Cvent, and I started the company because I found that pain point, and I was the customer. I knew that was a real pain because I was an event planner. I was the secretary, the meeting planner, and the president of the organization. Then my tools were Excel, Outlook, and yellow sticky notes. That’s how I organized events, and that wasn’t good enough. So, I said, “I’m going to create Cvent to automate this.” That’s how I started the business.
Alejandro: Then here you have this frustration, and you start incubating this and figuring out how to make it a little bit more efficient when it comes to managing those events. Walk us through the immediate events that happened before and to the point that you handed your notice to leave the firm to your managing partner there.
Reggie Aggarwal: Yeah. What you just brought up is the most critical thing. First, you’ve got an idea. You have to find a pain point, and you got to create the aspirin to solve it. Done. I got the idea. Then you have to have the confidence to do it, and let me tell you what most people do because I mentor so many entrepreneurs. I’ve been in business for 20 years, and I’m so involved in the entrepreneur community. Most people never quit their job. They do it part-time. What I always tell people when you’ve got guys like me, they’re going to quit their job, work 100 hours a week, and put everything I own into the business, and you’re not going to be able to compete against someone like me or these other entrepreneurs that just go all in. You have to go all in. Now, did I do it immediately? The answer is no. I took three or four months to gather a team. The first person, one of my business partners was a guy named David Quattrone, the CTO of the company co-founder. When I started the business, I had the idea, and I wasn’t a technologist. Dave was a technology person. He was a developer, and very bright because he went to Wharton for his undergrad business degree and got his engineer degree. He had a little bit of everything, but he was a developer. So, I needed someone to complement me because I was more sales and marketing and whatever other areas that I had more strengths in, but I didn’t know technology because I wasn’t an engineer. So, he was the first person. First, you’ve got to believe in the business. You’ve got to start recruiting a team, and you’ve got to quickly put all in. That’s where I think most people fail once they have the idea. Then they don’t execute because they don’t go all in. They try to say, “I’ve got to build this business, work my job, and once the business brings in more revenue than my job, then I’ll quit.” Most people never get to that, or it takes three years. If it takes three years, someone else already got your idea, and they’re already building it.
Alejandro: Ideas are, Reggie, like buses. You’ve just got to get yourself in the bus, and as quickly as you can, and close the door.
Reggie Aggarwal: You really do. Here’s what I tell people. When you start a business, there are a lot of benefits if you fail. You learn a lot of lessons. I love hiring failed entrepreneurs. It’s okay to be failed because I see that they appreciate how hard it is to build a business and that they have that gumption in them, and they learned a lot. You learn more on the way down than you learn on the way up. But either way, I finally got the pain point. I was committed to doing it. I was fortunate to have parents that were supportive because I lived at home after law school. I didn’t get my own place. I decided to move back home. Both of my parents thought I was going to live there a year, but I ended up living there for what I’d call the Indian George Costanza because I was there until I was 35 years old in their place. What that gave me is flexibility, even though oddly when you’re living with your parents, you get some little bit more guardrails even at 30 years old, you have more guardrails. But the positive is it gave me financial freedom where I didn’t have a lot of expenses, and I put everything I owned into the company.
Alejandro: Makes complete sense. Then what was the time where you told yourself because this is a big decision? I remember when I gave my notice, as well, at the firm, and here I was in one of the best firms, and all of that stuff, but I was giving everything up for a dream. How was that day where you made the decision to really go after this, and how was the day where you gave your notice?
