Lessons from building Brex into a billion-dollar startup

Henrique Dubugras Contributor Share on Twitter Henrique Dubugras is the founder Brex, the billion-dollar corporate credit provider for startups. When I think about my experience as an immigrant and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, I remember growing up in Brazil and how we saw tech founders and CEOs as kings. We imagined what it would be […]

When I think about my experience as an immigrant and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, I remember growing up in Brazil and how we saw tech founders and CEOs as kings. We imagined what it would be like to assume the throne.

But these weren’t just any kings. Silicon Valley was the kingdom of nerds and underdogs. We identified with these guys, they were just like us. We were fed the myth of a Silicon Valley meritocracy, and the illusion that all you needed was ambition, determination, and a good idea to meet the right person and get funded.

What we didn’t understand was that this myth was not completely rooted in reality. Not everyone has access to the American Dream, and those who do have a track record of success before they’re given their moment to prove, or in our case, pitch ourselves.

Part of this disconnect was cultural. In Brazil, when I began my first startup, Pagar.me, a payment processing company, my co-founder Pedro Franceschi and I were two 16 year-old kids who learned how to code before we were ten. While it was hard for people to take us seriously initially—I mean, would you quit your job to work for two 16 year- olds? Being so young also worked to our advantage; it revealed that we were passionate, driven, and invested in tech at an age that we didn’t need to be.

Once we got our start-up off the ground, our employees were as invested in us as we were invested in them and the company. That’s because in Brazil, most of us grew up with parents that stayed their whole lives at the same company. You grew with the company, and that’s the approach we took when it came to hiring for our first company: who did we see sharing our same vision and growing with us?

Coming to the United States was almost a completely opposite experience. The barrier of entry was much higher. You have to go to the right college, graduate from right incubator programs, develop relationships with the right VCs, and have at least one successful startup under your belt before anyone would even consider booking a meeting with you.

Pedro and I had to carefully position ourselves before we even got to the Valley. When we finally did get to the U.S., we had already launched a successful startup and we were accepted to Stanford. Soon after, we were accepted by Y-Combinator, and that’s where we built relationships with the key players that would open up the doors for future meetings.

With our current startup, Brex,  we found that there weren’t just cultural differences at play, but different approaches we needed to take in order for our business to be successful. For example, in Brazil, we bootstrapped our first startup, and as a result, we had to find our product-market fit immediately. When you are so cash-constrained, it also limits how much you can build your company, and you think in terms of short-term wins instead of sustained growth. Your growth strategy is confined and you’re constantly reacting to your immediate client demands.

In the U.S., VCs and angel-investors aren’t interested in the short-term. They’re interested in long-term growth and how you are going to deliver 10x profits over a ten year period. Our strategy could no longer be: plan as we go and grow with our customer. Instead, we needed to deliver a roadmap, and when that roadmap changed or evolved, communicate those changes and adopt a culture of transparency.   

Additionally, we learned how difficult it is to find and retain  talent in the U.S.; it can feel like a Sisyphean task. Millennials for example, spend less than two years on average at a job, and if you spend six years or more at the same company, recruiters will actually ask you: “why?” So how can you build a company for the long-term in an environment where employees are not personally invested in the growth of your company?

We also learned that many successful tech startups offer stock options to their early employees, but as the company evolves and changes over time, those same stock options are not offered to future employees. This creates the exact opposite of a meritocracy. Why would a new employee work harder, longer, and bring more to the table if you are not going to be compensated for it?

Instead of using this broken model, we have invested in paying our team higher wages upfront, and based on performance, we award our team members with stock options. We want to be a company that people are proud of working at longterm, and we want to create a culture that is merit-based.

While some of the myths that we first believed in about Silicon Valley are now laughable looking back, they were also really instructional as to how we wanted to build our company and what pitfalls we wanted to avoid.

Even though nearly half of tech startups are founded by immigrant entrepreneurs, we have a cultural learning curve in order to have the opportunity to be “the next unicorn.” And maybe that’s the point, we’re experiencing a moment in time during which myths and unicorns no longer serve us, and what we need instead is the background, experience, and vision to create a company that is worth the hype.

These are the most successful companies to emerge from Y Combinator

A look at the 20 most successful companies to come out of Y Combinator.

Earlier this month, Brex, a credit card provider to startups, announced it had raised $125 million at a $1.1 billion valuation.

