- Unicorn Growth Strategies
- Brex - Cofounder Story: Henrique Dubugras & Pedro Franceschi
Brex - Cofounder Story: Henrique Dubugras & Pedro Franceschi
From $0 to $12B Unicorn
Brex is a fintech startup that provides financial services and software tailored to fast-growing companies.
The company was founded in 2017 by Brazilian entrepreneurs Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi, who previously founded an online payments company called Pagar.me.
Dubugras and Franceschi conceived the idea for Brex after becoming frustrated with the process of getting a credit card to fund their original startup idea - a VR company. They realized there was an opportunity to solve a pain point for founders who needed access to credit and financial tools to cover expenses and manage cash flow in the early stages.
The founders launched Brex after joining the Y Combinator startup accelerator program. What differentiates Brex is its focus on serving high-growth businesses rather than traditional small businesses. Brex offers higher credit limits, rewards like billboards and coaching for founders, and advanced spend management software. The software automatically adjusts credit limits based on factors like revenue and cash balances.
Brex has raised over $1.2 billion in funding at a $12.3 billion valuation from top investors including Peter Thiel, Y Combinator, and Kleiner Perkins. The company grew rapidly to serve over 200,000 customers within a few years of launch. Originally focused on startups, Brex has expanded to serve mid-market and enterprise companies as well.
The company has shifted its strategy to focus more on software and subscriptions versus interchange fees from transactions. Products include corporate cards, business accounts, spend management software, financial modeling tools, and venture debt. Brex also acquired a software startup called Pry Financials to augment its offerings.
In 2022, Brex made a strategic decision to stop serving smaller businesses and focus on larger enterprises. It launched Brex Empower as a financial software platform tailored to these customers' needs. Brex also went global, enabling its predominantly US-based customers to use its products and services in over 100 countries.
Following the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, Brex gained thousands of new customers and billions in deposits. This accelerated its growth trajectory. However, Brex also faces the challenges of reaching profitability and scaling efficiently.
Overall, Brex is one of the most well-funded and high-growth fintech startups serving innovation economy companies. Its founders have capitalized on their own startup experiences to build tailored financial products combined with intelligent software. If Brex can continue gaining enterprise customers while boosting efficiency, it is poised for long-term success.
The founders, Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi, started coding at a young age in Brazil which gave them confidence they could build companies. In their teens, they built their first startup, an online payments company called Pagar.me. After gaining experience in Brazil's fintech market, they moved to the US to attend Stanford, but soon dropped out to start Brex.
Brex was inspired by the founders' own frustrating experience trying to get corporate cards as Stanford students. With backgrounds in fintech and coding, the founders built Brex's credit card and financial software system from scratch to specifically meet the needs of startups. Despite stressful times, the founders kept grounded by directly engaging with customers.
Brex’s Minimum Viable Product
The founders decided to build the full credit card processing stack from scratch instead of relying on third party processors. This allowed them to have more control and flexibility in designing the optimal experience. It was very challenging to build this complex financial processing system, but the founders believed it was necessary to truly redefine the credit card experience.
To construct the MVP, they focused on just a few key differentiating features like fast sign up, higher limits without personal guarantees, and automated receipt capture. The founders directly engaged with pilot customers, interviewing them about their biggest pain points to refine the feature set.
They iterated based on feedback from these users, observing how they actually interacted with Brex's features. The founders continually went back to customers as they scaled, directly doing sales calls and user testing to stay grounded. Even after launch they regularly engaged in these customer research activities.
Brex Growth Strategies
Leveraging the YC network: Brex got many early users from their YC batchmates. Being part of the YC community provided built-in word-of-mouth marketing.
Optimizing for viral growth: features like easy card setup and automated receipt capture were designed to provide a frictionless experience that users would want to share. The founders aimed to build virality into the product.
Focusing on key customer segments: Brex targeted specific segments like startups and e-commerce companies to tailor the product to their needs. Specialization helped drive rapid growth in key verticals.
Direct sales outreach: the founders did direct sales calls themselves to learn effective sales positioning. They also recruited top sales talent.
Forming partnerships: Brex partnered with other startups like TechCrunch for joint marketing activities. These partnerships generated exposure to Brex's target users.
Leveraging investors for credibility: the founders' prominent investors like YC and Peter Thiel provided credibility that helped them hire talent, raise more funding, and attract customers.
Applying learnings from previous fintech experience: insights from their past fintech company in Brazil guided strategies like rebuilding the payments stack from scratch. Their fintech knowledge was an advantage.
Hiring, team building, and culture
Prioritize hiring the smartest people: Brex tried to hire for intelligence even if it meant training for other skills, because he believed smart people were crucial in the early days. For their first 10 hires, they brought on the smartest people they knew.
Give significant equity to retain executive hires: Brex gave large equity packages to early executives like their CFO and GC to get experienced managers on board. The founder believes the risk is much higher for executives, so equity compensates for that.
Hire to complement weaknesses: they hired a CFO and GC early on because as young founders they lacked financial and legal expertise. Experienced executives rounded out their skillset.
Maintain high hiring bars, even if it causes delays: they were slow in hiring initially because they refused to compromise on quality, believing early hires impact company DNA.
Test for intelligence but also execution ability: the founder screens for people who can operate strategically but also roll up their sleeves. He calls this "dolphin and swim" - being able to swim at all depths.
Build the company culture around the founders: the CEO can shape the culture to fit your strengths. He designed Brex's processes and style around his own preferences.
Focus on mental health support for the team: after his own mental health struggles, the founder emphasizes providing therapists, meditation spaces, and other support systems for employees.
Challenges & Setbacks
Difficulty recruiting early employees: as young, foreign founders, they lacked networks for hiring. They overcame this by being generous with compensation and titles. They also imported talent from overseas.
Close calls with bankruptcy: their early Brazil startup almost went bankrupt multiple times when growth stalled. They managed through this by quickly developing products that could capture immediate revenue.
Struggles with stress and mental health: the high pressure led to burn out, anxiety, and depression for the founder at various points. He now proactively manages his mental health through activities like meditation, therapy, medication, and taking time off.
Realizing their initial strategy was flawed: after pivoting to serve small businesses, the founder realized it compromised their focus. This forced a painful business model pivot back to their core startup segment.
Advice for Other Founders
Gain experience before tackling highly complex markets like fintech: the founder recommends working at an early stage fintech or starting a company in a less competitive market to develop critical knowledge before tackling fintech.
Deeply understand your customer's pain points: go directly to customers to interview them and learn their biggest problems. Build products that directly address those needs.
Prioritize speed in capturing revenue from the beginning: structure your startup to quickly monetize products and generate enough revenue to sustain the business month-to-month.
Study and master complex domains required for your startup: deeply educate yourself in areas like regulations if your startup relies on specialized knowledge. Don't rely on surface level understanding.
Stay grounded by directly engaging with customers: regularly do sales calls, user testing, and customer support to stay connected to real needs and gaps.
Brex demonstrates how valuable experience in a market can set founders up for success in building complex startups like fintech companies.
Their journey also highlights the importance of maniacal focus on serving a core target customer extremely well, rather than attempting to serve many different segments.
The founder's own mental health challenges as Brex scaled underscore the need for founders to proactively build support systems and stay grounded. Brex showed how moving fast to monetize, leveraging high profile investors, and hiring experienced executives early on can help provide a strong foundation.
Their story illustrates how startups must continually evolve strategies while staying focused on addressing customer pain points better than competitors.
Overall, Brex's rapid growth demonstrates the rewards of deeply understanding your market, anticipating needs early on, and maintaining high standards as a startup scales.