Carson Drake on The Orbit Shift Podcast

S02E43

Carson Drake, VP of Sales and BD at Firstbase.io on building modern sales teams for product and app-based startups

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Carson Drake, VP of Sales and BD at Firstbase.io talks about his early career, launching UberEats in India, the problem he’s solving at Firstbase, and how he sets up his sales teams.

With experience across multiple geographies including India and the US; and with experience across some of the biggest startups in the world including Uber, UberEats, and Airbnb, Carson Drake knows what it takes to build modern sales teams that grow revenue across different markets. 

In this episode we talk to Carson about his journey, launching UberEats in India, building trust with partner vendors, the need to localize your product offerings, and how he has acquired over 7000 customers with Firstbase.io, a startup that helps you set up your company in the US.

Edited Excerpts

Q. Tell us about your journey to Firstbase.

Carson: I started off in consulting right out of school. After about 18 months there, I jumped into the tech world where I began my tech career with Uber.

In Uber, I originally worked in the rides business, primarily on supply acquisition and growth-related initiatives. Trying to bring as many drivers into the funnel and get them activated on the platform as quickly as we could, with a significant emphasis on scale. 

After spending about 18 months on the rides business, I joined UberEats and worked on that vertical; beginning as a launcher, basically going city to city and helping start up the business from scratch. After some time as a launcher, I went back into the growth and acquisition vertical, and I was helping build out our driver supply on UberEats and oversaw four or five markets in the pre-launch and post-launch phase, selling UberEats to restaurants. I ended up going to India for a couple of months and helping build and scale UberEats in a number of cities across the country. 

After that, I joined a small corporate housing marketplace startup called Urbandoor. Where I was focusing primarily on both growth and product, and then eventually supply operations. We were essentially the equivalent of Airbnb, but specifically targeting business travelers, corporate executives and finding them a fully furnished unit for any stay greater than 30 days. We ended up getting acquired by Airbnb about 18 months into my time at Urbandoor. And then at Airbnb, I focused on building out our multifamily inventory experience where we were partnering directly with multifamily owner-operators to capture their inventory; repurpose it, refurbish it, specifically for the corporate business traveler, as Airbnb made a shift to move away from just serving the vacation traveler to now getting into the business mindset of how can we bring long term stays for business executives and analysts. 

During the pandemic, I put a little bit of effort into a side consulting business which ended up landing Firstbase as a client of mine. After consulting with them for a couple of months, I decided to join them full time and currently I am at Firstbase as the VP of sales and BD. I’m focusing on building out a multi-channel sales organization to serve the end customer. What first base does is we help founders incorporate their companies in the US either with an LLC or a C Corp. 

Q. When you were launching UberEats in India you were entering an already mature market for food delivery. What was your strategy for beating the incumbents and gaining early traction? 

Carson: Obviously in India Swiggy and Zomato were the golden geese. They had every restaurant relationship you could ever imagine. Where Uber excelled was that we hired smart people from diverse backgrounds and we were able to get them to collaborate and think about how to solve these incredibly complex problems. And we did that with all the freedom and autonomy that anyone can ever desire. It was a cultural mindset that allowed us to think long-term and emphasize scale in every initiative that we took. 

One of the differences with India is the diversity in the supply potential. You have tuk-tuks, mopeds, motorcycles, cars; that was a huge benefit to us because we could build on top of our existing supply base for the rides network, and that gave us a leg up in every market that we launched in. 

We didn’t need to convince those drivers that making money on UberEats was an alternative option that they could fulfill when they were not picking up passengers. I think that’s where our competitive advantage existed over those two, Zomato and Swiggy.

Q. How did you go about building trust with these vendors?

Carson: It’s different from the US where we have a large inside sales motion, in India, there’s a large outside sales motion and I had to make this transition quickly as I was leading the sales strategy for the company.  

We deployed sellers to the highest density eateries with an iPad to show them what the experience on UberEats looked like. We ran this one initiative that ended up being incredibly successful for us, where we would target these particular areas, we would get all of their information and ahead of time, we would create their restaurants on UberEats. We’d have somebody back in the office place an order on that test restaurant and we would be sitting shoulder to shoulder with the owner as that order came in, and we’d accept the order and then show them what the experience looked like. 

That ended up selling the vision and the reason for why they should join UberEats before we really needed to talk to them about the reasons why they should jump on. 

Q. You’ve had experience across so many geographies, tell us about the need to localize your offerings.  

Carson: Localization is absolutely critical. At UberEats, we were building a lot of sales and strategies without really listening to what the customer wanted, which was a fault of our own. 

