How Brex Cash Almost Emptied Out The Company ATM

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This is a podcast episode titled, How Brex Cash Almost Emptied Out The Company ATM. The summary for this episode is: Look, launching your first product is tough. Of course. But as someone somewhere might’ve once said: It’s the second product that can kill you. Henrique Dubugras launched Brex as a corporate credit card for early-stage companies. And the company’s second product, Brex Cash, was met with high customer (and investor) expectations. But after a series of pushed releases and a bunch of missing tools, Henrique started questioning everything. Henrique talks about how he made the decisions to keep pushing the launch of the product, how he rethought the definition of success, and ultimately, pulled it all off. Learn more: The Shake Up HubSpot Podcast Network Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Traditional banks vs. Brex
02:07 MIN
How to decide where Brex should invest next
01:45 MIN
From coding to payment processing
03:58 MIN

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Alexis Gay: You're listening to The Shake Up where we explore the business decisions that dare to be different, and the leaders who are shaking up their industries. My name is Alexis Gay.

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Alexis Gay: Okay. Today on The Shake Up, we have a great show for you. We're going to be talking with Henrique Dubugras, the founder and co CEO of Brex. How he grew the company to hundreds of millions in revenue and how he made some of the important decisions that got him to that point. Not only that, we'll be talking about how Henrique from a wee pre- teen age began building his entrepreneurial mindset. So let's get started. May I be the first to say I am so excited to talk with today's guest. He's the founder and co CEO of Brex. Henrique Dubugras, welcome to The Shake Up.

Henrique Dubugras: Thank you for having me. Super excited to be here.

Alexis Gay: Yeah, we are thrilled to have you.

Brianne Kimmel: Yeah, this is going to be a ton of fun. So Henrique, we've been talking about how Brex has grown to over$ 59 million in revenue. And we're going to spend some time on the company's focus on SMBs and not just startups. And we want to do a deep dive on a lot of the partnerships and how many of the rewards based models have come about.

Alexis Gay: A lot of exciting stuff to talk about on the numbers front. We're also excited to get inside your mind to hear about how you're growing the company and how you make decisions. And I thought it would actually be a fun place to start to let you know that I'm a Brex user myself. I'm a Brex card holder.

Henrique Dubugras: Amazing love that.

Brianne Kimmel: Mm-hmm(affirmative). I really like Alexis's point earlier. Especially as someone that's recently created an LLC, that's building a new career as essentially a self- taught comedian. I feel like Brex continuously delivering new products and new solutions is really interesting because historically, for someone getting a business off the ground, they'd have to discover multiple different tools where Brex is essentially rolling up all of these tools into a single place. Why do you think traditional banks have been so hesitant to do so or is this something that's been completely overlooked on their part?

Henrique Dubugras: The problem of the banks is purely technology. So most of them run on these systems that were built 20, 30 years ago. So imagine you want to build anything, you have to go and integrate or change something in the core that hasn't been in touch for 20 years, right? So what we kind of did at Brex which is we knew this and we basically said," Hey, we're going to rebuild the entire core software stack from scratch. We're not going to use any of these legacy software players that the banks used, which a lot of FinTechs in the past did, we're just going to rebuild everything from scratch. So I don't think that the banks never had the idea of like," Well, let's build this." And a lot of them tried for many years. It's just really hard for them to build on top of their existing systems.

Alexis Gay: That's really interesting. It sounds like what you're saying is that other FinTech companies had maybe attempted to solve this problem. I'm curious, why was Brex ultimately more successful?

Henrique Dubugras: I think that it had a little bit to do with timing and a little bit to do with just our own experience, right? I think we had built a FinTech company before starting Brex that was a payment processing company. And we saw a lot of the issues of the industry of basically having these legacy technologies and trying to build on top of them. So it was something that we felt very strongly about more than I think most founders before. And I think the other thing is just about capital, right? I think five, 10 years ago, it was really hard to raise a lot of capital for FinTech, but FinTech wasn't a thing, right? And it was really hard to attract a lot of the best engineering talent for FinTech because it wasn't a thing. So if you're hiring engineers and the best engineers, you want to go to social media companies or O2O companies, right? That one was cool, and FinTech just became a big thing over the last four or five years around the world, right? A new bank. There's a ton of them now, but they just got to scale recently that made it so it's possible to raise a lot of money for FinTech.

