Larissa Rocha from Brex on Bringing a Startup from Beta to Unicorn in Six Months
Updated: Jun 24, 2020
Larissa Rocha joined as employee number one when Brex when it was just an idea.
However, before we can truly explore the impact Larissa has had on Brex, helping it go from beta to unicorn in 6 months, we need to pull back the curtain and understand this company’s incredible roots. Starting with the story of Henrique and Pedro, the two founders of Brex.
While attending high school in Brazil, Henrique and Pedro started Pagar.me. The company employed 150 people and was one of the top three players in online statement processing in South America. While Larissa was applying for college in the USA, she met these two incredible entrepreneurs and immediately had such a huge amount of respect for them.
While Larissa went on to attend Harvard (she was the first one in her state to get in to this university), Henrique and Pedro deferred college for two years because they were working on Pagar.me, which they then sold in September of 2016, her senior year at Harvard. These two entrepreneurs then decided to go to Stanford with the plan to stay one year and learn what the newest trends and technologies were, with the goal to start a company that was truly global.
They probably wouldn’t be the best people in the world to build the next #1 VR/augmented reality company because it wasn’t their background
If you know someone else is going to be more qualified to create something great in your industry of choice, then why not choose an industry you can make a real difference in that you’re better suited for?
What they did realize during their time at Y Combinator was that there was a huge problem amongst startups: most traditional banks wouldn’t provide them with a credit card unless the founder put down a personal guarantee.
This isn’t great news because then, as a founder, your assets are on the line and you’re reliable for the company, in addition to having this lower your credit score month-by-month. So, all around, this isn’t an ideal option. On top of that, international founders don’t even have the option of putting a personal guarantee down because they don’t have a credit score to begin with.
To put this in perspective, at least 50% of the expenses for a startup require a credit card – due to the need to buy software, services, etc. In short, startups need a card, not necessarily the credit. And you can have cash in the bank and still not get a credit card from traditional banks.
So, Henrique and Pedro went back to their routes at Pagar.me to solve this problem for their fellow founders. And this is how Brex was born.
Question: You’re the #1 employee at Brex, why did you make the choice to join the Brex team initially?
When I went to Harvard, what drove my decision for figuring out which classes to take and which internships to pursue has always had a lot to do with the people behind it. I wanted to take the classes with the extraordinary professors and I wanted to join clubs where I thought I could learn the most from those people. This wasn’t any different with Brex.
Henrique and Pedro are both incredibly ambitious and had this goal to succeed until the world said, “I don’t know how I did BLANK without Brex.” And that is something that really appealed to me. I really wanted to be building something for the long term that the world would benefit from and know about. Rather than working at company where the end goal is to sell the company and retire early. And, of course, the personal bond I had with them already definitely helped my decision as well.
Q: Is being a part of a startup something you always wanted to do? How did you know startup life was right for you?
My career path was always around the consumer goods industry in college. I partook in internships at Budweiser, Tim Hortons, Burger King, and my senior thesis was about the quick service restaurant industry. That was the path I was going down. I was never in the world of tech. I really fell into the tech startup world because of Henrique and Pedro.
Q: Brex has an incredibly hardworking team, what is the screening process you use to find the most motivated talent?
We’re constantly working to improve this process so that we can truly compare all candidates fairly and objectively. However, there are two specific types of people that we’re constantly looking to hire at Brex.
The first, is filling our VP level positions with people that took a very successful company from Point A to Point B in B2B tech. This is a common characteristic for the leaders and brains in Brex – and very true for the early team at the start. We look for these people because then they know what processes need to be put in place, how to scale the team, what orders of hires to make, how to structure the team to get there, and eventually how to scale those processes.
For our more junior level positions, we’re looking for people that are smart and hungry, and provide them with a chance to grow at Brex.
Anyone who joins our team at Brex needs to be humble enough to know that there is no task beneath them. At a startup, you need to wear multiple hats and work really hard because we don’t have enough people for every single role, so a lot of stuff that wouldn’t normally fall on our lap at a large company is put on your plate here. For example, early on I was doing sales, recruiting, and also taking care of the office. It’s important for us to find someone who is humble to join our growing team.
In addition to having the ability to wear different hats and move into different roles according to the company’s need, they also need to become better than the person who hired them at one or two different areas. The way they do this is not just relying on the manager, but by searching outside of the company and bringing this knowledge back to Brex so they can accel and expand upon the knowledge our company already has.
In essence, we measure everyone’s performance at Brex based on the way they work cross-functionally, and their ability to continue to grow at the rate the company needs.
Q: And what is the recipe for keeping and motivating this talent?
We do a few different things at Brex. The first, is that we tend to hire people that are motivated by long term dreams. You won’t find people at Brex that want to work a couple years, get some experience, and then go somewhere else. The people here are very invested in building something for the long term, and they feel like a crucial building block here at Brex.
