The Vancouver startup making purchasing software sexy

Co-founder and CEO Aman Mann does things a little differently.

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Co-founder and CEO Aman Mann does things a little differently

On a Friday afternoon in March, Aman Mann is frantically searching through cabinets in one of the conference rooms at his downtown Vancouver office.

“Just looking for a sloth suit,” Mann says as he continues to rummage. Eventually he pulls out a full-body costume, complete with sloth head. “Hah, found it!”

The co-founder and CEO of Procurify, a Vancouver startup that develops purchasing software for companies, says he isn’t comfortable getting his photo taken in his regular clothes, so he insists on wearing the getup. (The company’s mascot is a sloth named Dash that represents the old ways of doing things. To complete the metaphor, he’s depicted in a rocket ship to signify Procurify shaking up the system.)

Mann rambles up two floors to the top of the building, sloth suit in one hand, a Hey Y’all in the other. On the roof, he’ll talk about—among many other things—the snares of startup culture, getting seed money from Mark Cuban, why he refuses to go to Silicon Valley and Thomas Edison. He’ll also (seemingly genuinely) invite our photographer to Burning Man.

The 34-year-old greets people with a fist bump and leaves them with a hug, which, when you’re wearing a sloth suit, is somewhat fitting.

It would all be quite weird if it weren’t in line with what Procurify is about: doing things differently. Sure, many tech companies talk of promoting fun and culture in the workplace. That’s why craft beer on tap and weekly yoga sessions are usually more punchlines than actual perks.

But underneath the fur is a man who wants his company to be one of the first names that comes to mind when you think of Vancouver (and Canadian) tech businesses. He thinks his team can get there by selling procurement software.

Crazy, right? Maybe.

Mann and Procurify’s two other founders, Eugene Dong and Kenneth Loi, CTO and COO, respectively, began working on the idea for the company in Dong’s parents’ basement in Burnaby after meeting in BCIT’s business management program in 2011.

There have been many lessons along the way, but for Mann, none was more vital than understanding what he calls the three most important drivers of an organization: people, process and systems. “Systems is about technology, process is about workflows and how you manage things, and people is about change management,” he says in a slightly raspy tone. “No matter how crazy your technology, if you don’t have all three connecting, none of it matters; it’ll all break at some point.”

There is no such thing as failure

Mann, Dong and Loi quickly realized that there was a gap in the procurement market. To maximize efficiency, businesses use software to make payments, track purchases and quickly analyze their financial data. At the enterprise level, players like German multinational SAP and California-based Coupa Software dominate the industry. But for smaller businesses that can’t throw big dollars at the issue, there remained a lack of options. 

So the trio started developing Procurify, with an emphasis on an easy-to-use platform that would let companies streamline payment processing. They pitched it to anyone who would listen. They had business cards made and eventually landed their first client, a company in the aerospace industry. It was enough to move out of the Dong family home and into a Burnaby office that cost $300 a month. “Unbelievably ghetto” is Mann’s way of describing the place, and he would know: it was his home for six months after the daily commute from his native Abbotsford became too much.

However, Mann and crew were still having trouble navigating the startup landscape. In particular, getting funding was something of a problem. 

“Startup Canada came to Vancouver and asked people, ‘What was your aha moment?’ And I was so frustrated, I just said, ‘I’m going to tell you why I will never have aha moments,’” Mann recalls. “And I guess they liked it because they wanted me to pitch in front of 450 people. We went there only because the first-place prize was meeting Ryan Holmes. I wanted to meet him because he was the person who’s done the one really big thing in Vancouver, who’s been successful in that realm.”

While preparing their pitch, the team wrestled with the question of whether potential investors would consider their product attractive. Was it sexy enough?

“We went there and thought, OK, no one is going to give a shit about purchasing software; it’s just not sexy,” Mann recalls. They put a card under each seat in the room. On one side: the word “grateful.” On the other: “There is no such thing as failure, only outcomes.”

As Mann explains it, “Thomas Edison said that he didn’t find the one way to make a light bulb; he found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb. It’s the reality that if you try something and you look at it as an outcome, you can shift to the next outcome and the next one. And if you look at it as failure, you’re never going to look past that to see the next place to go. And that was really what we talked about.”

He takes a few beats, sips his Hey Y’all and finds the smile that has momentarily eluded him. “And we didn’t win. And I didn’t get to meet Ryan Holmes. But we got second place, and got either a $1,000 Xbox package or lunch with an investor.”

The investor turned out to be Boris Wertz, founder of Vancouver-based Version One Ventures. With Wertz’s help, Procurify was able to get into tech accelerator GrowLab Ventures (now Highline). From there, a cold email to Mark Cuban resulted in the U.S. billionaire and Shark Tank personality becoming an investor in Procurify. Thanks to his seed funding, the company was able to move into a Richmond office, and it wasn’t long before more clients joined in on the fun.

It’s a process

In 2014, when Procurify was looking to leave its first spot in Richmond for a bigger space, Mann and company enlisted Colliers International agent Peter Muench, who excels at finding new homes for burgeoning tech companies.