Brianne Kimmel: Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. So it seems like, and I think the data would back this up, small business credit card volume is on the rise. One of the stats that we have said that it's set to balloon from$ 493 billion in 2017 to$ 686 billion in 2022. What other shifts in customer behaviors have helped fuel Brex's growth?

Henrique Dubugras: A big one is the percentage of vendors that take credit card has been increasing. So if you think about a business of the past, right? Let's say you got a, I don't know, a restaurant, right? You're biggest costs are your rent, which you can't pay on card, your food, which is usually wholesale so you pay over check, right? You have employees which are payroll. So it didn't really have a lot of card expenses, which is kind of a core part of our monetization business model. Then if you go to an e- commerce company, they are different. They pay a ton of ads, all on credit cards, they pay servers on credit card. They have a lot of SaaS vendors like Shopify or Toast or Slack, et cetera, all going through credit cards. And that being a bigger part of a company's total expenses, that has been really good for Brex.

Alexis Gay: Totally. Those types of shifts all make a ton of sense. And then of course, the booming number of former tech workers leaving to become comedians, that must be a huge portion of your revenue.

Henrique Dubugras: Huge. Yeah. That's our-

Alexis Gay: Massive.

Henrique Dubugras: We're going to have a GM for comedians soon.

Alexis Gay: Let me know. Hook us up on email. I can and deliver product feedback.

Henrique Dubugras: Amazing.

Alexis Gay: So Henrique, as you're thinking about those decisions and where to go next with your customers and thinking about how all of those customer behavior trends are shifting, how do you make those big decisions about where Brex should invest next? What's your personal decision making process like?

Henrique Dubugras: It's something that we've been iterating, right? Because in our view, building a company is just a series of small and big decisions gone right. And I think there's two types of decisions. One is the ones that you're not making yourself, right? Because they're smaller and they're more day to day or even they're bigger, but they're just... The company grew enough. And the important thing there is creating the right systems for your team to basically make those decisions correctly, right? So if you have a decision between prioritizing product a or product B, how do you make so that they to prioritize product B instead of product A, because of the system you put in place, right? So what are the incentives that they have? What are the North Star metric? What is it that we're optimizing for? Who's the customer they're supposed to be talking to deserving the needs? Making sure all those things are super clear and you spend a ton of time thinking about those things, makes the entire company make better decisions, right? And then sometimes there's like these big strategic decisions that you have to make. And for me, the big trade off there is when you're making really big decisions, you need to make sure you have a mix between strategy and doing the right things for your long term vision. And what you want your business to be like after a long time, but also things that customers want from you, right? Because it's not only doing... And I think a lot of companies when they grow, they think that they earned the right to do everything because it makes sense for their strategy. But then they don't think enough of why will the customer actually want this?

Brianne Kimmel: Totally.

Alexis Gay: Henrique, I want to go back to a little Henrique lore that we read. I want to hear a little bit about you at age 12. I read about you at age 12, and I heard that it all started with a video game. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Henrique Dubugras: Yeah. So that's kind of how I started coding. I started coding when around 12, because there was this game I wanted to play. It was a paid game and gambling and playing in Portuguese is the same word.

Brianne Kimmel: Oh, really?

Henrique Dubugras: Yeah. And when I asked my parents about,"Hey, can you pay for a distinct for me?'" They said," No, why are we going to give you money to gamble?" And it's hard to explain it was different. So I learned that if I learned how to code, I could actually played the game for free and build a pirate version of the game that-

Brianne Kimmel: Oh, my God.

Henrique Dubugras: ...me and my friends could play. And then I launched this pirate version of the game and it became super popular. A lot of people started playing because it was free. And a lot of people don't have the money.

Brianne Kimmel: Yeah.

Henrique Dubugras: So that's kind of how I started out, but six months later, unfortunately I got some legal notifications saying I was inaudible patents.

Brianne Kimmel: Oh, my God.