Reggie Aggarwal: Like you, I had a lot to lose because I went to law school, got my post-law degree practice for five years, so it’s hard to give a nine-year career up, and you’re making good money as a corporate lawyer. What I did was when I had the idea, I gathered a small team, and we didn’t have funding. I was funding it myself out of my pocket, but it really came down to I just believed in it and I looked at it saying, “What do I want to do 20 years from now? Do I want to be a partner at a law firm?” The answer was no. That wasn’t what I aspired to be. So, it’s pretty simple. Once I knew I didn’t want to get to the end game, then I knew that I’d start the business. Your heart flutters when you do it. You get scared. For me, it wasn’t just that I quit the job. Obviously, I had planned for three or four months getting some other folks, analyzing the market, making sure that I talked to some other meeting planners and really made sure the pain point was there. I just had a little bit of diligence, but the end, you’ve just got to jump off the cliff. For me, it was September 4th. It was right after Labor Day. I gave notice 30 days before, so I’d wind up some of the businesses I was working with, but basically, I left, and it was scary. I knew that it was the right thing for me at that time. The reality is I didn’t even think of failure. I thought, “Of course it’s obvious. I’m going to turn this into a billion-dollar company in a few years. So, this is the obvious thing to do.” That’s your entrepreneur where they believe so much; they’re so passionate, but that’s also the negative is that they tend not to look at the downsides, and tend not to realize that things don’t always go your way, and it always takes longer to build a business. The reality is 95% of businesses fail. Out of the 5% that survive, most of them never really grow that much to become a large company. But none of that mattered to me because all I knew is, I found an idea now. I was going to make it happen, and that was my passion and boom. It was the right, logical thing for me to do.
Alejandro: I can imagine that as well, the conversation with your parents and moving back in, probably they thought you were crazy.
Reggie Aggarwal: Yeah, they did. They go, “You want to be an event planner? You’re a lawyer right now.” “No, mom. I’m not going to be an event planner. I’m going to create event-planning management tools, software tools.”
Alejandro: Yeah, unbelievable. Let me ask you this. For me, I remember when I made the switch from law to tech, it was nerve-wracking because I had no idea how to code, and no idea about tech. So, how was that switch for you?
Reggie Aggarwal: Let me be clear. I didn’t code then. I don’t code now. So, what I did, I’ll just tell you one thing I learned is, and I’m sure you’ve learned this is I was good at certain skill sets. I was never going to be a coder, nor did I aspire to be a coder. That wasn’t my DNA. What’s important for an entrepreneur to know is what your strengths and weaknesses are. So, I’ve never even tried to code. I don’t have any interest in doing it because I want to hire people that is their passion. I learned: follow your passion. You’ll do pretty well if you just keep yourself in that. That’s when I told you one of my business partners, Dave, he was a hard-core technologist, and we’re still together today. He took care of the technology side. Then really what happened, it was the old adage where when I was talking to him, he said, “Can you show me your business plan?” “I don’t have one” is what I told him because I was too busy running the Indian CEO Tech Council, getting my post-law degree at night school, and working at my firm. So, when we got together, I was the proverbial write-it-on-a-napkin, and I literally said, “Here’s my idea. Can you build it.” He was like, “Let me see.” I didn’t have much detail. I said, “This is what I want because I’m feeling the pain point as an event planner. I want an event registration event marketing system, blah, blah, blah. He started building it, and I started raising funds and getting customers, recruiting employees, getting office space, all the basic stuff that you do. That’s how we ran the business. Then as we brought people in, I brought hopefully what I call talented people. One thing we’re very unique in is that eight of my eleven original people that I recruited 20 years ago almost, are still with me today. I was very lucky to find good people, and then we started scaling the business.
Alejandro: What did the founding team look like?
Reggie Aggarwal: Originally, like I said, Dave was the first one. Then there was another gentleman, a guy named Dwayne Sye who joined. Dwayne was another technology guy. Dave went to Penn undergrad, and Dwayne went to Penn with him in engineering. So, he kind of started our infrastructure. One thing we were lucky is we were a cloud-based company in ’99. We were one of the first few not doing install software, which obviously no one does now. But in ’99, there were almost no cloud companies. No one had ever heard of it, but we decided that was a much easier way to do it, so internet operations and cloud-based operations became a big thing. So, Dwayne focused on that. Then very shortly after that, a guy named Chuck who was another lawyer by the way. He was a guy that went to Duke, so he lost the big NCAA tournament pretty bad this time. But Chuck went to Duke. Went undergrad law. Then Chuck joined. He was a lawyer. Just like me, he practiced for five or six years. Chuck joined, and he started heading up our sales team. So, now, he’s our president of sales and marketing. He joined a few months after we started. That was the original team, and we just started building the business and focusing on where our strengths were. We all stuck together. Dwayne retired about a year ago. He was with us for about 18 years. But the rest of the guys were still working hard and still working 60-hour weeks.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. For the listeners, what ended up being the business model behind Cvent?
