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Podcast Pit Stop: Aj Bruno on Shifting From a Sales Leader to a Company Founder

Posted by Arielle Walsh on May 20, 2022
Arielle Walsh
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In Episode 38 of the B2B podcast, Pit Stops to Podium, AJ Bruno, Founder of QuotaPath, talks more about his journey from entering the workforce as a salesperson to founding a multi-million dollar company. Listen to hear more of AJ’s process of raising money, hiring and recruiting, and managing people.  AJ Bruno is the current Founder/CEO of QuotaPath, a simple and easy-to-use commission tracking platform. In his free time, AJ loves to fly as a commercial pilot and spend time with his three daughters.

Take 20 minutes to listen and digest and then head back to the races! 🏁🏆

Pitstop Highlights

Raising Money

In terms of raising money for a company, AJ recommends “reverse-engineering the process.” Essentially, creating an endpoint to a story and helping with the first seed raise. 

AJ was living in a one-bedroom apartment with a baby on the way. He needed ways to raise money, fast. So he created an ICP that included all the funds that they were able to manage in Austin. These funds eventually helped with the introduction of various founders, leading to the first customers signing contracts.

Hiring and Recruiting

When interviewing candidates, AJ focuses on explaining QuotaPath’s vision and opportunities for growth within the company rather than asking the traditional “What are you strengths and weaknesses” technical questions. This allows AJ to understand the candidate’s fit within the company and its culture. 

I also know my number one job as the founder and CEO is to bring on great people and amazing people that I want to work with. I think that was something we did well at Trendkite and something I wanted to double down on a quota path. I just love having conversations with people that can get behind our vision of the world and what we're doing and how we're doing it and figure out a way to work with them.”

People Management

When managing people within your organization, focus on spending time with them. Have a one-to-one with each of your execs on a weekly basis, and make sure their goals are aligned with the overarching goal of the company.

For improving performance among your team, hire great people that are willing to go above and beyond in the quality of their work. Create an environment that allows for growth and freedom for workers. Lastly, remove the barriers that may be impeding them from their work. 

Connect With AJ:

Full Transcript

Brendan: Hey, everybody, welcome to Pit Stops to Podium, the RevPartners podcast, we talk to execs who compete and won in taking their companies from high growth to high scale. My name is Brendan Tolleson. I am the co-founder and CEO of RevPartners, and I'm delighted to have with me today, AJ Bruno, for this edition of Pit Stops to Podium. Welcome, AJ.

AJ: Brendon, it is a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for having me. 

Brendan: I am thrilled for this episode. It's been fun to get to know you over the last year or so. AJ is the CEO of QuotaPath. And AJ, before we get started, how about you tell our listeners who QuotaPath is. 

AJ: Sure, I like that you chose the adjective thrilled. You were like thinking you, I'm going to go with thrilled. Well, you have. 

Brendan: I mean, you have the plane for your podcast. So I feel like I have to incorporate some of those. 

AJ: I’m just filling some of the surprise Brennan of this podcast episode, we'll get to that, but Quota Path. So we are a sales commission tracking platform were really based for sales. Reps were built by sales reps. So I'm a lifetime learner of sales, which we'll talk a little bit about. But Quota Path was founded in 2018 and we consider ourselves product-led growth. That means that we have a premium part of our app, individual Sellers. They typically have their own spreadsheet trying to calculate how much they're going to make on a deal that month. We help replace that and give them goals. How many deals to presidents club, a down payment on a house or wedding wink ring if they want to whatever they want? And so fun app. But we also then, of course, have the commission process for the rev apps sales ops finance folks to really make sure that they're paying their team not just accurately, but on time. 

Brendan: This is like music to the ears of our audience. So I think every sales rep will be talking to their organization about buying Quota pads. So this is good. This is a good start. Well, AJ, before we get to our big idea and you kind of tease it out just in light of your background, let's get to know you outside of work. So we have a tradition here at the podium, which is to get to know our guest outside of work. So what are three things that our audience should know about you? 

Aj: Well, you already spoiled one of my fun facts here.

Brendan: Sorry, sorry.

AJ: No, I am a commercially rated pilot and I do own a Beechcraft Baron. It's a twin engine airplane. I fly around the country. I'm based in Philadelphia, but we have an office in Austin and by Philly to Austin. My parents live in the outer banks, so I'm just cruising around. 

Brendan: How did you how did you get into that hobby? How does that start? 