Henrique Dubugras: I didn't really know if patents were, but my mom got super upset.

Brianne Kimmel: So after that, you created some education startups, but at the ripe old age of 16, you created pager. me. And what I read was that in just three years paer. me grew to$1.5 billion in volume of transaction processed. Can you tell me a little bit about how you went from coding this game at 12 to building a company that processed billions of dollars in volume by 16?

Henrique Dubugras: Yeah, totally. So basically after I got inaudible, I started having a... I would just spend all my time doing this. 100% of my time and energy was building this thing. So I was having this kind of like 14 year old crisis, a little bit, " What do I do with my life?" But then what happened was I started doing some normal stuff, right? To fill my time.

Brianne Kimmel: Sure.

Henrique Dubugras: So I found a girlfriend, I started watching TV shows and I started watching a TV show called Chuck.

Brianne Kimmel: Oh, yeah.

Henrique Dubugras: I don't know if you've seen it. It's a really good computer hacker and programmer that saved the world through inaudible and he was very clumsy. So I kind of identified a little bit and I was like," Oh, I want to be exactly like Chuck. Chuck is so awesome." And Chuck had gone to Stanford and I got obsessed with getting into Stanford because Chuck had gone to Stanford.

Alexis Gay: That's amazing.

Henrique Dubugras: That was why.

Brianne Kimmel: Really, that was why?

Henrique Dubugras: Yeah. I just wanted to be Chuck. And so when that happened, I basically started getting obsessed with how to get in Stanford, but it was kind of a complicated process for Brazilians. The whole us application process is not super easy.

Brianne Kimmel: Yeah.

Henrique Dubugras: And then I found his Brazilian that was graduating from Stanford and I added him on Facebook and started chatting with him. He gave me some attention and turns out he was starting a startup in Brazil. That was inaudible in Brazil so ticketing in Brazil. And I was a coder so we did this deal in which I would code for him for free, in exchange, he would teach me the Stanford application process and write me a recommendation letter.

Alexis Gay: Wow.

Brianne Kimmel: Wow. That's great.

Henrique Dubugras: So that's kind of how I got into startups. I went to work for this guy for a year and he basically taught me so much about doing startups and I was super involved in building a product and everything. And I don't know, it just sounded like a really cool life as entrepreneur life. So after a year working, I decided I wanted to try to do a company myself. Why not? So I learned how to get into college in the US. Even though I haven't gotten in yet, I at least learned the process. So I decided to build a company to helped other Brazilians over the whole process. So I built this education company to help Brazilians with the US application process, which got a bunch of users early on, but never monetize in any way.

Alexis Gay: Sure.

Henrique Dubugras: So it failed miserably. But inaudible kind of got into startups, I met a bunch of people. It was interesting. I was in press a good amount. So it kind of opened some doors.

Brianne Kimmel: Yeah.

Henrique Dubugras: And then I was having these huge fights with my mom because she wasn't really into this entrepreneurship thing. And I wanted to do more of that and less of school.

Brianne Kimmel: What did she want you to do instead?

Henrique Dubugras: Just normal school and go to college and stuff. And at this time I was saying, I'm not going to go to college and all those things.

Brianne Kimmel: Oh, wow. Okay.

Henrique Dubugras: So I had to get emancipated, moved out of my house started supporting myself. This whole drama.

Brianne Kimmel: Oh, my God. Yeah.

Henrique Dubugras: And so I was kind of running out of money and I found this hackathon in Miami that was worth$ 50, 000. And I was like," Wow, if I can win this thing, it's more time without going back to my mom."

Brianne Kimmel: Right.

Henrique Dubugras: So I went there with two friends and we built this app that was a dating app that was like Tinder, but instead of geolocation it's Facebook friends. You could like and match your Facebook friends. And we tried and we won it and we tried to launch the app as a business and it didn't really work again, but that's how it got into payments because I started trying to charge for this thing.

Brianne Kimmel: Sure.

Henrique Dubugras: And it was a really, really terrible experience. So that's kind of how I had my inaudible first experience with payment methods.

Alexis Gay: Oh, interesting.

