- Unqork, a no-code software company that’s raised over $414 million in funding, faced a lot of ageism from VCs.
- CEO Gary Hoberman, over 40 years old, was determined to prove older executives can lead successful companies.
- The team values its extensive knowledge in financial services and the public sector, and focuses continuously on diversity.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Back in 2017, “no-code” software startup Unqork was in the thick of pitches to venture capitalists when the company’s founding team began to hear a certain refrain.
“You’re too old, you’re not entrepreneurial enough, you don’t know how enterprise sales works,” Founder and CEO Gary Hoberman, then 45, told Insider, repeating some of the comments. “Meanwhile, I have eight patents.”
“You’re too old” eventually made it to the company’s 20-foot wall of quotes inside their first New York City offices, a reminder to turn negatives into positives.
“It became our inspiration,” Hoberman said.
As Unqork nears its four-year anniversary in February, it’s raised more than $414 million in funding and was valued at $2 billion in 2020. Backers include BlackRock, which led its latest Series C round, and Goldman Sachs. During the pandemic, Unqork has also gained kudos for helping New York and other cities build sites and apps to serve needy residents.
Besides the platform, which allows enterprises to create software without writing tons of code, its secret sauce is the expertise the leadership team has amassed over their lengthy careers. Their experiences, networks, and insights about enterprise software — in the highly-regulated insurance and financial services, government, and healthcare sectors — led them to develop a platform that solves very specific pain points for its institutional target markets.
And, the team said, these experiences helped establish credibility so vital in turning prospects into clients.
“Everyone left a pretty prestigious job in order to make a difference in the world and improve it, to do more good for the world,” Hoberman said. “And we’re doing that now.”
Building relationships and enterprise expertise
For some time, it’s been public knowledge that founders over a certain age — 32 — are routinely dismissed if they don’t fit the stereotypical profile of a tech prodigy turned mogul. That’s partly why the median age of workers in tech is 25 to 35, compared to the national median of 42.
Yet, at Unqork, only one person on the 11-member leadership team is under 40. For most, Unqork is a second or third act.
Hoberman began his tech journey in Queens, learning to code using Pascal programming language. Later, after graduating from New York University, he joined Wall Street and eventually became a managing director at Citigroup, overseeing $7 billion in managed spend. Hoberman joined MetLife in 2012 and became its global CIO, leading nearly 10,000 developers.
During that time, Hoberman developed several patents, a few of which are still used in financial services today, according to Unqork.
Along his journey, Hoberman said he met people who impressed him for a variety of reasons, including their ability to drive their teams to deliver and trustworthiness. When he decided to start Unqork, those people were at the top of his list as team members.
He also sought diversity in thought.
“Never hire anyone like yourself,” he said. “Once you say you’re not going to hire people like you, it automatically creates a diversity of thought, to make sure you’re being challenged.”
Among the first who fit that criteria on the initial seven-member team were Sharon Rodriguez, now Unqork’s chief customer officer, and Jane Tran, its head of solutions. Hoberman had met both while they were at MetLife, brainstormed with them early on and, with Rodriguez in particular, wrote Unqork’s 140-page business plan.
As the founding team pitched their platform around 2017 and asked for feedback from VCs, the ageist comments surfaced. At the time, ageism in tech discussions were just emerging.
Tran, a millennial, said the comments surprised her at the time.
“Surprised that we weren’t 22 from Stanford or whatever, that our ideas weren’t seen as good or as cool,” Tran said.
Taking away pain points, sometimes on the spot
The team forged ahead, going after insurance clients first because they knew that industry best. Working with smaller units inside large enterprises helped them land some early successes.
“In a global company, there’s a global framework,” Rodriguez said. “If you solve a problem in one country, you find that they scale the solution.”
One early client had struggled for seven years with an issue in its Colombia operations. Rodriguez flew in and within three days, she had the Unqork-based solution completed.
“I was the QA team, interpreter for requirements, translating Spanish, Spanglish, English,” Rodriguez said. “We took that gamble and we made it work. Then they told the next guy.”
VCs started coming around. In 2019, Unqork raised $22 million in its Series A round led by Goldman Sachs. By the time Unqork announced its Series B total of $131 million, its clients included Liberty Mutual, John Hancock, HSBC, and Maimonides Medical Center.
A critical part of the sales process is meeting with the CEO or other decision makers who can greenlight enterprise-level projects, Hoberman said. In those meetings, the goal is to connect what executives are thinking with what’s happening on the ground.
“I tell them in five minutes, I can build whatever [you’ve] been working on for two years,” Hoberman said. “The number one thing is for them to be skeptical.”
The team then demonstrates how the platform can create software to solve the particular problem at hand. Sometimes, that first trial happens on the spot.
“We definitely are the adults in the room,” Rodriguez said. “We have the real deal conversations and say, ‘Oh, that’s not going to work.’ Then we say this is where we need to go, then we make a management agreement.”
Cas Holloway, head of public enterprise, follows that model as Unqork grows its public sector clientele. As a former New York City deputy of operations in the Bloomberg administration, among other roles, Holloway had “deep frustrations” with how long it took to develop technology needed in that sector. Holloway was also not a fan of the general nature of product demonstrations that tech companies took when pitching him.
With those two immediate opportunities for improvement in mind and his contacts, Holloway began knocking on doors. And, once in, pitching with specific use cases tailored to each agency.
“It was really the relationships that really gets you in the door for that first meeting,” Holloway said. He’d tell them, “We have this platform, here’s what I think it can do. Let us do a proof of concept for you, show you that it can work.”
When COVID-19 struck New York City, Unqork had completed a few proofs of concept. By February, when the city called to assist with delivering meals to residents in need, Unqork had already gone through those POCs and the city’s procurement process for vendors.
“Selling the product effectively requires [knowing] what the outcomes are that you can get,” Holloway said. “Because the people you’re talking to — that’s what they care about.”
Creating a diversity model
Such deeper levels of understanding is one reason startups with older founders at the helm are more likely to succeed than those founded by younger people, diversity experts said.
Their connections alone are critical to gain entry and their networks tend to inspire them, said Stela Lupushor, founder of Amazing Community, an advocacy group for older workers and women in tech. In addition, she said, people with long careers are more likely to see the patterns and have a higher likelihood of bringing an innovation that works.
Plus, they’re more resilient, Lupushor added.
“They’ve gone through their first pair of glasses,” Lupushor said. “By 45, you’ve had so many cuts and bruises, you’re much more resilient and willing to fight for what you have the passion for.”
Beyond the leadership team, Unqork’s nearly 400 employees reflect the demographics of other tech startups, its leaders said. Their goal, no matter the company’s makeup at any one point in time, is to build a culture reflective of Unqork’s core values.
That’s why in the early days when they were hiring engineers, Rodriguez said she proactively sought women candidates to add to the pool of men applicants. Rodriguez and Tran also started Women at Unqork, an employee resource strategy group, partly to teach people that tech isn’t scary nor the domain of technologists. In 2020, Unqork hired Netta Jenkins to lead its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
“It’s so we don’t emulate a bad model, but to create a new one,” Rodriguez said.
Tran added they’re setting the tone, having in-depth conversations about being a woman, having a disability, and other ways people live, and creating processes and targets to build equity.
In the day-to-day, those acts may be as simple as Hoberman inviting a promising student to interview. Or, when an employee delivers, no matter their age or position, putting them in front of a CEO client to demonstrate a solution — technologist or not.
“The platform itself is the great equalizer,” Hoberman said.
Plus, Hoberman said, “There’s no assholes allowed in the company.”