Reggie Aggarwal: Yeah, it was simple. What we did is it started in the beginning just simple. I was organizing events and the queue. What I learned is how do you market the people to pack the house with the right people because I wanted only CEOs or CxOs. So, it’s event marketing, and then all the things around it which are event management. What that means is registering people and doing surveys, whatever they want to hear, post-event reporting, and that basic stuff. That was what we started in ’99. But what it evolved to is much bigger. So, just a couple of interesting things is the event industry is the biggest industry ever heard of. One trillion U.S. dollars will be spent on events in 2019 across the globe. One trillion. Put in perspective, that’s bigger than GDP of all the countries in the world except 17 of them. It’s so much money spent on these events, we were just automating it, and now we have all kinds of other tools which I won’t go deeply into, but basically, we’re automating the event industry from picking your hotel to registering to marketing, to your onsite experience like a mobile app. We do large conferences like AWS is one of our big customers. If you’re running AWS for 50,000 people all the way to a small nonprofit or a university, or large corporation or small corporations around the globe. We’re the largest player worldwide. We run now close to a million events a year.
Alejandro: Really cool. What were some of the early days like? What were some of the challenges that you guys were dealing with?
Reggie Aggarwal: We had lots of challenges. Here’s what happened. We’re 1999, September. We start the company, just a handful of us. I was paying for it and funding it out of my pocket. When you’re writing these checks for 50, 60 grand a month, it really hits you because I’d save a lot of money. The way I got my funding was I’d save money from living at home, making a good salary as a corporate lawyer. I didn’t take a salary for 2 1/2 years after I started the company. Everything went into the company. My parents both worked for the government. I come from a middle-class family. Both my parents worked for the government for 25, 30 years. They gave me a quarter million dollars out of their 401K plan which is a lot of money. Back then, it’s even more money. Then finally, I put about $400,000 on my credit cards. I just literally applied for 15 credit cards at once in ’99. Got approved because my big corporate lawyer background gave me good credit before they could figure out that I’d applied to 15 credit cards within an hour or two of each other. I just spent it buying equipment because back then you had to actually buy servers and all that junk. You can’t host it on AWS or something like that, or Google Cloud. Very quickly raised money through my parents, myself, and credit cards. We were just five or six of us, and we were just going to grow the business organically because I didn’t want to dilute and raise venture capital. Then something happened. The dot-com boom was in full swing, and a billion dollars of venture capital went into our space which was online event registration at the time. So, a billion dollars went to all these companies, and mostly Silicon Valley. They were raising 50 million dollars and so forth. All the sudden these companies were 100, 200 people, and we’re like, “We’re going to get slaughtered” because we’re six people. We’ve got two or three technology people, this, and this, and we’re not going to out-develop 60 developers or engineers, so we need to grow. Very quickly, we went through six people. We raised 17 million dollars in funding at one time. Basically, it was from that full technology CEO group. So, I knew all the CEOs in the Washington area, and they were very gracious to support me. From the president of Nasdaq, to the CEO of AOL, to the CEO of Nextel, CEO of Nortel. We had all the big what we call the technology glitterati from the Washington D.C. area. I got all these CEOs. I got 130 of them to give me money. So, it was a big pain, but I got 130 people to write me checks from $50,000 to hundreds of thousands. We boomed. We were off to the races. We quickly grew from 6 to 125 people in one year.
Reggie Aggarwal: So, the first six months, slow growth, self-funded, after the dot-com boom, got to keep up with everyone, raised 17 million, and we grew to 125. That’s what we did very quickly in 2000, and things were going great. That’s the beginning part. Then I can tell you now, the turn.
Alejandro: Let’s talk about the bust, the dot-com bust.
