The Backtrace Story II
By Rally Managing Director Charles Beeler
I recently dug into the Backtrace story with Founders Abel Mathew and Samy Al Bahra. We covered everything from our first meeting in South Philly to Backtrace’s successful sale to Sauce Labs earlier this year. In part two of the Backtrace story, I’m taking a deep dive into four questions with Co-Founder and CEO Abel Mathew.
1. You and Samy went through some challenging years with Backtrace. How did you develop the grit to persevere through those tough times? And what advice would you give to founders who are currently in the trenches?
I had a chip on my shoulder. I understood this may be one of the few opportunities I had to be at the helm of building something significant. One thing that helped me persevere was to recognize that truth. You don’t get a lot of shots and you have to make every shot count.
There were so many nights when I wanted to walk away. But then I would ask myself, “Will I get this opportunity again?” Those moments of reckoning get harder the further along you get in your entrepreneurial journey, but you also gain more knowledge and experience that helps you to keep going.
Samy and I went through a lot of personal growth, especially in the early stages. You can’t avoid it, and my advice is not to shy away from it. Personal growth can be jarring and disorienting, which led me to start seeing a therapist fairly soon after founding Backtrace. When our journey became harder, I had to rediscover how to get grounded and find joy. I realized it wasn’t the end of the world to go do something outside for 30 minutes, especially when it had such a positive impact on my physical and mental health.
My last piece of advice is to know that it can be really lonely as a founder, and you only get out of that loneliness when you talk to people who’ve had similar experiences. I purposely sought out other founders to talk to. We’re so busy, but it’s important to find people you can connect with and just let stuff out. It’s liberating to have those conversations and relationships where you don’t have to filter or try to explain everything, because they’ve been through it, too.
2. You and Samy did a great job at keeping your cash burn low. How did you accomplish this?
Being methodical and having low cash burn is what gave us the opportunity to persevere through those early years when we were trying to find product-market fit. Early stage for us was all about experimentation, which really sucks because it’s hard, it takes time and you have to do it in a way that isn’t self-validating. And when something fails, there’s no one to tell you what to do next. For us, the experimentation phase lasted for multiple years.
The important thing to do in that stage is to preserve optionality, and you do that by making sure you have controllable burn. If things aren’t working out, you have to pull back and make sure you have the runway to try again. We strategically spent money to get the data points we needed to validate an approach. The question was always, “What’s the smallest amount of money we can spend to test against a hypothesis without limiting the potential to learn about the opportunity?”
As an early-stage founder, you’re one of the few people that has enough of the product and market in their head to intelligently allocate resources. Samy and I were constantly asking ourselves where we should be spending money, and what opportunities would be unlocked if we did spend more money.
We didn’t keep cash burn low because that was the ultimate goal, we kept cash burn low because we were cognizant that we weren’t seeing the signals that told us we would unlock more opportunity if we spent more money.
People would tell us “you have to scale” but what were we going to scale? It takes a lot of work to stay honest through that stage of the journey and to be thoughtful about what’s really happening.
3. The board of directors plays a critical role in the success of a venture-backed company, and CEOs typically don’t pick the majority of their board. Tell me how you approached adding an independent board member, one of the few seats you do get to pick.
I developed a trust with my board, and I knew they had the company’s best interest at heart. They recommended Justin Moore for the independent board seat because they genuinely believed he could contribute to the business. That enabled me to approach the conversation with Justin with an open mind.
Over the course of my conversation with Justin, his references and my board, I began to learn that the true role of the independent seat was more than your average board seat. Independent board members can often be a sounding board for the CEO, the conduit for tough board conversations or a co-lead for strategic initiatives. This pushed me to learn more about Justin as a person, his motivations and experiences knowing that we would be working more closely than I had with any of my other board members. It also pushed me to be more exploratory and to push through my usual filters.
It was with this mentality that I progressed through initial conversations around company strategy, org design and market, and I became more and more convinced of the value Justin would bring to Backtrace.
4. Rally Tech Partners are a key component in the success of our portfolio companies. We’re thrilled to now have you and Samy join this fantastic group of advisors. How do you want to approach your new role as a Rally Tech Partner?
We met with a number of Tech Partners when we were first getting familiar with Rally. We had known most of them, not personally, but through their work. I had trust and a genuine appreciation for their thoughts, and our mutual experiences as founders and technologists reduced a lot of barriers right off the bat.
Theo Schlossnagle is one Tech Partner who had an immense impact on Backtrace. He introduced us to Rally and then went on to become an advisor and early customer. Theo is a rare mix of being a technologist with a sharp business acumen. It was so helpful to talk with him, because we could span tech, product and business — all in one conversation. Those elements don’t exist in isolation when you’re starting a business.
Sometimes, being a great advisor is about giving pointed advice. But more often it’s about taking in someone’s experience and giving perspective, because everyone’s journey is different. Theo has that in spades, and it’s something we want to offer as Tech Partners. To take our experiences in business, tech and product and help founders navigate the difficult journey of entrepreneurship.