AJ: My dad's a pilot. My mom's a flight attendant. So, oh, I yeah, when you go down that path. But I actually started my first company because I wanted to own an airplane and I didn't know how. So I was like, oh, I'll just start a company. I'm sure that will help create enough money to buy an airplane. Another fun fact, that's actually in tangent with the first one is that I only have one working lung. I have two lungs. Yeah, I have two lungs. I was with two lungs, but only one worked. When I was born, I didn't find out until I was 12 years old. I'm super healthy. I'm a runner. I fly airplanes, of course. So the altitude issue hasn't slowed me down whatsoever. But I do have like yearly checkups and nuclear stress tests, pulmonary function tests, all the fun stuff to make sure I'm still healthy.

Brendan: And you will not be volunteering for a lung transplant It sounds like

AJ: No, not anytime soon and I definitely was trying to be first in line for the vaccination. So, yeah, pneumonia and I do not get along, I feel. And then the third fun fact is, as I have three daughters, I have a 9-year-old and twin girls that are 6 and they are the joy of my life. They're a really fun age where they're not just human beings, but they're getting more well-behaved human beings. 

Brendan: You were a girl dad and yeah, your season of life. I know this probably isn't good because this is a podcast recording, but we're in light of fact, it's almost Halloween. I'm a dad, too. I have three kids and I was told like, there's this season that's bookended by the Halloween years, which is like, essentially, I don't know, 5 to 12. It's like that really sweet season where your kids are old enough now and they still like you that it's a really fun time. So yeah. 

AJ: But the three, when there are three to five, it's actually great too, because they can still do trick or treating, but then you can just eat all their candy. 

Brendan: That's right. That's right. And you're probably and you're having some booze behind them as well.

AJ: Yeah, now now they know they're a little wised up. Like, wait a second, you just took some of my candy and my sisters. Yeah, we have. We have a quota for our kids on candy. Speaking of sales. So that they get like, they're like, they're three. And then we take the rest of the back teaching them yarn, getting them on that sales quota as early as possible. I love it. Well, thank you for sharing a little bit about who you are outside of work. It's always fun to get to know our guests. Let's let's transition to the big idea. And in light of your experience, I think it can be a fun one, and it's for some of these aspiring leaders that we have on this. Podcast it'd be great to hear your experience and experience that I'm specifically referencing is the transitioning from a sales leader to founding your own company. And so before we get into some of those practical applications of how you've taken sales principles or concepts and applied it into building a path. Maybe start with kind of a background on your sales experience. I think that might be a good starting point. 

AJ: Yeah, I graduated school in 2008 from Penn state, not really knowing what I wanted to do in the world. I didn't know that I wanted to own a company or a business at some point at my dad, along with being a pilot and as I mentioned, my mom being a flight attendant, he actually owned his own video production studio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was so he had a little bit of an entrepreneurial gene in him. And as I was graduating, I think one of the things that I was thinking about was how could I? How can I better my career off the bat to put me in a position to be a business owner? And I asked around and my dad talked to me and then my uncle, who was also a business owner at the time, he gave me advice, which was very surprising and said, why don't you try out sales as a career? And in 2008, obviously with the financial crash and the recession, that didn't seem very appealing. You think of, yeah, I mean, you're going to school and college, like, what do you want to be? You're like, well, I want to be in finance or I want to be in marketing. You want to be in sales was not one of the answers that you would typically give. So I looked into it and technology seemed to like getting there's different types of sales, of course, but tech sales was something that was fairly interesting and fascinating. So I interviewed at this company called melt water, which is a Norwegian company. I know that we have some shared folks that we know Tyler was at Meltwater as well, and we I interviewed I did a group interview. It was a very strange interview process and that was like literally the only interview that I had that was in sales. Got the role in 2008, started in cold call sales in Philadelphia, and it was exactly what you can think of is got on the train at 6:30 a.m., got in butt in seat by 8:30. Made 100 cold calls. Try to close deals. One call closes were a thing at that time. Didn't have any sales. Tech had barely a CRM. Then use Salesforce, didn't use Hubspot, didn't use anything that would help the selling process and I would had to leave it. I couldn't leave until 6:00 p.m., so I had to train it. I could catch it at 6:07, but I had to leave it at 5: 58 to catch it, and my boss wouldn't let me leave it then.

Brendan: So the 100 calls, how many were you expected to create opportunities from? 