We had no idea that Quick Service Restaurants (QSR), McDonald’s, and the like would be well received on the UberEats product. We went out and focused on getting higher-end restaurants, cuisine diversity, and restaurant density. We embarked on our sales strategy without fully understanding what it was that the customer wanted. We knew that they wanted their food quickly and that they wanted it at an affordable price. But in terms of cuisine and restaurants, we were acting on our own biases and impulses. 

Given the diversity of Indian cuisine, we needed to make sure that we were localizing and hitting specific quotas that were capturing the vegan and vegetarian audience, and the QSR audience. 

The overall experience needed to get to a point where, when somebody opens up an app, they’re seeing a range of options. Because we realized that the more options we’re giving across the price and cuisine spectrums, the more likely they are to continue to engage with us.

Q. What are some of the important metrics to track for an app-based platform?

Carson: The number one metric for us at Uber was the completed to request ratio. That was the number of requests that came in, and the number of requests that were actually completed and fulfilled. That was our key metric hands down, whether in the rides business or the eats business. 

Apart from that, it’s about how many products are being returned because they’re not up to par with the customer’s expectations? What does the customer locale look like? That’s generally an indicator of the awareness that your particular product is driven. Those are the metrics and insights that we were collecting on a routine basis. 

Q. Tell us about Firstbase and the problem that you’re looking to solve here. 

Carson: I’ll give you a little bit of a back story on how Firstbase got started. Our founder, at the time, was 20 years old and he was living in Belarus. He was trying to launch a couple of e-commerce businesses specifically to target the US-based customer. And he realized that he had no experience in how the business regulatory system in America worked. 

It’s a heavily antiquated process and he found that it was very difficult to navigate. He didn’t know where to look to incorporate, how to contact the right startup lawyer, what the tax implications were, and so on. He had to do all of that research on his own. 

That was the impulse for building Firstbase. So he set out with the idea of digitizing an antiquated and paper-driven experience, bringing it online and scaling it to any entrepreneur that resides in any country in the world that wants to launch their idea in the States. 

That was the impetus and now we’re three years into this idea, and we’ve helped launch 7000 businesses and helped founders from over 170 countries incorporate their idea in the US. Our growth is 20% month over month on average and we’re just beginning to see, the opportunity that exists for how we can scale this and make it even more efficient for the end customer. 

Q. What’s your strategy for customer acquisition?  

Carson: This is something that’s still evolving. But the emphasis is threefold. The first is we’ve started to drive demand outside of the organic and paid channels by setting up a referral program, connecting with entrepreneurs and people with business audiences, and utilizing them to share what Firstbase can do. 

The second is the rewards channel. Rewards are really important because as a startup founder, money is tight. You don’t want to commit a whole lot of capital to products that are going to hurt your bottom line. So through these rewards relationships, we’ve been able to negotiate a number of trial and discounted subscriptions and that’s a huge conversion driver for us. 

Then the final one is we’ve developed a number of API relationships as well, where we’re essentially finding partners whose customer bases need to have a business registered in order to transact with that particular customer. So through seamless API integration, we are surfacing the Firstbase application within that partner’s domain and getting that particular customer incorporated, without them really realizing that they’re incorporating through Firstbase. 

Q. And how do you set up your sales teams?

Carson: Our focus has been on demand generation. The first vertical that we explored was the affiliate and referrals channels. Trying to get people on Firstbase’s side, getting them to do a shout-out from the mountaintops, and referring those customers for a small commission. 

One thing I will add, at Uber, for example, across all of our channels, social, paid, organic and referral, referrals drove 45% of our driver conversions. I am a big believer in referrals. Your business can really take off if you run the right referral campaigns, and you incentivize your audience to share their promo code with their audience or their network. It creates a recurring sustainable influx of demand. 

Beyond that, it was about finding rewards partnerships that are going to drive conversions to our product. Those are big opportunities for us, those two channels in the beginning. 

Q. Carson, to tie this all in. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve seen startup founders make? 

Carson: I would say building a business without doing the proper customer research first. That is the costliest mistake that I’ve seen startups make. 

The last company that I was at, we had a great idea and we ended up pivoting away from that core idea because we thought that the customer wanted something that they didn’t actually want. That ended up initiating the downfall of the business. We thought we knew what the customer wanted and we built on that idea without actually engaging with that customer. 

Whether you’re just getting started or you’re thinking about an idea, you have to run that idea by your potential audience, because the insights that they will give you are so incredibly valuable. You will end those discussions with more data and ammunition on how to build something than you could ever imagine on your own. 

You have to understand what motivates and annoys your customer and build your idea with them in mind, because ultimately if you’re solving a problem that your customer has, they’re going to want to try your product.

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