The round was impressive for a couple of reasons: The founders are a pair of 22-year-olds that had set out to build a virtual reality company before pivoting to payments, and they had only completed Y Combinator, a well-known Silicon Valley startup accelerator, the year prior.

Y Combinator is responsible for many successes in the startup world, certainly more than its fellow accelerators, which are all known to provide early-stage companies with a seed investment — in YC’s case, $150,000 — mentorship and educational resources through a short-term program that culminates in a demo day.

Today, YC has released the latest list of its most successful companies since it began backing startups in 2005. Ranked by valuation and/or market cap, Brex, sure enough, is the youngest company to crack the top 20:

  1. Airbnb: An online travel community and room-sharing platform founded by Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk. Valuation: $31 billion. YC W2009.
  2. Stripe: A provider of an online payment processing system for internet businesses founded by John and Patrick Collison. Valuation: $20 billion. YC S2009.
  3. Cruise: Acquired by GM in 2006, the company is building autonomous vehicles. It was founded by Kyle Vogt and Daniel Kan. Valuation: $14 billion. YC W2014.
  4. Dropbox: A file hosting service and workplace collaboration platform founded by Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi that went public in March. Market cap: >$10 billion. YC S2007.
  5. Instacart: A grocery and home essentials delivery service founded by Apoorva Mehta, Max Mullen and Brandon Leonardo. Valuation: $7.6 billion. YC S2012.
  6. Machine Zone: A mobile games company, founded by Mike Sherrill, Gabriel Leydon and Halbert Nakagawa, known for “Game of War.” Valuation: >$5 billion. YC W2008.
  7. DoorDash: An app-based food delivery service founded by Tony Xu, Stanley Tang and Andy Fang. Valuation: $4 billion. YC S2013.
  8. Zenefits: The provider of human resources software for small and medium-sized businesses founded by Laks Srini and Parker Conrad. Valuation: $2 billion. YC W2013.
  9. Gusto: The provider of software that automates and simplifies payroll for businesses, founded by Josh Reeves, Tomer London and Edward Kim. Valuation: $2 billion. YC W2012.
  10.  Reddit: An online platform for conversation and thousands of communities founded by Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman. Valuation: $1.8 billion. YC S2005.
  11.  Coinbase: A digital cryptocurrency exchange and wallet platform founded by Brian Armstrong and Fred Ehrsam. Valuation ~$1.6 billion. YC S2012.
  12.  PagerDuty: A digital ops management platform for businesses founded by Baskar Puvanathasan, Andrew Miklas and Alex Solomon. Valuation: $1.3 billion. YC S2012.
  13.  Docker: A platform for applications that gives developers the freedom to build, manage and secure business-critical applications, founded by Solomon Hykes and Sebastien Pahl. Valuation: $1.3 billion. YC S2010.
  14.  Ginkgo Bioworks: A biotech company focused on designing custom microbes founded by Reshma Shetty, Jason Kelly, Barry Canton and others. Valuation: >$1 billion. YC S2014.
  15.  Rappi: A Latin American on-demand delivery startup founded by Felipe Villamarin, Simon Borrero and Sebastian Mejia. Valuation: >$1 billion. YC W2016.
  16.  Brex: A B2B financial startup that provides corporate cards to startups. Its founders include Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi. Valuation: $1.1 billion. YC W2017.
  17.  GitLab: A developer service founded by Sid Sijbrandij and Dmitriy Zaporozhets that aims to offer a full lifecycle DevOps platform. Valuation: $1.1 billion. YC W2015.
  18.  Twitch: An Amazon-acquired live-streaming platform for video games used by millions. Its founders include Emmett Shear, Justin Kan, Michael Seibel and Kyle Vogt. YC W2007.
  19.  Flexport: A logistics company that moves freight globally by air, ocean, rail and truck founded by Ryan Petersen. Valuation: ~$1 billion. YC W2014.
  20.  Mixpanel: A user analytics platform that helps each person at a business understand its users, founded by Suhail Doshi and Tim Trefren. Valuation: >$865 million. YC S2009.

The full list of Y Combinator’s 100 most successful companies is available here.

These are the most successful companies to emerge from Y Combinator

A look at the 20 most successful companies to come out of Y Combinator.

Earlier this month, Brex, a credit card provider to startups, announced it had raised $125 million at a $1.1 billion valuation.

The round was impressive for a couple of reasons: The founders are a pair of 22-year-olds that had set out to build a virtual reality company before pivoting to payments, and they had only completed Y Combinator, a well-known Silicon Valley startup accelerator, the year prior.

