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We become a public company today [11/10/21]

David Barrett
David Barrett Expensify Team Posts: 31 Expensify Team
edited November 15 in Expensify news

Today is a big moment in Expensify history. We have become a public company and we owe the success of our business to you, our millions of loyal members who have stuck with us through the years. Every receipt scanned, every invoice sent, bill paid, card swiped, and every person to whom you recommended Expensify, propelled us one step further and now here we are, 13 years later as a public company.

I want to share with you my Founder's Letter that I wrote for the IPO which can be found in our S-1 filing. Enjoy, and thanks for your trust and confidence over the years, we will continue working our hardest to be worthy of it!

The next 100 years are going to be nuts.

Global population is going to peak, and then go down—possibly forever—inverting the labor pool. The worst effects of climate change will be felt, and (with enough effort) begin to subside. Automation will wipe out millions of jobs, potentially creating a hyper-concentration of wealth that would exacerbate social tensions around the world. VR and personal VTOL travel will radically alter where we live and work. Miniaturized surveillance and data aggregation will challenge all notions of privacy, while quantum computers wipe out all modern cryptography. The Singularity will (maybe?) occur. We will become a multi-planetary civilization.

To repeat, the next 100 years are going to be nuts.

These vast climate, social, and technological changes are so daunting, it's tempting to bury our heads and pretend they will only happen to somebody else. But odds are, if you are reading these words, you are going to be alive to witness the most extreme effects of these trends—and if not, your children certainly will.

This stark reality has weighed on me, for a long time. Our world is incredible, mysterious, diverse, and beautiful. But so fragile, and pushed to the brink. I am convinced we can get through this, and leave everything for our kids better than we found it. If enough of us help.

Expensify is how we help.

I've been through the startup grinder a few times, and the last time left me a modest chunk of change in my pocket, while I was living in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. And while it can be paralyzing to think about these huge, systemic problems, I wanted to do something for the homeless neighbors I saw on my street every day as I walked to my comfortable job.

So I set out to build a private label electronic food stamp card I could hand out to anyone in need, that could be used once a day, up to $10 per day, only at restaurants that didn't serve alcohol—with every purchase billed back to me. I reasoned that while I couldn't solve hunger globally, it was within my power to do it on my street (but only if it was easy enough to manage; I had a day job, after all).

The technology, as is usually the case, was the easy part: I built a decentralized ACID-safe, Paxos-based, WAN-clustered self-healing database using blockchain synchronization (before Satoshi published his first paper on Bitcoin), and prepared to drop it on to Visa's ISO 8583 private internet to print a stack of instant-issue cards I'd keep in my back pocket to hand out as needed. The hard part, as is usually the case, was getting permission from the many gatekeepers involved.

When I took this idea to the banks, they were like... what? Where is the business model? What about PCI compliance, money transfer licensing, KYC, AML, and a list of TLAs as long as my arm. They were very clear: this is too weird, and too risky, I'm out.

This led me to think, "Hm... I need to sound safe, and boring. What is the most boring application of these cards I can imagine... Aha!"

A corporate card, as a Trojan horse for charity.

I went back to those banks and said "Forget all that. Instead, I'm going to make a corporate card that small business owners can give to their employees, that enforces expense policy such as spend amounts and merchant authorization, at the point of purchase, but then bills every purchase back to the owner, so they keep the rewards. I call it: The Expensify Card."

It was the same technology I needed to feed people on my street, but presented in a way that would go down easy. They all murmured that this felt safe, and boring, and they hated their expense reports too, so let's do this.

A lot happened since then.

The first Black man was elected president. Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed. The #MeToo movement held previously unaccountable men to account. The economy tanked, then boomed. America was Made Great. Racist ideology spiked. George Floyd was murdered. Walls were built, old alliances faded, mutual distrust compounded. Wildfires choked our cities, while a virus choked our lungs. The wars droned on, then pulled out. Our capitol was directly attacked for the first time in centuries. Democracy itself came under fire.

Throughout it all, our business grew. We surfed the tidal waves of the iPhone launch, the consumerization of IT, the rise of social media, and in a shockingly short time went from a tiny joke startup ignored by incumbents, to being the incumbent. But our incumbency is very different than the one we replace.

A new kind of incumbent.

Our greatest innovation isn't our product, it's the company itself. People are often surprised to learn we have only 140 employees, with no dedicated managers, compensation decided by universal vote, and everyone deciding their own personal career path. We don't do it to be iconoclastic. We do it to achieve results. Fundamentally, we think shareholders are best served when we build a company that unlocks the full potential of employees by empowering them to:

  • Live rich. We define this as having comfortable means, and the time to enjoy them. To be excited to go to work, empowered while you are there, and energized to return home to be with those you love. For every boring, average day, to be awesome.
  • Have fun. Not Xbox fun; bucket-list fun. We make work inherently fun by surrounding everyone with the finest possible peers, and providing them and their families incredible social experiences that exceed anyone's individual imagination.
  • Save the world. When every employee has a solid financial baseline and work/life balance, and is making brisk progress through their bucket list, they can truly dedicate the time and resources to focus on solving the biggest problems of the world: enabling everyone to live rich and have fun, not just a lucky few.

