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Season 2, Ep. 1 – From the beginning

What happens when an idea to hook your friends up with jobs becomes a multi-million dollar talent agency operating on a global scale? In the opener to season 2 of the Frontier Podcast, you’ll learn from Gun.io’s founder and CEO, Teja Yenamandra, exactly how he made it happen.

Faith Benson
Faith Benson

This season, we’re doing things a little differently. Join us as we pull back the curtain on Gun.io and give you a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to build a company over a decade, from bootstrapped beginnings to a Series A.

Listen:

Transcript

Faith  (00:11):

Welcome back to the Frontier podcast. You guys have taken a brief hiatus, but we’re back with Season 2. And Season 2’s gonna be a little bit different than Season 1. We’ve got almost 200 episodes—which is crazy—of the Frontier podcast alive out in the world. And in those episodes, we interviewed folks in the technology industry at large—so CTOs, VPs of engineering…—and we learned about their experiences leading engineering teams. So if that’s what you’re looking for, definitely go back, listen to those episodes. There’s tons of cool, cool nuggets of wisdom in there, but this season is gonna be a little bit different. So, we’re gonna pull back the curtain on our business. Gun.io is a global talent agency focused on software developers, and so this season will share how we run that business. You know, we’re serving some of the world’s most discerning software developers and technology enabled companies, and we wanna share with you kind of our experience doing that over the last 10 years, the troubles that we’ve run into, the challenges, the things that we’ve tried, and how we’re moving forward this year, kind of in a new season of the business, which we’ll talk about soon as well. I’m joined by Teja, obviously Teja, welcome. Teja’s my co-host this season. What are you excited about this season?

Teja (01:34):

Thanks, Faith. Yeah, I’m really excited to give our teammates some shine—the people who are, you know, building the business every day. You know, we get to talk to folks on the sales team, on the engineering team, on the ops team. It’ll be cool, because I think a lot of like tech media is focused on the sort of myth of the founders and the executive team and about like high-flying financial rounds. And that’s the shit that gets good press, but it’s like not actually the thing that builds businesses. It’s like your team, you know, the people everyday showing up, leading their teams, and people actually serving customers. So I’m stoked to give them some shine and give some insight into how the business actually operates.

Faith (02:18):

Yeah, for sure. And I think when I think about our north star for this podcast, it’s like the opposite of a Twitter thread, you know? Like, so often when I’m looking for answers or advice or insight into how other folks have thought about certain problems that we have too, the only thing available are like these Twitter threads that, you know, are just completely unhelpful and obviously are telling that story for a reason. And so I’m hoping that the stories that we share this season will be a little bit more, I don’t know, a little bit more genuine and helpful to folks specifically, you know—If you’re listening, and you’re a leader at a company that’s oriented towards growth small to medium-size, you’re thinking about similar problems as us, I think we’ll have some really helpful insight for you at least sharing, you know, what we’ve tried and what we’ve learned.

And definitely excited to talk to the team as well. Teja mentioned, you know, we’ve got all kinds of folks here behind the scenes, running the show—and I think I’m not alone in my curiosity around what other people do—especially those who like might share a title or a purpose with me. So I’m really excited to interview those teammates, get a sense of what it is they think about every day, what success looks like for them, and how maybe others in the industry can learn from them as well. I guess, to introduce ourselves…Teja, do you wanna go first? What is it that you do here?

Teja (03:51):

Sure. So I’m Teja Yenamandra, and I’m CEO and co-founder of Gun.io. You know, I would say my job primarily consists of three things: One is making sure that the folks that we serve—developers and companies—are satisfied with, you know, what we provide, are happy, and [that] we’re actually providing value. The second thing I think that I do is make sure to attract and retain really good people. So recruiting, I think that’s my second job. And I think my third job is probably around making sure that the organization is financed to the extent that we can accomplish our mission, which involves, you know, doing the first thing, and then doing the second thing. So it’s all about, you know, making sure that, you know, if we have a strategy, we have the capital to go execute it. If we wanna bring somebody on, or if we have people on, they feel happy and well-compensated. So those are the primary things that I do every day.

