Mikita Mikado of PandaDoc

Founder Coffee episode 020

I’m Jeroen from Salesflare and this is Founder Coffee.

Every two weeks I have coffee with a different founder. We discuss life, passions, learnings, … in an intimate talk, getting to know the person behind the company.

For this twentieth episode, I talk to Mikita Mikado, founder of PandaDoc, one of the leading proposals and quotes solutions for sales people.

Mikita pursued the American Dream and moved from Belarus to the US to start a company. At first he flipped burgers, worked in moving, in cleaning, … He took every job he could get. Then he started a web design business, got into extensions for content management systems, and then into documents solutions for sales people.

In a period of only four years, Mikita built a company of about 160 employees focusing on learning, making an impact and having fun.

We talk about how he grows the culture that makes PandaDoc special, why he spends most of his time communicating and strategizing, and his favorite hobby, surfing.

Welcome to Founder Coffee.

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Jeroen: Hi Mikita. It’s great to have you on Founder Coffee.

Mikita: Hi Jeroen. Happy to be here.

Jeroen: You’re the Founder of PandaDoc. For those of us who are not so much into documents and things, what does PandaDoc exactly do?

Mikita: PandaDoc helps to make sales customer-centric with beautiful digital proposals, contracts, signatures, payments, and workflows around those documents. That’s what we do.

Jeroen: Is it mostly a thing in which you design documents or is it more around the signatures or the workflows or is it all of that in a very horizontal way?

Mikita: All of that in a very horizontal way. We basically plug into your CRM system, allow you to build a library of templated collaterals – be that proposals, contracts or quotes. Then your sales team can save tremendous amount of time generating those documents, delivering those documents to the end customers, collaborating with the customers, and negotiating the deals. Then finally, enabling the end client to sign on the dotted line.

Jeroen: Yeah, yeah. It’s the whole document process. But all around sales, if I hear it well.

Mikita: Yeah, sales is our focus.

Jeroen: Okay. Is this because you were a salesperson yourself before or where did this exactly come from?

Mikita: Well, the idea we could say was born from the internal pain. I did have to sell. Many years ago, my co-founder and I ran a software company and we built software for others. We had to do a lot of sales proposals, and we found the process to be extremely tedious, and we wanted to build something that would solve that internal problem.

We built a product, not PandaDoc, had a decent success with that product, and the product aimed at just small web design agencies, helping them to do proposal automation. Then we discovered that there are a lot more documents involved in the sales process, and a lot of the clients that purchase that product used it for more than proposals – for contracts, for SOWs, for invoices, and yada, yada.

Yeah, that’s the story behind PandaDoc. I’m going to say four and a half years ago, maybe even five years ago, we came up with the idea, a horizontal, all-in-one, quote-to-cash software. We launched it about three and a half years ago.

Today, PandaDoc helps close to 10,000 sales teams to be customer-centric, and to be more efficient, more effective.

Jeroen: Yeah. You’re saying you had a software business with your co-founder. Is your background in software?

Mikita: Yeah. I’m a software engineer by trade.

Jeroen: And you are from Belarus, correct?

Mikita: That’s correct, yeah.

Jeroen: You grew up in Belarus, studied software engineering. What is it exactly that you did afterwards? Did you have any jobs before you had the software company with your co-founder or was that the first thing out of college?

Mikita: I had all kinds of jobs. I had jobs when I was a kid. I used to wash cars, and I used to sell berries on the farmer’s market. Then I used to do work in construction, and sell whatever I can sell, be that Pogs. I don’t know if you remember those or Nintendo cartridges or mobile cell phones. You name it.

Then I got this really good opportunity to go to the US. I took it, had about $400 in my backpack, and I flew to Honolulu, Hawaii. There, I had all kinds of random jobs. I had been bartending. I worked at the airport flipping burgers, at a café. I did moving. I did cleaning. Like, you name it. All kinds of labor jobs you can do out of Craigslist, I probably did them all.

Well, maybe not casual encounters. I skipped that one, but for the most part, I kept myself busy.

Jeroen: Was that before or after you studied computer science or engineering or during the same?

Mikita: While.

Jeroen: While, okay.

Mikita: Yeah.

Jeroen: One hand flipping burgers and the other one coding.

Mikita: It’s funny, but that actually what it was. During the day, I was flipping burgers. During the night, I was trying to catch up on school back in Belarus because while in the US, I had to transfer to study remotely, so that I get a degree. Plus additionally, in Belarus, if you don’t go to school, you go to military for a couple years, and it’s very different. For the most part, you just shuffle snow there, so I figured I better get that degree.

Jeroen: Yeah. Did you go together with your family to the US or was that all alone?

Mikita: It was just me.

Jeroen: It was just you.

Mikita: Yeah.

Jeroen: What was exactly then the opportunity that made you go to the US without your family, studying at a distance?

Mikita: I mean, the average salary in Belarus was something like $300 or $400 a month. It’s not that much, as you can imagine. So I wanted to be able to build, I always wanted to have and run a business. I thought that, I don’t know why, but probably the American dream is very well-marketed, so I really thought America is the best place to do that.