AJ: Oh my goodness. First off, opportunities wasn't the word we used. We have qualified cases. So 100 calls you could expect one pick up every 11 to 12 dials. So I would have, you know, six to seven pick UPS during the day. I think one out of every two turned into a demo appointment and out of those to three, I could probably close one out of every 10 demos that I had. If you like, I reverse, that was the thing that I did. I quickly reverse engineered at the time, and one of my later bosses had this point system with activities that you would write down that you made everyone keep. But the thing he taught me was that he like, said, oh, I'm going to just reverse engineer this. And again, 2008 there weren't thought leadership blogs. A lot of people talking about this thing called software as a service, and I just recreated it. And then the other thing I did is a sales leader. I did really well. I recorded my course on an RCA recorder. No, you did not. Wow RCA recorder. We plugged in it was super staticky. We were all like, kind of freaked out because we weren't sure how we were supposed to tell people or recording calls. And there was no that category was not in existence, of course, at the time. So no golf and of course, no any other platform. And we would listen to our course and just try to get better at them. 2010 I moved to San Diego, ran the San Diego office, worked out with the San Francisco headquarter office for a little bit, and in 2012 I had a reckoning, an awakening that it was time to start a company. I actually went and saw Tony Robbins and unleash the power within and away I went. Truncates started it and I was the first sales rep and kind of ended up being co-founder and President 80 and 80 to team lead team lead. The sales manager, sales manager to director, director to VP of sales, VP of sales, I guess to CRL through 30 million and IRR. Never had that title, though any of those titles. 

Brendan: Well, you've experienced it from beginning to end. I mean, in terms of all the roles, you can wear, all the hats you can wear in a sales capacity. And I like how you even described towpath now as a sales software designed by a salesperson. And so let's talk a little bit how your experiences in that sales. I mean, you still do sales, of course, but like the experience in sales has impacted how you've built path. And I want to talk about three specific topics there's how do you raise funds? There's a higher end recruiting aspect and there's the people management concept. So let's start with the first point, which is how is your sales and experience informed how you think about raising money? 

AJ: Yeah and over the two companies, I think I've raised around 70 million, which actually doesn't sound like a lot today. It was it was like five or six different rounds, but $70 million over the two companies. And I think what my co-founder at trend kite and I did really, really well is we reverse engineered how we wanted to that to work. So we like basically created an endpoint of the store you want to tell, wanted to tell that milestone, that first seed raise. And in 2012, we raised our series A six months after starting the company for $1.2 million. There's nothing. And that was, but that was six months. It was really, really quick. We went through a business accelerator, so we use the demo day as that ending point for us and said, OK, if we can raise funds because we absolutely need to. I mean, I've been my wife just had our first child. Our daughter is six months old. We're living in a one bedroom apartment in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, and I'm in Austin at this point like we have to have, like we have the money to survive, so we have to raise money. So that was the first decision was are we going to raise money? Said yes, OK, let's figure out how we do this. And it was really like any other sales deal where you create that you create a list of opportunities. And so we had that our ideal customer profile, or ICP. And that included all funds that we could talk to in Austin, because that was our worldview. And we got introductions from other founders. So I would just we would just reach out to other founders like, hey, can you make an introduction this person? We're doing this. And there were a couple of founders that were funded by Silverton partners in Austin that were like, we got to know and became friends with during the program. And all three of them were like, super helpful because they were just like, hey Morgan, partner at silverton, you all should definitely take a close look at truncate. So that was like the build up we had. This napkin idea, got everything pitched out, had a few early customers sign contracts. That same thing that you go through just showing that proof points. The minimum viable product was up and running. And in March of 2002 1,000 thirteen, we raised that $1.2 million. I think that was a seed stage today. And since then, that's evolved. The world's evolved fundraising has evolved. But in may, when we went out and raised and did our series, a $20 million series, a successful ending, there were 50 funds that we talked to that were all over the place, and I just wanted to make sure I matched up partner to our business. And we had lots of great conversations. It was a fantastic process and I just treated it like a sales deal. I basically created. I had my own CRM that I used to sign up for, and I just basically had all the next steps and just kept everyone on the same timelines. Did the bant or Med pick qualifications and just like, ran it to success? 

Brendan: That's great. Yeah, I think there's no reason why you can't do the same type of the application, regardless of who you're selling to. It's the same. The same principles apply.

AJ: The cell is a cell is a cell. Just the audience changes. The problem sets change, the pain points change. But at the end of the day, everyone's really just trying to make their world better. And so how can I, as human beings make their world better, makes it a lot easier? 

Brendan: Well, and I mean, you receive funding from inside partners, and that's not an easy thing to do. Is there are any lessons learned or what was the pitch or was a hook rather that got them interested. 