Faith (05:00):

What do you do when you’re not on the clock here? I know you’re on the clock always, but…

Teja (05:04):

No— I mean, I don’t know if that’s healthy. I mean, I certainly think about work a lot, but I’m definitely not on the clock always. I don’t, you know, I proudly will say that I’m not on the clock always. So when I’m not on the clock, I love training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve grown up training martial arts. So I love doing that, recently got into like hiking, and so—more outdoor stuff, like hiking, mountain biking, road biking…

Faith (05:34):

I didn’t know you were mountain biking.

Teja (05:36):

I’m—yeah! (Faith: That’s cool.) Like, I’m getting into it, I’m getting into it. You know, I can talk to you more offline about it, but it’s sweet. It’s more outdoor stuff. (Faith: Yeah) It’s like Jiu-Jitsu, you kind of do it in a dark gym. It’s not like super well-lit. You know what I mean? 

Faith (05:51):

You’re not getting any vitamin D in there.

Teja (05:53):

No. Yeah, totally. But it’s fun, you know, but sometimes you just wanna go and like, be by yourself. And so yeah, I’ve been getting into that, and when I’m not doing all of those things, I’m a voracious reader. I read a ton. I love reading. Not just non-fiction, but fiction. I read a ton of fiction. And so I’d say those are my primary hobbies, you know? 

Faith (06:20):

They seem very well rounded and healthy.

Teja (06:22):

Well, you know, a life well-lived means that you get joy from a lot of activities, not just one. 

Faith (06:28):

That’s right. You know, I’m gonna put that in the actual quote book of Teja quotes.

Teja (06:36):

How about you?

Faith (06:37):

You know, obviously, I’m the other host—I’m Faith. I’ve been working here with Teja for four years now, actually this month, which is crazy. (Teja: Yup) And I spend my days thinking about growth marketing, so—how are we showing up out in the world? How is that perceived by not just our target audience, but kind of the technology industry at large, and how are we serving that audience? So just making sure that kind of everything that’s forward-facing—that we’re saying—we’re actually following up on and making good on once people join the platform. So obviously, that includes this podcast as well, which I’m super excited about. And when I’m not here in the home office I am…I’m an urban farmer, so I plant lots of stuff that fails and [that] I never get to eat, I take care of chickens in the backyard, and I teach cycling classes. So kind of similar to Teja, spending a lot of time outside, trying to get some movement in when I can, keeping my very lazy dog happy. 

Teja (07:45):

That’s—yeah. And you’re like a—you also teach cycling. That’s pretty rad. 

Faith (07:49):

Yep. Yep, it’s very fun. It’s a great stress-reliever. It’s a very different head space. But I’m learning that all of the alternate, kind of like, passions and activities that we do end up feeding each other, right? Like I’m a better professional here because of the things that I do and think about when I’m teaching a cycling class and vice versa. So it’s always—when we are doing an interview process with new employees, we always make a point to ask, like, talk to us about your whole person. Like, what is it that makes you kind of tick? Because I think that tells us a lot about, you know, what kind of value they’ll add to the team. 

Teja (08:33):

Yeah, totally. I find that to be the case with Jiu-Jitsu, like a lot, because you’re in really uncomfortable situations. Like, you know, I weigh like a hundred and, I don’t know, 50 pounds—160 pounds? But you know, if I have like a 200-pound dude sitting on my chest or like riding my sternum—

Faith (08:53):

It’s like actually uncomfortable.

Teja (08:55):

Yeah. It sucks. And then like, you’re in that situation, and you kind of are like, okay, fuck. I fucked up like ten steps ago, but now I have to kind of figure out how to get out of this while you’re like in really big discomfort. (Faith: Yeah) And so, yeah, I feel like that teaches you a lot about handling stress well and things like that. So yeah. (Faith: Right) And I’m sure it’s very similar to—I mean—cycling is very tough, mentally. It’s like a very tough thing. It’s very painful, and like just needing to push through that is like, yeah. (Faith: Yeah) You know, it takes a lot.