Reggie Aggarwal: Everything’s going great. Great 17 million, getting lots of coverage. We were covered by all kinds of media because I knew the media really well because of the Indian CEO Tech Council. We were on the front page of the Washington Post. We’re in Forbes, USA Today, all kinds of stuff were written. “The next big company.” Then something happens. The perfect storm hit. The recession hit. September 11th hit, and reality hit, and we had spent all 17 million dollars almost. We spent 16.6 million dollars to grow to 125 people, and we grew a big, fat 1.5 million revenue company. All the sudden, we realized that we’re going to go bankrupt. Now, it’s ’01, you can’t raise money, it’s a deep recession, and so we did the only thing we could do which was we cut 80% of our staff. By the way, we didn’t do it in one playoff. It was over six months, and that’s really brutal when you keep telling your troops, “We’re going to do a layoff, but that’s okay. Things will get better.” And they didn’t. Then you do it again, and you’re frankly breaking your word because you’re saying, “This is the last layoff.” And you really believe it because as an entrepreneur, you’re built to believe. You’re not looking at the worst-case scenario. It wasn’t until our last round that we literally said, “You know what? Our revenues aren’t going to grow that fast. We’re not going to raise money, so what do we need to be, to be able to run this ship without any positive stuff?” So, that’s what we did. We cut 80% of our staff. We’re down to 24 people. I’ve never been knocked off my horse, really, because things have gone well for me in my life, but this is the first time I got knocked off my horse, and I literally didn’t know which way was up and which way was down. But one thing I did know was I was a crappy entrepreneur because I blew through 17 million dollars, built a business that was 1.5 million dollars in revenue and laid off a lot of people that were smarter than me. Frankly, it was a really bad scenario for us in ’01. I didn’t even necessarily believe that we could change the world anymore because I started seeing what reality, poured cold water on me.
Alejandro: I can imagine. You were talking earlier about how when you succeed, everything looks great, but when things are not going that well, you really get to learn. You really get to have breakthrough moments. I’m sure that for you guys, obviously, this happened, but the business ended up having a nice outcome. For you, you probably must have had like a really big breakthrough moment not only on the professional level but at a personal level too. So, walk us through what happened.
Reggie Aggarwal: I’ll tell you personally and professionally. Let’s talk professionally real quick. We’re down to 26 people. We have no funding. We can’t raise funding because no one’s giving it, and we did one big mistake. Our big mistake was we signed a long-term lease. We signed a five-year lease, and when we moved into this space, we were 125 people at the time, roughly that. We got space for 250 people, and we locked in a five-year agreement. So, we had a million-dollar expense in rent, five year. All the sudden, we just needed a million or two to help us survive, but no one would give it to us because all the dues would go to paying our rent because we were only in the second year of a five-year deal. So, we had a 4-million-dollar liability in rent. What happened is that on a business level is that we couldn’t meet our obligations on even base things like rent. We cut down our payroll. It’s hard to develop a product. We cut a lot of our tech people. We couldn’t market it, and so forth. But what we did was my team stuck together. My original team kept believing, and I think a lot of reason I asked why they stuck, I think a lot of it was we were literally working 90, 100 hours a week, seven days a week, all the time, and this is all you did. From a business level, we finally right-sized the company, and we became realistic that it takes time to change people’s behavior and to get software adapted in a new segment. So, the whole thing was to survive. That’s the first thing from a business level. On a personal level, I was in really bad shape. Like I said, I lost all our investors’ money. I tell this to people: going through personal tragedy is difficult. We’ve all gone through that, but it’s even tougher when the newspapers are writing about you. That’s what happened. The media turned on me. I had gotten so much great press, disproportionately positive press because I knew all the press because they would come to those Indian CEO events. So, the Washington Post, which you can imagine in ’01, there was no social media. There was no podcast. There were no ways to do it except radio, TV, and newspaper. The Washington Post had us on the front page about six times if you believe it because they’d just end up picking us on the way up. They’re going to pick on you on the way down. They chronicled our slow death. So, to read that in the paper and people saying that you’re not going to survive and that I wasn’t a good entrepreneur, it’s tough to go through this, but when everyone’s reading about it, you can imagine.
Reggie Aggarwal: Then everyone in town, I had 130 investors that were trying to chase me to get their money back. These were my entire network. I lost my family’s money, my sibling’s money, my friend’s money, my contacts. So, everyone from work, to the investors, to people reading it, I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed. I was at home. I remember many times my mom had to come say, “Listen. You’ve got to get to work. You’re the leader. You’re the captain. You have to show fearlessness.” I remember that because it was very emotionally difficult to get up when you’re a crappy entrepreneur, and you don’t know what to do.