AJ: First off, I love working with Insight Partners. Absolutely like love working with them. I think they're a fantastic fund. We also work with stage two capital out of Boston in HubSpot ventures, as well is also an investor. But insight was not really on my radar because there are $33 billion fund and we're a series, and series, and I'm sure you're going down market to smaller funds. But they had talked to us a bunch and we had created a relationship fairly early. They're really good about doing that, but again, I didn't really have them on the radar. And their head of sales center of excellence, Pablo Dominguez, who works with a lot of their portfolio companies on the operating side, really had a strong tie to what we were doing. He completely. All revision, like he had looked at others in the space, but knew how we were thinking about the world and how that was matching what he was seeing. And then that got kicked up to a partner level and Rachel Geller, who's on our board and got involved in the conversations, and I was already like three weeks into the fundraising process. I was about to end when they came in super late. And then like, we just moved really, really fast and had a great conversation, had a lot of fantastic options. It's very rare. In fact, this was the first time as a founder where I felt like I was actually on the other side, I wasn't begging someone, please give me money. And Ceviche it actually really difficult. I had to have a couple tough conversations with a few partners that I absolutely loved, and it was tough. Those are tough breakup calls. I know the other side investors are kind of used to it with boundaries and might not be that much easier for them. But for me, as a founder is the first time it was super uncomfortable. And like when you think about sales, working outside your comfort zone is how you get better. 

Brendan: Yeah, right. 

AJ: So it was a good lesson learned, and I loved everything about the process this time around. 

Brendan: Well, in similar sales, timing isn't always, always the right timing for both parties. And so even with the investors like, how do you make sure that you maintain a relationship because it may be a no for now, but it's not a know forever. And so. You mentioned your series. Yeah, there's going to be, I will assume, you know, let's assume there's going to be more and it's good to have those relationships. And side note since you mentioned Pablo insight and market stage two just for audience. Go back. We have podcasts for both Mark and Pablo with great insights. But let's move on to the second topic, AJ, we talked about how sales really informed your fundraising efforts, but let's also talk about how it impacts how you recruit and hire people to join you at QuotaPath. 

AJ: I think this is like the most appropriate topic we can all be talking about. We just did a quick view on what was going on in the world, and there are 1.4 million LinkedIn Sales job postings posted today. And in fact, there are 11,000 more postings than there are salespeople in these cities. And that is that's a challenge. And I'm like, I don't know what this world is going to look like, but I also know my number one job as the founder and CEO is to bring on great people and amazing people that I want to work with. I think that was something we did well at trend kite and something I wanted to double down on a quota path. So I just love having conversations with people that, like can get behind our vision of the world and what we're doing and how we're doing it and figure out a way to work with them. So I typically have the first or second conversation with a lot of like even just the candidates. There's not to slow down my team, but I want to make sure that they have the founder perspective and the vision and the job. My job is the interview process has changed. A lot is not to have a strong armed interview. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Type of interview, but rather, hey, here's quota path. Strengths and opportunities. And here's what I'd love for you to come join and see yourself working in. So recruiting very important, very top of mind and then just making sure the team is onboarded correctly. Because I mean, we work 20 people in May and we're 40. We're going on 50 people right now. So companies more than doubled in the 3 and 1/2 months, making sure that everyone that is surrounding is well supported, that they have their environment cleaned up. And that's all sales, right? That's all figuring out the pain points and the challenges and doing a lot of active listening to a lot of active listening to your people. 

Brendan: We had a Rob Foreman who's co-founders of Salesloft on a previous episode, who's also an inside company. And he talked about the people on the recruiting side and a lot of what you just said resonates from that conversation, which is instead of it. it's almost like you go side to side with that candidate as opposed to like an active interview. And it's like, how can we partner alongside you understanding where you want to go? And a path in this example, the right place for you. And so you become their advocate or their ally as opposed to just kind of the interviewer in that scenario?

AJ: Yeah and for us, we have to practice what we preach because we like our app has a lot of that goal tracking inspiration. And so like our culturally worldview has to be inspired for everyone in the organization of like career driven. We've always done half day Fridays since 2018 and like that was a pandemic thing, but that was something we always cared a lot about, things like having election day off. Those are things that we like wanted to be very mission driven with the organization for our employees. 

Brendan: And you know, even when we were talking about like, what do when you and I were prepping for this and we want to talk about, like you mentioned, like, hey, one of my rock sort of things that I focus on is going to be recruiting. I guess that's important to you as an organization. So you are practicing what you're preaching, which is always it's always a good thing. Yes, it is always good to say, hey, let's get to our final point. So we talked about the fundraising component. We talked about how sales can influence how you think about recruiting and staffing. Now let's talk about how once you have those people in seats, let's talk about the management aspect of it. 