Faith (09:33):

Yeah. It’s very good for your lungs, though. So if you are listening and you want a great lung activity, try cycling while yelling at the same time. 

Teja (09:41):

That’s true. 

Faith (09:42):

Alright. Well, let’s get into it, Teja. We’re gonna get started with our first episode, which you and I recorded a couple days ago, where we talk about the foundations of the business—how Gun.io got founded—and I think that’s gonna set up this season really well, so people really understand what it is we do, the different iterations of the business, kind of how we’ve changed and pivoted over the years, and where we find ourselves today, which is like a really exciting kind of new chapter in the business and what we’re looking forward to and what challenges we’re looking to take on. So let’s get into it.

Teja (10:16):

Let’s do it.

Faith (10:18):

Cool. 

Teja, welcome to the Frontier podcast.

Teja (10:27):

Oh, I’m so excited. Do I have to apologize for my background here? We just moved to a new house, and I haven’t set up anything for like the last two plus.

Faith (10:36)

(Lying) No, it looks great.

Yeah. Nice and clean. It looks Spartan, which is, I think, what people expect out of a CEO. 

(Changing subject) Teja, why don’t you introduce yourself? Tell the fans a little bit about the man behind the screen.

Teja (10:50):

So, my name’s Teja Yenamandra. I’m CEO and founder of Gun.io. I started this business with a good friend of mine, Rich Jones, I don’t know, maybe eight or nine years ago, [in] 2013. We did not set out to build a business. We set out to solve a problem, which was finding devs to help us with our projects and hooking up Rich’s friends, who were devs, with projects. And so that was the humble Genesis—humble beginnings—of this organization. And I never thought that we’d be here a decade later with a great team, an official podcast with great video and audio quality—

Faith (11:34):

Shout out to Riverside.fm. We love you. You’re great. 

Teja (11:38):

Haha, shout out. 

Faith (11:39):

Based in Nashville. Talk to me a little bit about that. I feel like when I tell people that I work for a technology company, you know, we’re a global staffing agency. We focus on really, really high-quality software developers, and we get them great, great jobs, freelance and full-time. And when I tell folks what we do, they’re like, “And you’re based in Nashville? What?” and I think we get that a lot from clients too, who are like, you know, they’re consuming, whether it’s content that we produce or they’re looking at our website, and they just kind of assume that we’re based in Silicon valley or someplace maybe a little bit more traditional. So talk to me about why we landed in Nashville.

Teja (12:22):

Yeah, totally. Well, you’re a New Yorker, and so am I, in some ways—and so I think we probably view Nashville in similar ways. Why are we in Nashville, or how does it feel to run a company in Nashville? Maybe I can tackle the business side of the question first. It feels pretty normal, since we are a fully remote team. You know, I think that’s sort of been our direction, but I think the pandemic kind of accelerated that. I mean, we have an office, so technically we’re a hybrid team. We have an office, sometimes people go to it. It’s a chill spot, but most of us work from home. You know, we have internal teammates all across the world, Brazil, Thailand, now England, Wyoming, all sorts of places. (Faith: Just very—yeah, very cool. And foreign.)

Yes, yes. You know, it feels normal. Like to us, I think it’s normal. You know, you show up, you talk to your colleagues on Slack, you work from home, we see each other occasionally for the happy hours you organize, or things like that. And I think it’s great, honestly. And especially because we run a business for remote work, the, you know, we sort of get how—

Faith (13:45):

Yeah. It matters less, probably, where we’re headquartered in that regard.

Teja (13:49):

Yeah. And like, to be able to work, and travel, and work from whatever city is pretty sick. So, I think quality of life here in Nashville’s pretty good. Despite the, I don’t know, real estate stuff, the affordability still seems pretty good, and yeah, it feels normal to run a software company here. 

Faith (14:09):

And when—Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I remember you saying that when we launched, we went through—there’s a local Nashville accelerator. The Nashville Entrepreneur Center plays a role in our origin story as well.