The result of all this is a company that doesn't just generate value for shareholders, but also produces compounding social good for the world at large. We have fully melded our charity model directly into our business model, so each supports and grows the other.

And we never forgot our original mission. Every swipe of the Expensify Card makes a small donation to our Expensify.org charity wing, which has dozens of active campaigns addressing homelessness, recidivism, climate change, youth issues, and—the inspiration for it all—hunger. Just one of those campaigns has already helped feed thousands of families on SNAP assistance, as well as encourage vaccinations amongst our most vulnerable population.

Expensify.org grows in lockstep with Expensify, meaning our business success directly funds our charitable activities. We firmly believe that doing good is good for business.

What we've learned so far.

We are very proud of what we've done over the past thirteen years. I truly believe that Expensify is the best, easiest to use, most powerful business payments superapp in the world. We are used by more businesses than any company we consider our peers, across a huge range of industries, company sizes, countries, and currencies. And in the process of building it, we learned a lot. Those lessons are too numerous to list here, but to summarize some highlights:

  • The market for expense management is enormous. Literally every business on the planet does expense management; not all businesses have revenue, but all have expenses.
  • The market for expense management is almost entirely untapped. There are over 100 million businesses in the world, but less than 0.1% actually use some form of modern expense management. Excel/email—or a physical, paper envelope—are our primary competitors. Everyone else is a rounding error.
  • Expense management is a company's first accounting process. Way before you have an accountant or an accounting package, you've figured out some way to keep track of your receipts.
  • Expense management scales gracefully. The employee experience for expense management—swipe a card, scan a receipt—is remarkably consistent for sole-proprietors up to the Fortune 500. What back-end accounting differences that do appear at different scales are neatly contained to a few people in each company, invisible to the average employee.
  • Expense management is the strategic high ground of the back office. The primary job of expense management is to "normalize" the chaos of the outside world, to clean up all financial data to be ready for the accounting team. We started calling this "preaccounting" (a term the industry has since adopted), which means expense management is the nexus point between rank-and-file employees and the general ledger system, HR system, payroll, CRM, project management, invoicing, bill processing, single sign-on, and basically every back end system you have.
  • Expense management is extremely high margin in the SMB. Despite offering an incredible range of functionality at no cost to the customer—often replacing a basket of competitors at a fraction of the price—enables us to monetize employees in the SMB at approximately 3x the average revenue per user in our target market than is possible in the enterprise. Our unique bottom-up business model enables us to thrive where others struggle, meaning there's minimal competition, minimal margin erosion, and better than enterprise-class customer retention in the SMB.
  • Expense management functionality is a superset of AR/AP. Though historically seen as separate industries, the expense report submission, approval, and reimbursement process is far more complicated than any other accounts receivable/payable process. This is why we are able to offer a single platform to do all these features in one simple app: an invoice is just a simplified expense report you send to a client; a bill is just the other side of an invoice. A paycheck is just an expense report that's automatically submitted for a fixed amount every two weeks. And so on. All of these synchronize with the same ledger system, and pay from the same bank accounts. Expensify isn't an expense management platform, it's an all-in-one business payments platform. It's one app, that's free to start, and easy to upgrade.
  • Expense management grows virally. Every time you submit an expense report, you put us in touch with someone closer to the decision maker than you—your boss, your finance team, etc. This is why we give employees a free expense management app: we turn every expense report into a highly targeted endorsement, from a chain of trusted employees, directly to the buyer. That same viral loop works between accounting departments as well (because every invoice is sent from one accounting team to another), and between employees (because personal money requests often go from an employee in one company to an employee in another). No matter which feature is used, members organically promote Expensify to their friends, co-workers, bosses, employees, vendors, and clients—at zero marginal cost to us.

The SMB expense management market is like the land that time forgot—a huge, high margin, largely untapped "silent majority" of the market that is scraping by with antique solutions. And we are the ones that have created a single, powerful, easy-to-use tool with a viral, word-of-mouth model to capture and modernize it at scale. But expense management alone was never the full plan, just the foundation for what's to come.

What we're doing now.