Alejandro: What was the turning point, Reggie?
Reggie Aggarwal: You know, I’ll tell you a couple of things. I think we all have hidden strength within us, and especially when you believe. This is where I tell you the difference between most entrepreneurs. The reality is most people would have given up. They wouldn’t have worked 100 hours a week taking no salary, continue to put everything they had in there. Actually, my parents gave me a little bit more money to even continue to survive because I just was hoping we would turn. This is when you learn a few lessons, first about yourself and about people. First, I learned about myself. I have an attitude where I just don’t see failure, and I didn’t realize that because, again, I’ve never been tested like this, but I just wasn’t going to fail. That wasn’t for me. It’s because of other people. So, what I’d learned is that people will let themselves down, but they won’t let down other people. I’ll tell you, 99% of the other people will say, let’s say you’re in college. “I have an exam. I won’t study.” But if you’re on a team and your grades depend on the teamwork, you’ll show up to those meetings because other people are relying on you. That’s what I learned about people in college is that when you’re in a group, they’ll actually do well because they don’t want to disappoint someone. For me, I had a whole team depending on me, investors, customers. It wasn’t about me; it was about them. What I tell you is that you just say I’ve got to literally go down with the ship, not just when it sinks, but to the bottom of the ocean. That was my attitude. I didn’t really realize that, but that was just the way my DNA was. I wasn’t going to give up, so I just worked harder, and I’m not even going to say necessarily smarter. We learn things, but we learn to do just one thing which is to realize that everything takes longer, and you’ve got to muddle out the worst-case scenario. Then if you do that, your business will be a lot better off. But you can’t lose your passion.
Alejandro: For you, Reggie, what was a point where you finally said, “We’re going to make it. We’re going to survive.” What was that day like?
Reggie Aggarwal: I’ll tell you the day it happened. We couldn’t make our rent. We’re out of money. We couldn’t almost make payroll, and I finally got one of our investors to give us a little bit of money, but then in order to do that, I had to do some things. One of them was cut our rent. I went to our landlord, and I said, “Listen. We’re paying you basically almost a million dollars a year. We’re down to 26 people. We’re going to go bankrupt. Here’s our books. There’s no point in us going bankrupt because half your building’s empty already, and no one’s going to take the space up. So, at least we can pay you some rent like maybe a couple hundred thousand a year. I remember the landlord said, “Well, we’re not going to do that because if you miss your payment, we’re going to accelerate the next four years. That’s what all commercial real estate deals say, even today. If you miss your rent, and you get 30-days’ notice, if you miss that, they can accelerate all the rent you owe for the entire term. So, we’d owe 4 million dollars. What went to my head as I laughed, I said, “That’s great. We’re going to file for bankruptcy anyway. What’s the point? You’re going to drive us to bankruptcy; you’re going to collect nothing. Finally, the guy said, “Okay. I’ll cut down your rent, but here’s what I’m going to ask. That you personally sign the lease, Reggie. You personally.” Because we’re a C corp., you don’t personally sign anything. It’s through your corporation, and they can sue you if I don’t make my rent which back then became like a 1.7-million-dollar contract. Can you imagine someone who hasn’t had a salary for two and a half years, put everything into a company? I have no money. What went through my head is, “Okay, I’ll sign it. You know why? Because I’m going to go bankrupt anyway. What’s the big difference?” But then I realized that if I go personally bankrupt, and you know this Alejandro, as a lawyer if you personally file for bankruptcy, none of the big firms would ever take me back. So, not only was I going to fail as an entrepreneur but then my Plan B was to go back to being a corporate lawyer. I did pretty well there. But I couldn’t go back to that because no one would hire someone who’s been out of the force for three years and filed for personal bankruptcy, and not to mention the emotional damage it does to you to file personal bankruptcy. So, the landlord said, “Are you going to do it or not?” I went to my team. I remember the night. I said, “Listen. I’m going to get us out and have our rent of a million cut down to like 2 or 250, which gives us a fighting chance, but they want me to personally sign a million-dollar-plus lease. Are you in, because I don’t want to sign this and you guys quit on me because I can’t do this alone? I asked my team to take a night to think about it. To come back to me. I said, “Just tell me the truth because I know this is a sinking ship, but I need you to write it. If you’re not here, then let’s just let it die, and I need you. They came back the next day. There were 11 of them, and 10 of the 11 said yes. One of them said no, and they opted out. Out of those 10, 8 of them are still with me today, 20 years later.