Teja (14:21):

Yeah, totally. So when we started the business, there was no research into like what’s the ideal city for starting a tech company. (Faith: Right.) And so I happen to live here in Nashville, and Rich happened to live in Berkeley, in California. And we had a third friend of mine, JP, who—he was, man. He was in, call it close-to-Philly, at the time, actually close to Harris- (Faith: Even better.) Like just another city in PA—yeah, exactly. And so we were all remote. (Faith: Right.) We were like, hey, okay, let’s build this business. And I just happened to Google “tech startup Nashville” and found the entrepreneur center. I don’t even remember the exact query, but it was something like how to, who to connect with that was like, you know, just local business people that were doing the same shit as us. And we went down to the EC, at least I went down to the EC, and met some people, but it was never our intention to be like, hey, we want to consciously build a business here. I just happen to be located here. And we had, you know, our sort of initial team elsewhere, and things kind of happened from there, but it could have just as easily been in Berkeley, or in Harrisburg, or where we weren’t thinking about the ideal city to start this. 

Faith (15:46):

Right, Nashville wasn’t like chosen off a map—and I feel like today, actually that is happening. And so it feels, it makes me feel cool that we were on the frontier of that trend of tech companies moving to Nashville, because now like, you know, Oracle, they’re doing full analyses to figure out where to move, and they chose Nashville for, you know, probably much more intentional reasons than we did. 

Teja (16:13):

Yeah. Why’d you pick Nashville? I mean, I know there’s the personal dimension, but do you have like a professional narrative that you, like, give in this?

Faith (16:19):

Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty straightforward. I went to school, I thought I was gonna be an international, like a diplomat living in Northern Africa, and then I was recruited by Teach for America. So I taught in our low-income schools here in Nashville for three years. And with TFA, you get placed in a city or a region you don’t really get to choose. And then obviously I stayed ‘cause I had family here. But also did not— my choice in Nashville was not intentional. And there have definitely been growing pains as a Yankee trying to get used to the south.

Teja (16:53):

Yeah, totally. Well, I was at happy hour this week, and I met some Indian Americans who were from New York, and this might be blasphemous to say, but we were joking, we were like, if there’s another New American restaurant opening in this city, we’re gonna lose our shit. 

Faith (17:14):

Yeah. There’s a lot of, like, Ctrl+C/ Ctrl+V going on with our restaurant options.

Teja (17:20):

Yeah, totally. It’s all good—decent food, but there’s no—it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of variety.

Faith (17:28):

Yeah. If you’re coming to Nashville—if you’re listening to this, and you’re coming to Nashville, email us. We will put you in the right direction. Please do not go to someplace off Broadway. 

You mentioned up at the top of the episode that, you know, when you and Rich got started with Gun.io and its first iteration, your intention wasn’t to build a business, right? It was to solve a problem. And so I’m curious—I kinda wanna dive in a little bit more into that. Like, what was the problem you identified? How did you first try to solve it? And then maybe, like, the fast story of what the past 10 years have looked like trying to solve that problem.

Teja (18:11):

You know, one maybe clarifying point—So my mom lives here, and so, you know, after moving back from China, I was living with her while starting the business. And I was like, well, you know, I needed to get shoulder surgery. It’s easier to do living at your parents’ house. I mean, this is like, I don’t know how old I was—21, 22 at the time. So that was sort of the reason why I was in Nashville. You know, my mom’s a single mom. It’s good to be close to her. That was basically the reasoning. Okay, so to this question, which was, you know, okay—so Rich now went to BU, in Boston. And I thought to myself, I said, if Zuckerberg who went to Harvard can build a billion dollar business, surely two BU idiots could build a million dollar business.

That’s honestly what I thought. I was like, surely this can’t be that difficult to take us like, you know, I don’t know, a couple years. That was it, you know? But we didn’t anticipate building a full-fledged organization or anything, you know? I mean, I knew we could generate revenues. We had grown up kind of, you know, building things in our own respective ways, but I had never seen like a real business—you know, my—Indian immigrants start like a gas station or like some sort of thing, you know; they’re not like, legitimate, huge Fortune 500 companies. Although, now a bunch of immigrants run these Fortune 500 companies. It just, that’s not, kind of what I grew up around. 