Henrique Dubugras: And it's around the time my co- founder Pedro. And Pedro, he was working at a payments company. So what happened is when Pedro was 14, he hired by Brazil's largest payments company because he was one of the only people in Brazil who understood about iOS security and they were launching an app needed to be secure. He was hacking iPhones. So it kind of made sense.

Alexis Gay: Yeah.

Henrique Dubugras: So he got hired at that company, and that's kind of how he knew about payments. And then we met in the end of 2012 over Twitter, actually.

Alexis Gay: Really?

Henrique Dubugras: Yeah. Fighting text editors, Vim versus Emacs. I was vim, he was Emacs. It got too complicated to fight over 104 characters. We went to Skype. On Skype, we became best friends and to started to start our company inaudible.

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Brianne Kimmel: Speaking of your relationship with Pedro, your co- founder, in an interview with The Takeoff, you said," Pedro and I always liked the idea of working on something for 30 plus years. Some people are serial entrepreneurs and they want to build and sell companies and build multiple things. That was never really our thing. We just wanted to work on something for a long, long period of time." It sounds like prior to Brex, you were already on the way to becoming a serial entrepreneur, what changed in your focus to want to stay on one concept for a long, long period of time?

Henrique Dubugras: Well, the first thing I couldn't do anymore, because I got some legal notifications in my crosstalk.

Brianne Kimmel: Right, right, right.

Henrique Dubugras: The second thing failed, crosstalk.

Brianne Kimmel: Sure. Happens.

Henrique Dubugras: The third thing also didn't work. And then the fourth thing Pagar Me actually worked.

Brianne Kimmel: Yeah.

Henrique Dubugras: And selling that company was a big decision. But I think one thing that we were always like," Look, if we're going to work on something for 30 years, we want it to be something really big." And then at the time when we sold Pagar Me, there wasn't any Brazilian unicorns and it wasn't clear that they were going to happen anytime soon.

Brianne Kimmel: Interesting.

Henrique Dubugras: We always thought like," Look, if we're going to spend something... Working on something for 30 years, it might as all be something really big." And we thought that we could build something much bigger in the United States building something global, et cetera. And that's kind of what got us to decide to sell the company in the end. And also look, we were 20 and broke, right? And we sold the company to change our lives and much easier to think in 30 year horizons when you don't have to worry about your credit card next month.

Brianne Kimmel: It's interesting too, because while you intend to build for a long, long period of time, the Brex team is consistently shipping new features and new products essentially. And so it does look like the company is constantly evolving. One question that I have for you is more on how you think about various different markets and how you approach the SMB segment. Because I think that's one that's very dynamic and always changing and there's a bit more of a cyclical nature to the business model. And so how do you think about... Will there be a moment where Brex essentially needs to move up market or you'll go more enterprise or do you feel like the market size for startups and SMBs is large enough and stay focused?

Henrique Dubugras: We're definitely going from tiny to really big, I think our model, similar to Stripe and a few others is getting companies when they're young and sticking of them until they're public and plus, right? And I think there's two big initiatives in Brex right now. One is going even lower market and one is going more up market, which... There's a lot of execution challenges of that, but we definitely want to serve companies to the mid- market and enterprise and we definitely want to serve companies that are just getting started. So we definitely see with both. We think that innovators dilemma is kind of like our Bible a little bit on how we build products, that in order to build a really successful product for more high margin customers like the mid- market you need to nail and be super efficient on the low side. At least in our industry, because you just create a cost structure and an efficiency structure that makes your cost of serving these larger customers much lower. And that allows you to price more aggressively, build more and than before. So that's how we think about it.

Brianne Kimmel: Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. I know you talked about building the operating system and especially as companies start to get larger and for small businesses, maybe they introduce multiple locations or evolve to different geographies. It's awesome to see that you're constantly releasing new products and new features for this segment in particular. What do you think have been some of the hardest decisions that you've had to make in increasing the efficiency for the self serve business. And maybe turning away even big customers to stay focused on SMBs and startups at the beginning.