Y Combinator is responsible for many successes in the startup world, certainly more than its fellow accelerators, which are all known to provide early-stage companies with a seed investment — in YC’s case, $150,000 — mentorship and educational resources through a short-term program that culminates in a demo day.

Today, YC has released the latest list of its most successful companies since it began backing startups in 2005. Ranked by valuation and/or market cap, Brex, sure enough, is the youngest company to crack the top 20:

  1. Airbnb: An online travel community and room-sharing platform founded by Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk. Valuation: $31 billion. YC W2009.
  2. Stripe: A provider of an online payment processing system for internet businesses founded by John and Patrick Collison. Valuation: $20 billion. YC S2009.
  3. Cruise: Acquired by GM in 2006, the company is building autonomous vehicles. It was founded by Kyle Vogt and Daniel Kan. Valuation: $14 billion. YC W2014.
  4. Dropbox: A file hosting service and workplace collaboration platform founded by Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi that went public in March. Market cap: >$10 billion. YC S2007.
  5. Instacart: A grocery and home essentials delivery service founded by Apoorva Mehta, Max Mullen and Brandon Leonardo. Valuation: $7.6 billion. YC S2012.
  6. Machine Zone: A mobile games company, founded by Mike Sherrill, Gabriel Leydon and Halbert Nakagawa, known for “Game of War.” Valuation: >$5 billion. YC W2008.
  7. DoorDash: An app-based food delivery service founded by Tony Xu, Stanley Tang and Andy Fang. Valuation: $4 billion. YC S2013.
  8. Zenefits: The provider of human resources software for small and medium-sized businesses founded by Laks Srini and Parker Conrad. Valuation: $2 billion. YC W2013.
  9. Gusto: The provider of software that automates and simplifies payroll for businesses, founded by Josh Reeves, Tomer London and Edward Kim. Valuation: $2 billion. YC W2012.
  10.  Reddit: An online platform for conversation and thousands of communities founded by Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman. Valuation: $1.8 billion. YC S2005.
  11.  Coinbase: A digital cryptocurrency exchange and wallet platform founded by Brian Armstrong and Fred Ehrsam. Valuation ~$1.6 billion. YC S2012.
  12.  PagerDuty: A digital ops management platform for businesses founded by Baskar Puvanathasan, Andrew Miklas and Alex Solomon. Valuation: $1.3 billion. YC S2012.
  13.  Docker: A platform for applications that gives developers the freedom to build, manage and secure business-critical applications, founded by Solomon Hykes and Sebastien Pahl. Valuation: $1.3 billion. YC S2010.
  14.  Ginkgo Bioworks: A biotech company focused on designing custom microbes founded by Reshma Shetty, Jason Kelly, Barry Canton and others. Valuation: >$1 billion. YC S2014.
  15.  Rappi: A Latin American on-demand delivery startup founded by Felipe Villamarin, Simon Borrero and Sebastian Mejia. Valuation: >$1 billion. YC W2016.
  16.  Brex: A B2B financial startup that provides corporate cards to startups. Its founders include Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi. Valuation: $1.1 billion. YC W2017.
  17.  GitLab: A developer service founded by Sid Sijbrandij and Dmitriy Zaporozhets that aims to offer a full lifecycle DevOps platform. Valuation: $1.1 billion. YC W2015.
  18.  Twitch: An Amazon-acquired live-streaming platform for video games used by millions. Its founders include Emmett Shear, Justin Kan, Michael Seibel and Kyle Vogt. YC W2007.
  19.  Flexport: A logistics company that moves freight globally by air, ocean, rail and truck founded by Ryan Petersen. Valuation: ~$1 billion. YC W2014.
  20.  Mixpanel: A user analytics platform that helps each person at a business understand its users, founded by Suhail Doshi and Tim Trefren. Valuation: >$865 million. YC S2009.

The full list of Y Combinator’s 100 most successful companies is available here.

How the 22-year-old founders of Brex built a billion-dollar business in less than 2 years

Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi, the co-founders of Brex, have raised $125 million at a $1.1 billion valuation just four months after the startup’s public launch.

When Brazilian-born Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi met at 16 years old, they bonded over a love of coding and mutual frustrations with their strict mothers, who didn’t understand their Mark Zuckerberg-esque ambitions. 