Then, once they are here, there are three things that are super important.
It’s important for everyone in the company to know what the goals of the company are for that year or that quarter, and how the work that they are doing fits into those goals. Any given person needs to know how their work is affecting not just the growth of their own team but also the company as a whole. Here at Brex, we don’t show up and do what we’re told, instead, we know what we want to accomplish and we have the autonomy to find the best way to get there.
The manager’s job is really to make sure that their teams feel empowered to do their job in the best way that they can. There’s a lot of trust that goes into the process, and each person is bringing their own journey to the table to help us achieve those results.
This is a bit different, and really hard to do, but we have a very open loop of feedback both for the manager to the contributor, and the contributor to the manager. We created this environment where it is okay for a manager to ask their team, “What is the feedback you are most afraid to give me because you think it’s going to hurt my feelings?” We’ve worked hard to create an environment where communication works both ways. It’s very open and very refreshing because no one holds anything back. And there is less taboo to say what you think because everyone understands it is said with the best intent. It’s something we’ve been doing and it works very well because it helps with the flow of ideas and trust between teams and people.
Q: What do you consider one of your proudest accomplishments so far?
At Brex we always place our customers first, and it was our goal to have an elite customer support team from Day One.
For me, I’m incredibly proud to have built this team at Brex. It wasn’t something I had any previous knowledge of, so it definitely took a lot of time to figure it out. But it’s great to look back now at what I built in the beginning since it is still so crucial to today.
Additionally, doing this instilled a lot of confidence in me because if I could figure this out then I could probably figure out a lot of other stuff then too.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you faced while helping to build Brex, and what did you learn from it?
Definitely technical recruiting early on. In addition to recruiting for a company in stealth mode – there wasn’t anything online about Brex for me to point recruits to – I also was new to San Francisco and didn’t have the network here yet.
I would send out LinkedIn messages and email blasts and receive zero traction. Eventually, we brought in a recruiter in-house because we understood that this wasn’t one of our specialties.
This guy came in and said, “Listen. You are sending 5000 messages every month, and that’s not doing anybody any good. These engineers are receiving hundreds of these messages per month, why would they respond to you? Yours is dull, just like any other company, and Brex isn’t searchable yet. So, instead of writing 5000 spammy messages and doing this traditional route, let’s focus on 500 really incredibly candidates and understand their background. We’ll then write handwritten letters for them, talking about this new secret project that has some pretty cool investors. And we’ll create this element of curiosity to bring them through the door.”
In short, our problem was really getting people through the door, so this handwritten letter approach was a really creative solution for this. I mean, when was the last time you received a handwritten letter?
Q: What is one thing you wish you knew at the beginning of your journey at Brex that you know now?
Definitely the processes and structures we built around a successful interview, and how to successfully identify the skills and experiences you’re looking for in a particular role. It was a very long process to learn how to execute this information in the form of an interview, and how to select the right people within the company. If I knew that earlier on that would have saved us a lot of time and helped us to have hired more amazing people in different areas earlier.
Q: What is one piece of advice you have for founding team members?
There isn’t a formula. I speak with a lot of founders who are like, “Yeah, we’re in the process of fundraising, so we’re going to start reviewing our deck,” and they will then follow up by asking what is the right number of VCs to send the deck to. It seems like a lot of founders may be trying to follow a formula. However, there are so many different ways to get to the end. It’s important to stay open minded about the best way to get there.
At Brex, we raised a lot of funding, but a lot of companies grow really fast without raising anything. So it’s important to understand all different perspectives.
For us, we never sent out a deck through a cold email. Instead, we would take the time to meet with investors and build a relationship with them early on, so we could figure out who we would want to partner with first. Then, once we had a solid relationship, and we knew they were someone that would trust us to do our job, but also someone who we could trust to give us advice and share their network, then we shared our deck.
In short, it’s important to stay open minded and start building a relationship first, rather than following a process that you think is the only one available to you.
Now, for some rapid fire questions!
You spent four years studying at Harvard, what was the one thing that stood out to you about Boston during your time there?
Boston is my adopted city in the U.S. Every time I walked by the Charles River, I absolutely loved seeing that skyline. That image never leaves my mind. Likewise, the community is so strong and everyone is so proud to be a Bostonian. That is very cool aspect that I haven’t seen in a lot of other cities.
What is a myth about starting a company that you wish you could dispel?
That it is all about a process. That fundraising follows a specific formula. There are multiple ways to get to the same end point.
If you could have one superpower, which would you choose?
Definitely teleporting. I’d love to go back to Brazil every weekend and come back on time for work with no jet lag.
Choose a movie title for the story of your life
Want to hear more about Larissa’s experiences going from beta to unicorn startup in six months? Register here to see her at Startup Boston Week.