Faith (19:43):

You didn’t have like an archetype that you were trying to fit into.

Teja (19:47):

No, no, certainly not. But I think Rich—because he was at Berkeley and studied computer science and stuff—unlike me, he was surrounded by like, successful models of what a hyper-growth tech startup looks like and could be like. I think he had a clear sense [of] Hey, we could do this, we could turn this into a real thing. But I think all of us, we were just fixated on like, how do we get to revenue? And the way to get to revenue was like, disregard getting an office, disregard any of the trappings of starting a business, and just like go and sell customers. 

Faith (20:24):

Do you remember the first customer? 

Teja (20:27):

Do our — (SIGH) 

Faith (20:28):

Come on!

Teja (20:30):

That—No. I’m sure it’s in Stripe. I’m sure. Like, I’m sure the data is in Stripe. I mean, I remember like talking to the CTO of PubNub, which is a big tech company. They may have sold to some other company by now, but I remember just cold calling all these companies on AngelList to get our customers, and PubNub was one of them. And this was back in the day, when I think the world wasn’t yet saturated with outbound sales reps and so much content, you know, being created. 

Faith (21:03):

Yeah, we still get traffic from Rich’s blog posts, which are like just the most ridiculous like—or maybe one was written by you—about switching to caffeine pills from coffee?

Teja (21:17):

No, that was him. I would never do something like that. 

Faith (21:20):

But it’s like sound SEO strategy, but it’s…yeah. It’s funny that like so much of the strategies that now we think are oversaturated and maybe overused, and we’re trying to think outside the box, and not use those strategies—10 years ago, we’re on the frontier, and that created a foundation of success that we’re still kind of riding on today in many respects.

So, how did we get the first developers on the platform? I mean, these days we’ve got tens of thousands of developers with accounts on Gun.io, smaller subset of those folks are personally vetted by our Dev Rel team, senior software devs who are, you know, professional interviewers essentially. Yeah. (Teja: Right.) I think we have a different set of challenges today with this kind of model under our feet, but you know, 10 years ago, when you’re cold calling people on AngelList, what devs were you trying to get hired? Like did we have a database of folks? Was it kind of Rich’s network that we were essentially like white-glove-agency-ing into a job? Like what was the story there?

Teja (22:32):

I mean, there were certainly some of our friends who signed up who were just devs that we kind of knew from, you know, the real world, but then a lot of devs found us through Hacker News. And that was a big source of not only devs, but also companies. And you know, what you found on HN was, like, a lot of folks were starting companies, were technical, and were devs, and maybe needed to supplement their income or just wanted more income, and so they’d take on freelance projects. And so a lot of initial devs were our friends, or people who just found us through HN, ‘cause we posted a blog or something like that—about caffeine pills, let’s say—on Hacker News or, you know, we write comments.

I mean, I remember this. This actually was really motivating, ‘cause at this point, we had just made our website, and like, we’re connecting people, and kind of getting things figured out. And I remember replying to a comment, I think, on some thread. And in your profile, you know, you say what you do. And so some dude was like, “Hey, I saw that you guys run Gun.io. Your site helped me pay for my Jeep Wrangler.” And this dude, we had never met. I don’t even know—I don’t even remember where he lives, but I was like, holy shit. This dude found a project on our site, made money, and now bought a thing that he wanted to buy. Like, that’s sick. That was really cool. It’s ‘cause it’s like we’re creating economic opportunity just through the internet for these people, and therefore, for us. And that was really—I mean, it was incredible.

Faith (24:16):

Yeah. I always tell people, especially—I do a lot of our internal hiring here. And when people ask me what’s unique about our team and kind of how we run the business, I always talk about how uniquely motivated you are, Teja, by creating economic opportunity for people around you. And I just, I think that that’s really unique and also necessary for someone who’s running a global talent agency, right? You can’t approach this kind of work wanting to just get personally rich, and say “F-you” to everybody else. And so I think that kind of sets you up, obviously, to do really well in this industry. So I’m curious—Like, the business has obviously changed a lot over the years. You mentioned this guy found a project on a site and then paid for his Jeep Wrangler, and we didn’t even know him. And that is not how our business runs today. It’s very different. And so there’s been several iterations. So I’m curious, if you had to kind of bucket them into epochs, how would you do that?

