A Silicon Valley startup’s journey to acquisition
by Sibyl Chen
Last week I caught up with cofounders of DocuVision, Rama Veeraragoo and Mahmoud Hafez. In spring of 2019, DocuVision joined SkyDeck’s accelerator cohort program. I had just joined SkyDeck as head of program right before the selection process began and vividly remember their interview. I was impressed by Rama’s pitch and the vision he shared. It’s every bit as gratifying sitting on the accelerator side seeing the DocuVision team go through the startup journey and exit. Too often, startups never get to that point. I thought it would be nice to sit down and hear from Rama and Mahmoud and understand what their startup founder journey has been like the past two years.
Sibyl: What does DocuVision do?
Rama Veeraragoo: DocuVision is a B2B enterprise software that helps organizations automatically detect sensitive information in unstructured files like emails, PDFs, and Word documents. We help companies redact sensitive information so they are compliant with privacy regulations, and make it easy for them to respond to data requests and redact sensitive information. For example, when you’re reading a court document online, you may see some part of a page blacked out like someone took a Sharpie to some information. DocuVision helps automate that for personal information, like someone’s email address or phone number, that you wouldn’t want shared externally.
Sibyl: How did you decide to start DocuVision and how did you meet your co-founders?
Rama Veeraragoo: I was an attorney in a prior life working at a big law firm in London, and then at Bank Credit Suisse. I had an idea to do a tech startup, and I knew the Bay Area where I could learn more how to start a company. So five years ago, I moved! While in the SF Bay Area, I was working out of another accelerator space, and that’s where I met Alexander Craig and Mahmoud Hafez. We kept in touch and eventually decided to partner on DocuVision.
Mahmoud Hafez: Alex and I knew our strengths and how far we could take a company from our decade-long journey building AppAdvice. We knew that Rama would be extremely valuable, especially for an enterprise offering. Each one of us has a radically different skill set, which I think really allows us to punch above our weight.
Sibyl: Why did you want to join SkyDeck in the first place?
Rama: We wanted to find a space that would help us grow the most as founders and as a company. We liked SkyDeck because as a part of the UC Berkeley ecosystem, it was a unique proposition to reach both university talent and the alumni community. The UC Berkeley affiliation was really valuable, the advisors were incredible, and the people had values that were aligned with ours. You can feel they are really care to help founders and startups succeed.
Mahmoud Hafez: I met Alex, our other cofounder, at UC Berkeley when we were both undergrads living in the same dorm. (I was actually Alex’s RA if you can believe it!) The opportunity to return to Cal, eat Zachary’s pizza, and walk the campus where it all started was extremely appealing. But what really pushed us to partner with SkyDeck was when we interviewed and felt the energy of the program. Going up to the penthouse and pitching in the boardroom made us want to go work. Meeting alumni and “hot desk” community members also seemed extremely valuable, because we knew when building a startup there are many tough days, and their shared experience was really helpful.
Sibyl: In the earliest part of your startup journey, what did you imagine success to be like and what was the outcome that you hoped for?
Rama: Good question — how do you define success? I think that it’s easy to say success is an IPO or a massive exit, but as founders of an early-stage company, our focus was a lot more immediate. For us, success is building something that’s solving a problem in the world and achieving scale. We wanted to build something that would solve a customer’s need.
Sibyl: DocuVision was recently acquired by OneTrust. Can you tell us a little bit about the acquisition and any details that you feel comfortable sharing?
Rama: Like I said before, for us success was about solving customer’s problems and helping them. While we could have continued this journey independently, OneTrust gave us an opportunity to scale our mission and our technology instantly. OneTrust is the most widely used technology in our industry. We knew as a part of OneTrust we could keep our values, focus on our technology, and faster solve our customer’s problems. I was clear this was the best path for us to accelerate our mission.
Mahmoud Hafez: What put me over the top was the idea that we get to focus on the part of the business that we love: building technology for our customers. No more fundraising, dealing with payroll, etc. We got to focus on the product and get a whole line of new customers at once.
Sibyl: I know a lot of startup founders will come to an inflection point. Where they have to make similar decisions about what or whether to move forward with a potential acquisition or whether to kind of forge their path forward and go it alone, etc. Looking back on this very recent experience of being acquired, how did you go about evaluating the decision and how to move forward. What are some questions that founders should be asking themselves as they come to this juncture in the road?
Rama: The answer to that question varies for each founder, each startup, and each market people are in. One way to think about your decision is: how can I best serve our customers? The answer may be to continue operating independently or partner with an acquiring company, and your customers will reward you based on this question.
Sibyl: How did you go about discussing this with your co-founders? Any recommendations for the decision making process in figuring out how a startup exits?
Rama: Be conscious that — while this is an important part of the startup process — it can be very time consuming and can be very distracting for the team and the company. We were always very aware of this and at the end of the day reminded ourselves: we’re building a company. This is just another process that is also happening and we have to figure out ways to balance that and figure out to make sure that everyone’s aligned with it. Communication is key.
Sibyl: What has been the most rewarding part of being a founder all these years?
Rama: For me, it’s really when you’re helping customers accomplish something better in their jobs. We’ve also met incredible people, including our customers, people helping the startup, founders who are also on their own journeys, investors who help make intros and think about strategy or fundraising, and just the overall community.
Mahmoud Hafez: It’s so rewarding to see your work come to life, and see your efforts make a real impact. As a founder, you get to try new things without worrying about legacy customers or investor expectations. You get to control your product’s destiny and that is just so exciting.
Sibyl: What kind of product and engineering culture did you choose to build?
Mahmoud Hafez: We worked really hard to build a culture of individual responsibility. Every single person, from the founders to the most-recent hire, feel personally connected to the product. We do that through constant communication and having fun with each other. Even daily standups start with casual chit-chat and a “what’s BUGging Tyler” intro to the meeting, where Tyler on our team goes through the latest new bugs that popped up in the last 24 hours.
We wanted a culture of accountability without blame. Everyone can recognize and talk about mistakes they have made, but not let those mistakes be crimes. People don’t have to waste time justifying choices that didn’t work, we just encourage and help each other find a new solution with the new information. “Oh that was silly, why don’t I do this instead,” instead of, “well, this would not have been a problem if XYZ did not occur.”
Sibyl: What is your number one survival tip for our startup founders?
Rama: Find a community that supports you. Joining SkyDeck was phenomenally important, but even after the program ended that the importance of the Community continued to be very relevant. Find your community of like-minded people and other founders who are there to support you. There’s so much information transfer that happens there that can help a founder understand their own journey better, and also learn how to do things better in their own startup right now and having others to call on if you want guidance.
Mahmoud Hafez: Keep going. I am 1000% sure there will be times where you look at the daunting road ahead and you’ll be tempted to stop. You’ll be distracted by your friends’ promotions or salaries and want to give it up. But don’t cheat the process. This is not easy, this is not quick. Once you commit to do this, make sure you give it the proper shot you want to give. Don’t ever be in the position where you look back and say, “I wish I would have…”
The best way I’ve found to do this is stop questioning if your startup is going to work every day. Give yourself realistic milestones, then reassess when you hit those points. Did you do what you planned? Did it work out better or worse than you expected? With this new information what do you think now? It is only at those points you get to pivot or thoughtfully decide to stop. In the meantime, full speed ahead.
Sibyl Chen is the Senior Director of Program at Berkeley SkyDeck, UC Berkeley’s premier tech accelerator.