Expensify is a dynamic platform that changes a little every day, and a lot every year. Every change is a step down a long path to unify all of consumer and business payments into a single household-name superapp that grows rapidly, profitably, and scalably at zero marginal cost through viral use cases. There are a huge number of parallel initiatives underway to achieve that vision, but to highlight a few of my favorites:

  • We serve two bosses: your boss, and you. Making a business purchase with your personal card is akin to lending money to your company at zero interest, and then acting as your own repo man to get paid back. It's not just a company expense: it's your expense, and it's our job to get you paid back. Our novel "individual ownership" legal structure deftly handles the subtle dynamics of joint data ownership in a business/personal context, as well as carefully isolates your personal data (such as your credit card) from company data (such as your corporate card). You own your Expensify account, not your boss. And we work for both of you, equally.
  • We are blurring the line between work and home. Because you own your individual account, you take it with you when you change jobs. This makes our design more like LinkedIn or Facebook than Salesforce or Concur; joining a company is as simple as joining a group—company groups, community groups, church groups, our architecture treats them equally. Join as many or as few as you like, and leave whenever you want. You are in control. Expensify is a single app that works equally across all facets of your life, and our massively scalable blockchain-synchronized database allows everyone to securely swim side by side in the same data lake.
  • We are adding end-to-end encryption with quantum-safe tech. Our individual ownership design and bottom-up business model make privacy even more paramount than they would normally be. However, quantum computers threaten to undermine the RSA/DH algorithms that underpin all modern cryptography. Accordingly, we are using the latest in lattice-based public key encryption to protect employee communications from advances in quantum computing.
  • We are gradually migrating to a chat-centric design. Just like you can't talk to yourself, you can't pay yourself: every payment is a conversation, to resolve some kind of financial tension. Expense management has always involved a complex conversation between employees and companies, and we are doubling down on that inherent truth with a highly-simplified chat-centric design that feels like some kind of WhatsApp/Venmo lovechild.
  • We are becoming a feature-rich, totally free business chat system. If expense management is ultimately just a complex financial conversation, chat is just expense management without the expenses. And since our bottom-up business model starts with individual employees using Expensify to manage those financial conversations for free, we are extending that model further to allow any business conversation for free. This is being designed to get a foothold in new companies even easier and earlier than before.
  • We are consolidating everything into a single, universal codebase. By using React Native, we can build a single codebase that works identically across iPhone, Android, web, and even desktop. This means we don't need to rewrite the same features four times—we have one team, working on one app, that works equally everywhere.
  • We leverage the open source community. Great talent appears everywhere, but not everyone wants a full time job. To capture the benefit from this global talent pool we augment our own engineering team with nearly a hundred open source developers around the world. We are committed to an open world of collaborative development, both by supporting existing projects and inviting everyone into our own.
  • We will support your side hustle. Today you need to link together a basket of random tools to crowdfund, communicate with fans, and isolate your expenses. Expensify will bring the power of enterprise expense management into your pocket, simplified for the smallest project, growing in sophistication as you do.
  • We will link your community. Volunteering with your church, hosting a block party, cleaning up a beach—all of these community activities are surprisingly complicated project management exercises, often with people you don't know very well, and often with large financial obligations split amongst the group. Expensify will make this easy.
  • We will help you travel with friends. As the world reopens and our wanderlust takes hold, Expensify will be there booking your flights, managing your hotels, keeping track of your tabs, and settling up as you go.
  • We will connect your family. Managing allowances, digitizing the tooth fairy, teaching financial literacy—Expensify will grow with your family.

Expensify isn't just a corporate card, any more than Google is just a search engine, or Microsoft just an operating system. Both established an unassailable hold on one critical feature, and then built a moat around it a lightyear wide through ancillary features and services. That deep gravity well of products and services inexorably tugs at every business in the solar system, gradually pulling them into orbit no matter where they started. We aim to do the same: to establish a dominant position in business expense management, and then surround it with a wide array of social, consumer, and prosumer functionality that tips everyone's trajectory towards our sun, a little more every day.

Given this broad feature set packed into a single, simple app, we call ourselves a "payments superapp" with the tagline: "One app, all free." But if you can keep a secret, the real long term vision is so much bigger. We are building the first "financial social network", devoted to people who are doing the real work of saving this world, every day.

Save the world.

The last 10 years have been wild. The next 10 years are shaping up to be more of the same. And the next 100 will make today seem quaint. We have a tremendous amount of incredibly important work to do, not just in the office, but in our homes, in our community, and on our streets. The next 100 years won't be defined by technology: they will be defined by people, and all the good and bad things those people choose to do.

We built Expensify from the very start to be the platform for the world to unite, coordinate, combine resources, and execute on all the myriad tasks that society depends upon to literally survive this difficult inflection point in the human experiment. This is a massive undertaking, and as such every aspect of Expensify is designed to support this long term vision. We have been extremely deliberate about who we hire, what we prioritize, when we push, where we market, and how we govern.

We believe social technology should help us achieve our dreams, not distract us from pursuing them. Enough time has been wasted retweeting cat pictures, spreading misinformation, salivating over food porn, salivating over actual porn, or watching people who are old enough to know better tumble off of terrifyingly tall stacks of milk crates.

It's time for us to put aside our silly distractions, come together, and get some serious shit done—and for anyone who answers that call, Expensify will be there.

It's been a long road, and there's so much more to do. I cannot adequately express how proud I am of the team that got us here, how thankful I am for the investors who took a chance on us when nobody else would, and most of all how appreciative I am for our members and customers who made it all possible. I would be honored for you to join us on this journey.

David Barrett

Founder and CEO of Expensify

Questions? Ask me on Twitter! @dbarrett