Xconomist of the Week: Appature’s Kabir Shahani Eyes Culture as Company Expands

When it’s time for a scrappy tech startup with a bootstrapped culture to expand its footprint, the conventional thinking might go something like this: Hire young, hungry people who won’t blow through too much of your coin, and hold onto that staff until you absolutely have to take the plunge into grown-up salaries and benefits.

Seattle-based Appature didn’t go the conventional route. When it became clear that maintaining big accounts with drug and medical device clients required more hands-on staff attention, the medical-marketing startup decided to go for very experienced people.

“We believe that the right people for our business, for the long term, are going to be the ones that are coming to our company to build a business. Because we’re going to be in ‘building a business’ mode for a really long time,” CEO Kabir Shahani says. “And we’re the sort of people that are really never done—the same way software’s never done, building a great business is never done.”

That’s just one of the lessons for a growing business I was able to glean from a recent chat with Shahani at Appature’s downtown Seattle headquarters. The company is at one of those pivotal moments in its lifespan: After bootstrapping its way to profitability and taking its first outside financing in late 2009, Appature now has its first remote offices, is looking for more headquarters space in Seattle, and has seen its pipeline of deals swell to 10 times the size it was a year ago.

That’s a nice place to be if you’re an entrepreneur. But it’s also potentially perilous for a startup—how do you maintain the culture and values that the founders have put so much time into developing now that you’re a farther-flung, growing operation?

Shahani jumps up to the whiteboard to illustrate this task. Most companies, when you smooth out all the wrinkles, want to grow in a pretty straight upward line. But in reality, you often run into something that looks more like a series of stairs—and Shahani says Appature is in the middle of taking another one of those steps up right now.

“These [moments] are like getting your foot up off one stair and onto the other, and because you have more people and you have a lot more weight when you’re trying to do that, it’s a pain in the ass,” he says with a laugh. “It’s really exciting, and it’s super schizophrenic.”

To rewind a bit on the basics: Appature was founded in early 2007 by Shahani and technical chief Chris Hahn, who met while at the former social networking startup Blue Dot. The company sells cloud-based software services that help pharmaceutical and medical device companies market their products, both to doctors and to consumers, through targeted advertising.

On the physician side, that represents a major change in the way that drug and device marketing had been done for years. Think former cheerleaders making office visits, pens and prescription pads and samples and swag, speaking gigs, rounds of golf, and so on.

But with insurance reimbursement rates sliding, doctors are having to cram in more patients to make the same money—leaving very little time for sales calls.

“To the point where now, you’ve got a majority of physicians’ offices have limited their hours in terms of, ‘We’ll only see reps one day a week, or the … Next Page »

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3 responses to “Xconomist of the Week: Appature’s Kabir Shahani Eyes Culture as Company Expands”

  1. A great read… I love that Kabir is tapping into a market where there is an epic transformation under way, and lots of $$$. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks, John – This isn’t the kind of business story that’s a typical headline or “announcement” from a company (the fact that they’re now growing into field operations, etc).
    But it’s such a key moment for a young company that it’s a naturally interesting topic. At least I thought so!

  3. Great peice on a fabulous Seattle company – and good on them for hiring experienced employees!