When evaluating whether to take on a client, Muench always considers product, he notes. But more important to the realtor is believing in the team behind it. “He’s one of the more visionary guys…the level of passion and excitement he had for the service just blew me away,” Muench says of Mann. “He almost convinced me to leave Colliers in the first year that I was there. Because when I went out and met him, you got the feeling that wherever 

the bus was going, you wanted to be on it. They were in Richmond and hiring at a faster clip and a better talent rate than the tech companies downtown. There was something inherently charismatic about every facet of the company.”

It’s a sentiment that rings true when talking to people about Mann and the energy the business exudes. Matt Lim started at Procurify in 2013 but wasn’t sure it would last long: “When I joined this company, I actually was going to go to Australia with my partner,” Lim says. “I remember telling her, ‘Oh, this is only going to take three months.’ It should have failed so many times, and it just kept surviving, like a cockroach. And people just kept joining.”

Lim, now head of marketing, credits much of that to Mann. After leaving Procurify for about two years (“started a couple companies, didn’t want to do them anymore”), he came back because of the co-founder’s vision for the business.

“He’s always wanted to grow a tech enterprise in Vancouver. And there’ve been so many points where he’s had investor pressure to move to San Francisco, because that’s the tech playbook. But he’s resisted that forever because he wants to build the community here and show that Vancouver has the potential to compete with the world.”

The move to Vancouver from Richmond happened around the same time the team raised $7 million in Series A funding. Since then, Procurify has kept expanding in the same building. It’s also won clients like San Francisco–based work management platform Asana, Elon Musk–founded infrastructure firm the Boring Company and U.S. marine transportation firm Canal Barge. Oh, and Hootsuite founder Ryan Holmes and Mann eventually did meet. Holmes was a pre–Series A investor in Procurify.

“I really like what they’re doing, think the senior leadership is fantastic,” says Dylan Freeze, a former program manager with the BC Tech Association who now specializes in the BC Tech Fund as an analyst with the Vancouver office of Toronto-based  Kensington Capital Partners, which manages the $100-million provincial government vehicle. “They found a real strong niche in the market and capitalized on it well. From what I’ve heard, their customers are emphatically happy about the product itself.”

Muench has overseen three new real estate deals for Procurify in the five years he’s been working with the company, something he says is pretty standard for an outfit at its stage. But the first thing he thinks of when talking about Procurify is a car ride he took with the leadership team soon after meeting them: “I remember we were driving around Richmond and they were like, ‘This street is going to be renamed Procurify Avenue.’ And it wasn’t arrogant, or at all conceited. It was aspirational.”

For the people

As Mann likes to mention whenever he can, people are of utmost importance at
Procurify. That was a major takeaway  from some of his earlier ventures that didn’t work out. It also goes back to something he learned growing up poor in Abbotsford. The son of Indian immigrants, Mann saw “what it’s like when you have to shut your doors and tell people that” from his father, who tried a couple of business ideas that ultimately failed. “So maybe inadvertently this direction has led me to try to help people to keep their doors open because I know the pain of what it’s like when you have to shut down.”

Today, Procurify has more than 100 “team members,” and policies like Fun O’ Clock Fridays—the office gets a keg and stops working at 4 p.m.—and lunch-and-learns, where members can present a lecture on a topic of their choosing, from the planet Jupiter to the perfect butter chicken recipe. There’s also responsible time off, which gives employees unlimited vacation days to use at their discretion. So far, no one has abused the system. “When you choose to come here, you come here because you want to do something, you want to be excited, you want to be motivated,” Mann says.

As Procurify heads down the road to another round of funding—the company didn’t want to reveal too much detail at press time—more hiring will undoubtedly commence, and keeping what it has in place is essential.

But life at Procurify isn’t for everyone. “It’s challenging setting expectations for new hires and how wild and difficult it actually is going to be,” says Megan Murphy, head of people and culture. “Finding those people who are going to want to join a team and build something together; it’s going to take awhile, and things are going to change fast.”

Adds director of operations Philip Gray: “The job you got hired to do, in two years, there’s zero chance you’re doing that job.”

That can be tough to accept. “You bring new people onboard, and you tell them, We’re going to double in size this year, and they say, Well, that sounds irresponsible,” Gray says. “But you try to explain that’s just what you have to do to get to that profitability range or hit that growth metric you need to raise subsequent rounds to get to your billion-dollar valuation.”

Back on the roof, Mann, his greying beard belying his youthful exuberance, looks out at the Vancouver skyline. It’s probably easy to marvel at how far he’s come, but mostly he wants to discuss the future. There’s no shortage of things to be excited about. Procurify is looking to launch its own debit card. The company has just hired a VP of product who learned under Mann’s old mentor, Boris Wertz. And “spend culture,” the buzz phrase it’s trying to embed into boardrooms across North America, seems to be taking hold. (It refers to the shared beliefs, values and practices that inform spending money within a business.)

“I don’t know where we’ll be a year or two from now, but if we can focus on genuinely building a culture, I don’t care about today,” Mann says, his stare focused and his voice low. “I care about the company we become. My outcome isn’t tied to monetary; I don’t give a shit about that. I come from a life where I’m grateful for this right now. This is 100 times more than I ever grew up with. I just want us to build something that means something.”

That means giving people what he’s found.“When I see people walk into this space, and they say, Man, this is better than I’ve ever had it, I feel so confident in myself, I feel my own potential, that to me is a win. That makes me feel like we’re doing something.”