Entrepreneur Of The Year 2021 winners: Catherine Dahl and Reza Sanaie make the numbers work for accounting automation

Catherine Dahl and Reza Sanaie recently Beanworks, the accounting software businesss they co-founded, for more than $100 million.

The CEO and former CTO of Beanworks recently sold the software business they co-founded for more than $100 million

Catherine Dahl found herself out of a job back in late 2011. Bean Services, the startup she’d joined as COO and CFO the previous year, had just been shut down after its investor pulled all of his money. “We were like, Oh, my God, what do we do?” Dahl recalls of the business, an early developer of accounts payable (AP) automation software. “We had revenue, we had customers, and [founder] Jarrod [Levitan] was like, I can’t keep going, but I think you guys should.”

So six members of the small team formed a new company, Beanworks, over Christmas, then spent 18 months negotiating a deal to inherit its predecessor’s intellectual property and customer base. They also began tackling another challenge, Dahl explains: “The idea was good, but we needed to rebuild the platform completely.”

Dahl, who was born in Halifax and moved a lot as a child because her father was a navy officer, had joined the accounting world in an equally roundabout way. After completing a BComm at Ryerson University, Dahl eventually moved to Vancouver, where she held jobs ranging from finance manager with Canadian Broadcasting Corp. to business manager of the Italian Cultural Centre. Along the way, Dahl realized that she liked process management and accounting, so she went back to school for her certified management accountant (CMA) designation.

Searching for a software developer to help rebuild their product, the Beanworks team soon met Reza Sanaie. Born in Iran, Sanaie had moved to Vancouver with his family when he was 13 after teaching himself programming at 10. Having earned a computer engineering degree from SFU , he worked for the BC Cancer Agency and cybersecurity firm Sophos. Sanaie, who had always wanted to start his own company, quit the latter in 2012 to take a job at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters—only to be turned back at the border several times and denied a work visa.

Becoming a co-founder with Dahl, Cory Cleaver and Tracy Thompson that year was an ideal marriage, he says. “The product-market fit was there, which was something that I had always been chasing, and they were looking for someone to build it for them.” Sanaie spearheaded the software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform’s reinvention, becoming chief technology officer in 2017. “It was very hard to expand upon and scale up,” he says of the original product. “We rebuilt it from scratch.”

At first, Beanworks’ biggest fundraising hurdle was that revenue grew slowly because the founders used the money for research and development, Dahl says.

Then they met local fintech investor Lance Tracey, a big contributor to their first seed round of about $1.6 million. In 2017, Beanworks brought on president and chief revenue officer Karim Ben-Jaafar. “He looked at the product and said, Wow, that’ll sell itself; you just have to put it in front of the right person,” Dahl remembers. “And so he pivoted our sales strategy and turned on our sales engine, and that made all the difference in the world.”

Beanworks also raised $4.5 million in Series A funding from two Vancouver firms, TIMIA Capital and what is now Rhino Ventures. “From there, it just kind of took off,” Dahl remembers. The company followed that in 2018 with a $10-million Series B round.

The Beanworks platform automates the entire process of approving and paying invoices, integrating that service with a client’s accounting software so there’s no need for data entry. Given that accountants are slow to embrace new technologies, the pandemic turned out to be a good thing for the company and for accounting in general, Dahl says. “Everybody got forced to go home, and accountants had no choice but to adopt technology,” she notes. “So that extra few years it took us to be in development and launch our product, that’s where the market caught up. I would say the first company was just too early.”

With two female and two male founders, Beanworks was also an early advocate of diversity and inclusion. Today, its staff hail from around the globe. “Catherine has been a big driver for the diversity movement from day one,” Sanaie says. “It adds resilience to the company and brings a lot of other perspectives to each problem.”

Last year also saw Beanworks courted by Quadient, the France-based mail services giant. With France and other European countries mandating that business-to-business invoicing go paperless in the next few years, Quadient needed to acquire an AP automation platform, Dahl says. It bought Beanworks this March for more than $100 million, having previously purchased U.S. accounts receivable (AR) automation outfit YayPay.

“Seeing what Catherine, Reza and their co-founders built was inspiring,” says Ben-Jaafar. “We could never have achieved the success we enjoyed had they not taken the risk to get the ball rolling with a bold yet viable vision. As impressive as their vision was, their disciplined commitment to execution is what truly sets them apart.”

Sanaie, who had planned to stay with Beanworks for a year after the acquisition, left in June to spend more time with his young family. He’s now giving technical advice to first-time entrepreneurs, helping immigrant tech workers get settled by mentoring them through the Immigrant Services Society of BC and MOSAIC Vancouver—and looking to become an angel investor.