AJ: Yeah, I think the people managing sales leaders and managing a team that are not sales leaders are vastly different things. At the end of a month end of a quarter, you can sit down with your team, your reps, and it's a very black or white. You know, when someone needs to go on to win. And when they don't, that is not true for really any of the other roles, certainly engineering, product or marketing. I mean, maybe marketing has some overlap there, but in general, like how you manage your people and how you create that sense of urgency in a startup, an organization is fairly important. So like the third thing that I would say that one of my main focuses today is just spending time with my people and I certainly have one on ones with my entire team every week. I am so thankful I have such a badass leadership team. It is so, so good. And that is like refreshing where Caroline Tarpey, our VP of sales and seems like she has just come in and completely owned it and taken it all over so that I can spend a lot of the time, like the 10% of my time is given back or I can start to skate where the puck is going to be. And as far as, like the people management, it's more like the six, 12, 18 months that I'm really like looking forward trying to make sure I put people in position to be as successful as possible. So that's why I think about the people management. They should be like, we're hiring great people. I expect them that they're going to do fantastic work. We're going to create an environment. Where everything is taken care of, where we send pinatas are trick or treat pinatas, that's cool off the camera, and that's great, those are all fantastic things that will offer. But ultimately, we have to pull all of the friction away from them, just doing the work on a process standpoint. So they don't feel impeded by anything that feels certainly not political and having a cultural implication, but also just process in general. It's just like this frickin' computer doesn't have enough RAM or whatever it is, just remove those barriers immediately. 

Brendan: I like that it. It reminds me there's a book by Patrick Lynchian called The Advantage, and it talks about like, performance is easy to your points, quantifiable aspect. But accountability is hard because that's really more about behaviors of actions. And that's not what sales is in terms of management. And so what I liked about what you're saying is you kind of set the course, you set the direction, how do I eliminate the barriers and empower you to drive which when you get into sales leadership like overarching leadership, that's a lot of what it is because you don't have as much command and control on the actual engagements themselves, which which makes a lot of sense 

AJ: I really like that. The Advantage is one of my favorite books. I actually like the 5 to 7 Functions of a Team Better by Lynchian. Like, that's that one. Because I like the negative stuff is just like, learn, learn about what is dysfunctional versus, oh, the positive. Yeah but a lot of the spirit of talking about the people management comes from that book for me because I read it about six or seven years ago and I was like, oh, this makes autonome sense. It was really, really helpful thinking about my own business. So both books, great books. 

Brendan: Yeah well, AJ, I appreciate you coming on. It was a lot of fun to learn from you and to hear about your experience and how your background is informed. How you book QuotaPath as it relates to raising money, as it relates to recruiting and hiring, and then as it relates to managing the people once they get on the bus. What are some practical next steps that our audience would take, whether it's with QuotaPath in terms of getting to learn more about your product, but also you as an individual? 

AJ: Yeah also with the individual, because I think that's where I get asked a lot about from an advice like, hey, I want to either invest in startups or I want to get to a network a little bit better, I'm going to start my own company. And I think that piece of it, we as sales leaders, can sometimes get trapped into our own team because that's what you have to spend hundreds of our time. But there is a massive community out there, a massive community and people listening to this want to better themselves. So get to know that community, wherever and whenever that is. There's plenty of events. I don't mean to recommend people. If you need like actual recommendations of this, feel free to reach out to me. Send me a personal LinkedIn message that you listen to this and would love to know some of those resources. Happy to do it. As far as quote towpath is concerned, I mean, you can sign up as an individual seller right on the application. I'm happy to connect with you and talk a little bit more about where we're headed if it makes sense or connect you with someone on our sales team as well. But the app is awesome and we're crushing 1,000% growth this year. So and to 2022 is going to be phenomenal. I'm so excited for all of this stuff that we have coming and we're working on and building as fast as possible because we've removed all those friction barrier points. But it's really exciting and it's going to be a great year for us too. 

Brendan: Well, AJ, congrats on all the success. What I heard is if you want to connect with AJ, go to LinkedIn, find him, connect with him. And if you want to engage with QuotaPath, just download a trial and become an evangelist in your organization. So AJ, Thanks for stopping by. Love learning from you. And we'll be in touch. 

AJ: Thank you so much, Brendan. 

Brendan: All right. Talk to you later. 

Pit Stops to Podium: A RevPartners Podcast

On the RevPartners Podcast, we talk to executives who have competed and won, accelerating their companies from High Growth to High Scale. Hosted by RevPartners Co-founder and CEO, Brendan Tolleson. Take some quick notes from each week's "Crew Chief" and then head back to the races!

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