Henrique Dubugras: Yeah. Everyone gives us advice that it's important to stay focused, right? But then as the company grows, you're doing more stuff so that becomes a little bit more," Okay. What does focus mean when you have a lot of people that can do more than one thing?" And then making sure that you're prioritizing correctly. I think the hardest in that has been built cash, right? Our bank account replacement product, because it is something that will take a long time to... For us to win Walmart and our cash account will take a while. Versus card, it's much, much faster, but we also believe that the bank account and a cash management product is the center of gravity for a company, that if you own that, the company's more likely to buy everything from you versus other products are a little bit more tangential. So I think building that at the time that we did and investing as much as we have in that product has probably been the most inaudible decision we made.

Brianne Kimmel: And you're referring to... You said Brex cash, right?

Henrique Dubugras: Yeah.

Brianne Kimmel: The central account for businesses?

Henrique Dubugras: Yeah.

Brianne Kimmel: So something that I saw is that in launching that product, you had to keep pushing the launch. Can you tell me a little bit about what was going through your mind then and how you handled that decision to push the launch out?

Henrique Dubugras: Look, it was just a lot more complex than we thought it was going to be. That's the reality. When we started to build it, and what we thought it was going to be six months with 10, 15 engineers, and then it just started becoming more complex and more complex and more complex and more complex. And it probably took three times as long, three times as many engineers.

Brianne Kimmel: Wow.

Henrique Dubugras: It happens, right? But I'm super happy we did it though.

Brianne Kimmel: Oh, for sure. And on the engineering front, was it hiring constraints? Was it a need for specialization? What were some of the challenges that the team is facing internally?

Henrique Dubugras: I think it's just the bar for being a company's main operational account was much higher than we expected. So we saw all these consumer companies launching bank account products, right? And they seemed to be working and getting traction, et cetera, but turns out that the bar for businesses to have as their main account is much larger. They have a bookkeeper, they have employees, they have approvals, they have a lot more constraints and requirements than the consumer accounts has. So we had to build a lot more before we had good product market fit and good and yes, it was just a bunch of missing features early on.

Brianne Kimmel: Totally. So Henrique, that's a really difficult decision to push a launch, to have to publicly say that you're pushing a launch, tell the team internally. And I think that it's something a lot of leaders have to go through. I'm wondering if you could take us into the moment that you realized this was a decision that you were going to have to make and announce to the team and externally. Can you tell me a little bit about what that felt like?

Henrique Dubugras: It was two forces, right? At the same time force. Number one was we have all these investors that expected the product to launch, expected the revenue start to come and the customer acquisition and the models. And then the force on the side was our brand, which is, whenever we released the product, what will our customers think about it?

Brianne Kimmel: Yeah.

Henrique Dubugras: And I think for us, the second one was stronger than the first one that we wanted our second product to be so good that customers would want to buy our third product.

Brianne Kimmel: Right.

Henrique Dubugras: Versus if you screw up your second one, you kind of lose their trust a little bit in trying the third one later on. So we just wanted to make sure that our second act was as good or better than our first act. And if that took more time to do it. So be it.

Brianne Kimmel: And I'm wondering, was there ever a moment where you started to question things. Did you wonder at any point if you had made a wrong turn to go down the central accounts path?

Henrique Dubugras: Absolutely, yeah.

Brianne Kimmel: Really?

Henrique Dubugras: Yeah.

Brianne Kimmel: What were you thinking?

Henrique Dubugras: It's hard, right? Because when we launched Brex, right? We went from.. I'm going to make up numbers, okay?

Brianne Kimmel: Yeah.

Henrique Dubugras: I don't know.$100, 000 in revenue to$200, 000 in revenue in a month. And we thought," Amazing. We're growing 100%. This is great." And then after a year, let's say we were at, I don't know, at a million. And then we were going to$1.3 million,$ 1. 5, et cetera. Again, it's only made out numbers. And then let's say we're at$ 10 million in revenue. And then cash launched. And cash went from$ 10,000 in revenue to$20, 000 in revenue in one month. It's great if you were tiny, but now that I have a basis$ 10 million, it doesn't really move the needle.

Brianne Kimmel: Yes.