To be fair, their moms’ fear of their hacking habits only escalated after their pre-teen sons received legal notices of patent infringements in the mail. A legal threat from Apple, which Franceschi received after discovering the first jailbreak to the iPhone, is enough to warrant a grounding, at the very least.

Their parents implored them to quit the hacking and stop messing around online.

They didn’t listen.

Today, the now 22-year-olds are announcing a $125 million Series C for their second successful payments business, called Brex, at a $1.1 billion valuation. Greenoaks Capital, DST Global and IVP led the round, which brings their total raised to date to about $200 million.

San Francisco-based Brex provides startup founders access to corporate credit cards without a personal guarantee or deposit. It’s also supported by the likes of PayPal founders Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, the former chief executive officer of Visa Carl Pascarella and a handful of leading venture capital firms. 

Brex is off to one of the most exciting starts we’ve ever seen,” IVP’s Somesh Dash said in a statement.

The financing makes them some of the youngest unicorn founders in history and puts them in a rare class of startups that have galloped into unicorn territory at such a fast clip. Brex was founded in the winter of 2017. It only launched publicly in June 2018.

How’d they do it?

“I’ve had two failed attempts, one successful attempt and one on the way to being a successful attempt,” Brex CEO Dubugras told TechCrunch while reciting a lengthy resume.

At 14, when most of us were worrying about what the first year of high school would bring us, Dubugras was more concerned about what his next business attempt would be. He had already built a successful online game but was forced to shut it down after receiving those patent infringement notices.

Naturally, he used the cash he earned from the game to start a company — an education startup meant to help Brazilian students apply to American schools. He himself was hoping to get into Stanford and had learned quickly how little Brazilian students understood of the U.S. college application process.

In some respects, the company was a success. It garnered 800,000 users but failed to make any money. His small fortune wasn’t enough to scale the business.

“There aren’t a lot of VCs in Brazil that are willing to fund 15-year-olds,” Dubugras told TechCrunch.

Shortly after folding the edtech, he met Franceschi, a Brazilian teen from Rio — Dubugras is from São Paulo — who understood his appetite for innovation and was just as hungry for success. The pair got to talking and because of Franceschi’s interest in payments, they started Pagar.me, the “Stripe of Brazil.”

Pagar.me raised $30 million, amassed a staff of 100 and was processing up to $1.5 billion in transactions when it sold. Finally, they had a real success under their belt. Now it was time to relocate. 

“We wanted to come to Silicon Valley to build stuff because everything here seemed so big and so cool,” Dubugras said.

And come to Silicon Valley they did. In the fall of 2016, the pair enrolled at Stanford. Shortly after that, they entered Y Combinator with big dreams for a virtual reality startup called Beyond. 

“I think three weeks in we gave it up,” Dubugras said. “We realized we aren’t the right founders to start this business.”

He credits Y Combinator with helping him realize what they were good at — payments.

As founders themselves, Dubugras and Franceschi were hyper-aware of a huge problem entrepreneurs face: access to credit. Big banks see small businesses as a risk they aren’t willing to take, so founders are often left at a dead-end. Dubugras and Franceschi not only had a big network of startup entrepreneurs in their Rolodex, but they had the fintech acumen necessary to build a credit card business designed specifically for founders.

So, they scrapped Beyond and in April 2017, Brex was born. The startup picked up momentum quickly, so much so that the pair decided to drop out of Stanford and pursue the business full time.

Simplifying financial access

Brex doesn’t require any kind of personal guarantee or security deposit and it doesn’t use third-party legacy technology; its software platform is built from scratch.

It simplifies a lot of the frustrating parts of corporate expenses by providing companies with a consolidated look at their spending. At the end of each month, for example, a CEO can easily see how much the entire company spent on Uber or Amazon. 

Plus, Brex can give entrepreneurs a credit limit that’s as much as 10 times higher than what they’d receive elsewhere and they can issue cards, virtual cards at least, moments after the online application is complete.

“We have a very similar effect of what Stripe had in the beginning, but much faster because Silicon Valley companies are very good at spending money but making money is harder,” Dubugras explained.

As part of their funding announcement, Brex said it will launch a rewards program built with the needs and spending patterns of founders in mind. Beyond that, they plan to use the capital to hire engineers and figure out how to grow the business’s client base beyond only tech startups.

“We want to dominate corporate credit cards,” Dubugras said. “We want every single company in the world, whenever they do businesses expenses, to do it on a Brex card.”