Reggie Aggarwal: That was the moment that I knew that I believed, and I had to search my soul and say, “Am I really going to put everything on the line?” This is where you differentiate between entrepreneurs, frankly. They really put everything on the line because my Option B, my Plan B of going back to being a lawyer was not there. I think in life when you don’t have a Plan B, the Plan A looks a lot better.
Alejandro: For sure.
Reggie Aggarwal: That was the moment that I knew that we were all in. I was all in, and we were not going to fail.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. Then, obviously, this is a turning point. You guys turned this thing around. How much money did you guys end up raising before you went public?
Reggie Aggarwal: This is an amazing story. We didn’t raise any more money.
Alejandro: So, that was it. You took the company public?
Reggie Aggarwal: I’ll tell you a little inside scoop.
Alejandro: Go ahead.
Reggie Aggarwal: We went from a 1.5-million-dollar revenue company, raised 17 million, blew through it all, and you know the story now. We raised our money in 2000. We raised another million dollars from those investors essentially, and this is all in 2000 and 2001. Then we didn’t raise any more money because I would never be dependent on investor money again because it’s like if we can’t build this business on our own without raising money and not being profitable, then we don’t deserve to run a business because we already spend 17 million dollars. Now, we were the Bad News Bears, the first few innings because we blew it all and blew nothing. Then you go back to the basics. This is where the culture of Cvent got formed as we said now, “We survived this. We’re not going to get ourselves by spinning ahead by doing the kind of things that the dot-com which all of us did really bad lessons, and then just keep raising money and funding it that way.” We said “We’re going to raise our money through our customers and get them to pay us.” So, we did not raise money between 2001 and 2013 when we went public, except one time. In 2011, we raised 136 million dollars. We told everyone to raise 136, which is true, but the reality is that only $100,000 of that went into our balance sheet. That 135.9 million went to buying out the investors who invested in 2000. The reality is we didn’t raise any money since 2000.
Alejandro: I’m sure that was a turning point as well on your relationship because they went from chasing you to get their money back to chasing you to invite you for lunch as well as dinners. Right?
Reggie Aggarwal: What I’ll tell you is anyone who cashed out in 2011, we raised from NEA and Inside Venture Partners. But when we raised money from them in 2011 and cashing out everyone, they got about a 10 or 11X. If you waited two more years, we gave you a 45X.
Reggie Aggarwal: Which a lot of our investors did. The patient ones who just gave us two or three more years, they were 45X. We did pretty good on giving returns for our people, but they believed in us. I’ll tell you; I got a lot of support from investors. They were asking about things. You’ve got 130 investors; they’re asking you how things are going. When you have 135 of them, people think managing two or three venture people are hard, imagine 130 angel investors, and most of them are pretty aggressive because they’re all CEOs themselves pretty much. But it all worked out, and learned a lot of lessons on the way. This near-death story is what built our culture where it is today, and that’s why nothing really scares at Cvent because when you live through a near-death, it’s hard to scare you.
Alejandro: 100%. Obviously, you take the company public, and then the acquisition happens. Walk us through and make us be insiders of how this acquisition started and happened.