Henrique Dubugras: So I think you set your own expectations really high for these things. And you think that they're going to go much faster than they do, but every new product's almost like a new startup. It takes some time to mature and grow and get to the scale. So you need to give it time to mature. But I think before as realizing that we were just," oh, this is not growing as fast as we thought it was going to grow. Is it bad? And it took a little while to then start inaudible to scale that was meaningful for us, for us to get that confidence. And now every time we launch a new product, we're like," Okay, we know it's not going to be super meaningful in the beginning, but if we keep investing, we keep making it better and we keep doing it, eventually it's going to be really good. So I think we're a little bit more patient there.

Brianne Kimmel: That's great. So it does sound like something learned came out of that, that you can then apply moving forward. So one thing I'd love to spend a little bit of time on is the fact that Brex has partnerships with Amazon and Slack and Zoom and a great rewards program that's really served as a competitive advantage and something that's created more of a holistic offering for so many types of startups and small businesses and customers that you serve. How did you think about measuring the impact of each new partner and how did you really structure some of those early partnerships?

Henrique Dubugras: inaudible spent a lot of time early on. We wanted to redesign rewards, right? So traditionally, rewards for cards were built for individuals. It's like very focused on the consumer. And we wondered like," What are rewards that businesses would care about, and startups would actually care about?" And so that's kind of where we went. It's like," Hey, what are the best softwares startups that... What other companies that startups use and let's get discounts and better deals so we can actually create a rewards package that competes at a different angle than Amex, because we're never going to beat them at their own game, and it's actually more relevant to our target customer segment." So that's kind of how it came to be early on.

Brianne Kimmel: Awesome. Okay. So Henrique, we have one more question for you. Something that you said earlier, you said when you were getting into Stanford or when you wanted to go to Stanford, you said that all you wanted was to be Chuck. And I'm wondering after all of the incredible success of Brex and all the success that you still have ahead of you, who do you want to be now?

Henrique Dubugras: Honestly, I kind of want to be Henrique. It's been pretty cool to be Henrique recently. I think that one of the things that you learn as an entrepreneur is, you have all these role models, right? And you think that a successful entrepreneur looks like this or looks like that.

Brianne Kimmel: Yeah.

Henrique Dubugras: And the more time you spend you, you realize that being authentic is kind of what allows you to go for many years. It's really hard to try to be someone for 20 years, 30 years. And I think one of the lessons, and I think Silicon Valley has a kind of weird effect in this, that it wants this mold of founder that we are lucky to kind of like be on that mold. And that's, I think why we had an easy time raising money early on, but I think as we grow, we're like," Hey, we just want to be ourselves. We want to be authentic. We don't want to go into some mold at Silicon Valley creative, what great founders look like. We just want to do our thing for a long period of time."

Brianne Kimmel: Amazing. It's such an amazing story. I'm excited to watch you guys do it. So, Henrique for companies looking to get Brex, where can they find out more?

Henrique Dubugras: Just go to brex. com and you'll see everything there. We

Alexis Gay: We love it. Okay. Henrique, thank you so much for joining us on The Shake Up. This was such a delight.

Henrique Dubugras: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it as well. Awesome.

Alexis Gay: Awesone. Hey, Brianne, are you ready to do that thing? We practiced?

Brianne Kimmel: Oh, my gosh. Is it time? I'm ready?

Alexis Gay: Okay. 3, 2, 1.

Brianne Kimmel: Don't forget to subscribe and leave us review.

Alexis Gay: Don't forget to subscribe and leave us review. Pretty good. Today's episode was written and produced by Matthew Brown. Production support comes from Lauren Shield. Our engineer is William Lowe. With research from Corey inaudible. And special thanks to Kyle inaudible Lisa Toner. We have some amazing guests coming up this season that you won't want to miss. See you next time.

DESCRIPTION

Look, launching your first product is tough. Of course. But as someone somewhere might’ve once said: It’s the second product that can kill you.

Henrique Dubugras launched Brex as a corporate credit card for early-stage companies. And the company’s second product, Brex Cash, was met with high customer (and investor) expectations. But after a series of pushed releases and a bunch of missing tools, Henrique started questioning everything.

Henrique talks about how he made the decisions to keep pushing the launch of the product, how he rethought the definition of success, and ultimately, pulled it all off.