Teja (25:22):

Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve never organized my thoughts in that way.

Faith (25:29):

Season one, what did season one look like?

Teja (25:32):

Yeah. The tricky thing is figuring out how to like—what marks the end of a season, and the new season. Yeah. Let’s work backwards. Probably easiest. So whatever iteration we’re on right now, I think about it like— I mean, Wade joined us. Wade was a dev on the platform. He was, you know, basically up my ass trying to tell us how to build product-

Faith (25:58):

Years ago, years before we even broke down on the app. 

Teja (26:03):

Yeah. And we had basically, you know, the initial first version of the business was like a job board app. But what we found is in order to actually provide, and assure, and make sure projects go well, there was like a lot of post-hire management that we needed to do, and we just couldn’t evolve the product fast enough to handle the things that were important after the hire. So we just were like, fuck it. You know, if we need to provide value, we’re gonna do that through human beings for whatever way—through off the shelf (inaudible) things. And we kind of let our product languish, you know? And so Wade was like—one of the loudest voices, I should say—one of the most persuasive voices to be like, Hey, we need to, you know, make this a core part of our strategy again. So whatever the current iteration of the business that we’re on, I would say a lot of it started with refocusing on being a true technology business, first and foremost. I’d say that’s probably the last couple of years. Previous to that, I think is right when we started working together; when we were sort of more of like, a managed services or staffing company, you know? I mean, okay—you did this exceptional positioning work. How would you position us today?

Faith (27:23):

We are a global talent agency, and we’re propped up by custom software that we’ve felt that makes us really, really, really good at doing that.

Teja (27:33):

Yeah. Awesome. And so that last part we didn’t have, probably, (Faith: Right) before this iteration, and then maybe the first iteration. So I guess it was three seasons. The first season was like, we were a job board. (Faith: Right) So, we were a job board. Then we became like a staffing, you know, like a remote dev shop, basically. And now, we’re a global talent agency run by software.

Faith (28:02):

Teja, I feel like we’re on the cusp of a really awesome season of change here, and we’ll get into that in our next episode together; but I’m really curious to hear, if you were to look out over the next year, maybe two years, what do you think are the biggest changes people can expect to see from Gun.io? Or maybe not changes that are gonna be tangible, like publicly, but ones that internally on the team we’re going to experience?

Teja (28:42):

And I think this might even be a surprise, but one of the things that we’re really intent on in the next year or two is to broaden the focus of the business from not just software, but to all types of knowledge work. And so that’s really exciting. I think for us is to start expanding beyond software development, into marketing and sales—sort of branch out into for other forms of knowledge work. And that’s motivating because, you know, as much as we love software engineering, it’s fun to be involved in other parts of the sort of, I don’t know, company building skillset. (Faith: Right) You know what I mean? So that’ll be cool. Should I talk about fundraising? 

Faith (29:28):

You can tease it. We’re gonna talk about it in the next episode. Yeah.

Teja (29:31):

Okay. So, tease: So there might be an update on fundraising, based on when this next thing is released. 

Faith (29:38):

Cool. Lots of exciting stuff. Alright, Teja. Well, we’re going to come back in a couple days with a full episode on how the last 10 years have gone for us being a bootstrap business, but also a business that defaults to profitability, and what it’s been like for us these last few months, deciding to take on possibly around funding, what that experience has been like in this economy, and kind of the challenges we foresee over the coming months and years. So, you guys can find Teja on Twitter. I lead marketing here at Gun.io, and we’re pretty active on the Gun.io Twitter account. You can find us there, and I am always trying to get Teja to write some Tweets and get on the platform. So if you wanna talk to him, you can find him on Twitter.

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