Reggie Aggarwal: Sure. Let me just real quick—when you’re building the business, our culture is built between 2002, 2004, 2005. Then fast-forward as we’re growing. We just incrementally grew and just kept to basics. We really believed in the company because we gave our heart and soul for it, obviously, at that point before we sold about 17, 18 years. So, we go public in ’13. Things are going well for us. There was a mini-recession in ’16 if you recall, SaaS companies. People started thinking we were going to have a recession. Basically, we got approached. We weren’t looking to sell the company. We got approached by a buyer which we’re not allowed to say who. It was a strategic buyer. It was a corporation, and when you’re a public company when someone puts a bid out for you, it’s real. So, they put a bid unsolicited, and we’re like, “Wow. We’re in play.” Actually, we turned it down. We weren’t that interested. Then, coincidentally, another player came in and gave us a bid, literally unsolicited again, coincidentally within 30 days. At that point, you have a process because you have two people. Then we said, “Okay. We’ve got to take this seriously.” We didn’t have a banker at this point. Then we said, “We need to hire a banker because we have two bids, and you’ve got to see it through because that’s what you do. My fiduciary duty, it’s not what I wanted. It’s what’s best for the shareholders. The prices they gave us were 40% or 50% over our stock prices let’s say roughly. That were interesting, but we still weren’t that interested in selling. In the end, we then said we were going to talk to a few people. We circled a few people that we’d had relationships. Within a couple of weeks, we talked to some other players. We got a third bid. Then we got a fourth bid, but then the other two started getting like if you don’t make a decision, then we’re going to pull out. So, we had three bids. In the end, we ended up getting 70% premium to our stock price which has never happened since 2002. In the last 15 years, no one’s got such a high premium on a company valued at a billion or more. We’ve got some penny stocks that can go for whatever, but if you’re a billion dollars or more, no one’s gotten a 70% premium in 15 years on any company in technology in the U.S. So, it was mind-blowing to get that premium. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to sell the company. As a matter of fact, we got the bid. We accepted it. We hadn’t signed. We’re in the middle of signing it, and then I meet with what I call my personal board of directors which it’s not just my board of directors, but my friends and some people. I wasn’t sure I wanted to sell. I’ll just tell you very candidly a couple of things happened. Number one, you don’t want to be that guy or that gal that doesn’t sell their company at such a high premium just at that time. Again, the market has gone up a lot more on multiples, but back then that was a super-high multiple and a high premium on our stock. Look. Let’s be clear. I was the largest shareholder of the company, so it was obviously going to set me for generational wealth, and you’ll be that person to turn that down. That was one side. Then you start looking at the risks of this and this, this happens, and we’re going to go into a recession, and all this. Then the second thing that went through my head is I have a lot of passion for this, and I really like this, and I don’t want to stop this. So, in the end, my fiduciary duty was to get the highest price possible and make the decision if we want to sell. When you get a 70% premium, it’s hard to turn that down. Frankly, there’s a little bit of fuse that you could get sued if you turn it down because people are like, “Are you crazy that you turned down the highest premium ever paid for a software company in the last 15 years?” So, that was a little bit, but in the end, my team said, “Let’s play this out.” In the end, the winning bidder was Vista Equity Partners. What was great about that, and ended up being, because you’ve got to go with your fiduciary duty. I want to be clear with you that you’ve got to go for your highest price, and the most likely to close, let’s say. That was this stuff. They were going to close in just a couple of weeks where everyone else takes longer. Frankly, they committed to us in 24 hours which is unheard of or 48 hours. So, not only did they have the highest price, they gave us the quickest to close. The reason they knew this is because they owned our competitor, and they were the largest player till we became the largest player, so they knew how strong we were, and they knew the space. That’s why they closed in 48 hours essentially. Then we went with them. But the last thing that was the silver lining on the cake is there was an option for us to run the company because they asked my team to run the company. Now, that wasn’t the driver of why we sold it, but that was obviously icing on the cake because we could still continue running the business and take it private. Look. Love being private, a lot of positive. There are negatives. The stress. There are some things. You, obviously, have to meet quarterly earnings. But to go private again and to keep swinging at the plate, that’s where we got the opportunity. So, we did that. We went private, and I’ll tell you an interest stat, Alejandro, is that I don’t think any company after it stopped—three years later on April 15th, we signed the deal to be acquired. Three years later, basically almost today, 48 of my 50 top leaders are still with the company. All of my leadership, all those top folks and 48 of the 50 are still with the company. They took my highest-ranked people at Cvent.
Alejandro: What was the value of the transaction?