“We wouldn’t be here without the help of all these people that we met and all these communities that we ran across in our journey,” Sanaie explains. “I’m trying to make it slightly easier to build a company in Vancouver.”

Approaching 100 employees as of mid-August, Beanworks is in hiring mode. Being part of its parent company, which has 80 offices worldwide, will enable it to move beyond North America and become a global player, Dahl says. Describing Quadient as the Pitney Bowes of Europe, she points out that it leads its U.S. peer in the pivotal shift to digital mail.

“So now we have them to leap off of, as well as the AR side, which was also where we were going to go next,” she says. “The acquisition of YayPay blended in with Beanworks allows us to be an AR/AP solution, which speeds up all of our plans.”

10 Questions With Catherine Dahl

What was your first summer job?

At Harvey’s, assembling burgers. At the same time, I also lifeguarded at the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa.

Is an entrepreneur born or made?

I’m going to say born. I think it’s a personality style.

Can you learn to be an entrepreneur? To be an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to manage change easily. You’re restless; you’re always seeking out new opportunities. And you can be risk averse to a degree, but for the most part, you need to be willing to take big risks and not be stressed out by it.

You can make yourself and entrepreneur, but I think successful entrepreneurs are typically, by nature, a certain way.

What is your definition of success?

For me, success is, do I achieve my goals over time? And they could be different. So I had a goal to buy a bigger boat. I’ve achieved it—done. Now I’ve got a new goal.

My success was, do I have enough money to retire? Because I had no backup plan—no pension, no significant savings. If anything, I had taken on a crapload of debt and invested it in my company. So getting to that financial success where I don’t have to worry about money—as long as the markets don’t tank—that’s another area of success.

And then a big piece of my success is my children. Have I launched them successfully? My son’s in university; my daughter’s about to go to university. Success has a lot of different meanings for me—family, personal security, that kind of thing.

And then the last part is work. Success for Beanworks for me is if we’re trending over $50 million in AR, then I know that’s a legacy I can leave and that it’s going to continue. The idea that this will be the future of accounting really turned into the future of accounting, that will be my last big success from that perspective. And then I’ll move on to something around more nonprofit, philanthropy-style goals in the future.

What other career might you have had?

I would have followed in my father’s footsteps in the Navy, if women were allowed to be captains, which they weren’t at the time.

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.

People in my company already know this, but I like to sing. I’m a singing and guitar-playing CEO. One of my favourite things to do is write music, sing music. Someday I’d like to be able to actually record it properly, because I’m not that tech-y.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”

More financial supportive vehicles. A friend of mine was trying to apply for a loan—she’s setting up a business on the Island—and she was unsuccessful in getting it. It was only a couple of hundred thousand dollars. And I’m like, That’s a surprise, because I know she’s a crazy entrepreneur. And I said, Well, if it falls through, let’s me know, because maybe I’ll invest.

Coming up with those early bootstrapping dollars is hard. So more financial opportunities are really what entrepreneurs need. Startup money.

What businessperson do you most admire?

I always thought Sheryl Sandberg is good for women in technology. She’s a beacon there at the front. Richard Branson, Elon Musk—they’re really forward thinkers.

I think Jim Collins‘ books are phenomenal. And Patrick Lencioni‘s books are places where I’ve found great learnings.

And Shannon Susko. She’s always been a beacon for me as well. She’s sold two tech companies; she lives in Whistler. Very successful—Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada. She’s taught me a lot of what helped us become successful.

What do you do to relax/unwind? 

I boat. The only way I get off work is to go in the water.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Collaborative. Direct, but collaborative.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing. 

It’s more about what I forget to take home. I usually leave something at the hotel. I left a hairdryer; I left an electric toothbrush. I got that back—never got the hairdryer back.

10 Questions with Reza Sanaie

What was your first summer job? 

Cashier at Safeway.

Is an entrepreneur born or made?  

It’s a combination of both. You certainly have to have the drive (be born with it) and be in an environment that supports you. 

What is your definition of success? 

Having the privilege of giving back and supporting other people’s success. It’s an infinite loop, I know.

What other career might you have had?

At some point in my life I considered a career in law, but soon after I realized I’m better at reading computer scriptures than legal ones.

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you. 

I really enjoy building or fixing stuff with my hands.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”

Support and guidance.

What businessperson do you most admire? 

Elon Musk.

What do you do to relax/unwind? 

Boating in coastal waters. So many things can go wrong when boating, so you have to be laser-focused when driving. This way you get a chance to not think about other things in life and relax.

How would you describe your leadership style? 

Clearly communicate the what and collaborate on the how.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.