Reggie Aggarwal: It was 1.65 billion which at the time like I said, was the highest premium paid, and it was an excellent sale. Now, a couple of things since we’ve been owned by Vista, last year they owned 61 portfolio companies but were voted Company of the Year of their portfolio, and we’ve been winning a lot of awards. So, things have gone really well, and my team has stuck. We think that it was a great outcome from our investors at the time. Now, all entrepreneurs regret selling their company when things are going so well. Frankly, we are now 4,000 employees. When we sold, we were about 1,800, so we’ve grown a lot in the last few years, and continue to grow really well. Of course, I always tell Vista this, “You’re lucky you bought us because if I had known what I know now, I wouldn’t have sold the company because things are going really well for us. I told them I’m in a bad dilemma. I want things to go well because I’m CEO of the company, but then I’m always going to regret it because I’m like, “Man, if I hadn’t sold the company.” So, I always remind them how cheap they got Cvent, even though at the time, it appeared to be a lot. It’s all perspective of when you sell the company.
Alejandro: Of course. It’s always easier to look back and look on decisions. But look, at the end of the day, you had to do what was right for you at the moment, and then also the fiduciary for your investors. At the end of the day, you can sleep at night which is the most important thing.
Reggie Aggarwal: Yeah. It’s funny. The lessons I learned in 2001, and my team learned in 2001 through ’04, ’05 which were our difficult years, we will always to this day tell you those four or five years is what made your culture and your core, and nothing is more important than culture in the end. Culture means everything. To me, culture means how you do business, how you treat your employees. What kind of people you expect. The expectations. The informal rules of engagement. We have what we call a soul of Cvent which we created seven rules which is to make sure people don’t forget what we learned and where we were a near-death experience and to memorialize that. We have these things, but our culture, where we are today is absolutely, no question because of those difficult times we went through and the lessons of resilience, and the lessons of going through the basics, and the lessons of don’t violate rules of business which means don’t build a product for more than it costs you to sell or that you can sell it for. I mean, you can do it for a few years, but a lot of companies just raise money, raise money, and a few of them, certainly some of them make it. They get escape velocity, but the vast majority don’t.
Alejandro: And on the lesson side, Reggie, I always ask guests that I have on the show if they had the chance to go back in time, especially knowing what you know now and what you have gone through, and you had the opportunity to speak with your younger self, with this Reggie that is living at the parents’ house, and thinking about launching this business and how to do it, what would be one piece of advice that you would have been able to give yourself before launching a business and why?
Reggie Aggarwal: Can I give you two because I have like 47 lessons I’ve learned in my life, so two is actually a compromise.
Alejandro: Do it.
Reggie Aggarwal: The first lesson and the first thing for me that I learned is patients. Everything takes longer than you think. So, we started a company in ’99. In 2006 or 2007, our valuation was more than the 17 million we raised because we had some tough terms. So, it took us seven or eight years before we had literally our options weren’t worth anything, and we were all working literally 70, 80-hour-weeks, and we were taking half the salary that we should have been. So, really sacrificing, and yet our options were worth nothing, but we just kept doing it. So, patience and passion, it doesn’t happen in two or three years for most companies. Real value for us because we created it after ten years. So, seven years, we had zero value from our options. Then ten years is what it took before we really got starting to make some wealth. So, it takes a long time to do stuff. We’re one of the most successful companies in the history of Washington D.C., and that’s matching companies that aren’t as successful. It just takes a long time. That’s lesson one. Lesson #2 is all about the team and the people, everything. Out of the first 1,000 employees, I probably interviewed 800 of them. I was the chief. That’s what I used to spend my time on. You could always get customers, but it’s hard to get good people. If you get a good person, they’ll get you 100 customers. You’ve got to get a good team from your leaders and down. Again, I focus on people, recruiting, retention, because that’s what drives our business. In technology, it’s all about the people. Because we had 500 companies that competed against us; 500.
Reggie Aggarwal: How did we become #1 and created the most shareholder wealth by magnitudes? It’s because our people were good and we focused on that, people and culture. That’s the two lessons: patience and hire really good people.
Alejandro: Love it. I love it, Reggie. So, what a great time here. I’m sure that the listeners are wondering what is the best way to reach out and say hi, Reggie?
Reggie Aggarwal: I would say LinkedIn. LinkedIn so that we can actually build a relation. My LinkedIn is reggieaggarwal. I’m probably the only reggieaggarwal. There aren’t many Indians by that name.
Alejandro: Amazing. Reggie, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
Reggie Aggarwal: All right. Well thanks, Alejandro. I appreciate the interview and the questions.