Yeah, I wanted to do something meaningful in my life. I wanted to have a decent living, have a decent living for my family. So I packed my suitcase and I moved to the US.

Jeroen: Cool. Did you do anything between studying and this startup with your co-founder?

Mikita: Yeah. I had a web design shop. When I just got to the US, I did all kinds of random jobs, but I started with setting up a website and doing some SEO on that website, driving, slimming down traffic, driving some inquiries for Craigslist about web design. I turned that into a small business.

I had one employee and myself, and I also had a few people I contracted from Belarus. My co-founder was one of them, and we were friends back in the university prior to that. That was actually our first journey. We built websites together.

Jeroen: Okay. Then you transitioned somehow into building software.

Mikita: Yeah, we started with websites, then we built a bunch of extensions for different web content management systems. We put them online, started selling them. Through those extensions, we also got clients to customize, modify those extensions, do things that are more complex.

At some point, I decided to pack my things, and go back to Belarus to be able to hire people, and build a software business – which is what I did. I want to say that was 2007 when we started that company. We grew it to like 30 employees. Then Quote Roller, which is the proposal product, and PandaDoc came around. That’s another story.

Jeroen: Is your co-founder still based out of Belarus?

Mikita: No, he moved.

Jeroen: He moved?

Mikita: He moved to the US. About two and a half or three years ago. Now he runs our Florida office.

Jeroen: Okay. It seems that you were always into building startups. What is it that interested you so much in that?

Mikita: I don’t know. I just like building. I loved Legos when I was a kid.

Jeroen: It’s the building.

Mikita: Yeah. I like the process, putting things together, getting them started, seeing them succeed or fail. I kind of enjoy it.

Jeroen: Any specific things? Is it more company, more product, more brand or is it just all of them?

Mikita: All of them, yeah. I wouldn’t say there’s one that I love the most. I like them all.

Jeroen: If you see yourself building these things, are there any other startups or founders that you’re looking up to that you’re like, “Wow. The things they built are just amazing. I wish we would be more like that?”

Mikita: I mean, I look up to a lot of people and a lot of companies. I try to learn as much as possible from them. If you think of any well-known SaaS brand, there’s going to be a story of a lot of work and a lot of struggle behind them. It’s really, really hard. Yeah, there are a lot of people and a lot of companies that I look up to and I admire.

Jeroen: Right. What is exactly your ambition with PandaDoc right now?

Mikita: There are three things that my co-founder and I deeply care about.

The number one is that we want to learn and progress, and get better what we do. Number two is we want to make an impact, and when we started the business, the impact we wanted to make is to have like 1,000 companies using our product. That sounded really, really cool. Then it changed. It became 10,000. Then it changed. It became 100,000. Then it changed again.

It was like, okay, so making our customers successful is really cool. It’s amazing. It’s a hell of an impact, but how about we look around. Dude, people are building careers at PandaDoc.

We’re having a blast, they’re having a blast. We’re all learning. We all are making an impact. The impact that the business started to make on people’s lives, on their careers is also huge. The internal impact aspect of it added, is quite amazing.

If I can help someone to build a career, hell yeah, that’s awesome. The impact is a very big part of the ‘why we are doing what we’re doing’.

Then finally, we want to have fun. As long as we’re learning, as long as we’re making an impact, and we’re having fun, we’re good. Those are the key values and they say that values aren’t goals, and I would agree with that, but for me, they are so close together that it’s very, very hard to separate.

Yeah, I want PandaDoc to be a successful business. I want PandaDoc to be a place where people are learning, where we are making an impact on the world, on the community we’re in, and then I want to have fun while all of that is happening. I want the same for our clients as well. I want them to have fun while they’re using our product.

Jeroen: Yeah. Now, I saw that you’re well on the investment track right now. How, because nowhere in these values or goals, I heard about financial goals, while probably for the parties you took on board, this is the most important metric? How do you combine these things?

Mikita: How do I combine financial metrics and?

Jeroen: The fact that their goals are different from yours. Goals align with impact somehow, but it doesn’t align with fun, and it doesn’t so much align with learning.

Mikita: I actually think it does. I actually do think it does.

Jeroen: With learning?

Mikita: Yeah. With both actually – having fun and learning. It’s impossible to build a successful software business if you’re not having fun. What we do is highly cognitive work. You can’t perform highly cognitive tasks out of fear or be bored to death, and innovate.

It is just that those things don’t work together. It’s not how our brain works. Yeah, I think actually they do go hand in hand.

Now, in terms of the impact, most definitely this is aligned with financial results; as long as our customers are happy. Well, first, actually, as long as your employees are happy, then your customers are going to be happy. Your customers are happy, you’re going to do well. So it’s all connected. It’s all intertwined.

Jeroen: Yeah. What are some of the ways you guys make sure you have fun?

Mikita: What are some of the ways we make sure we have fun?

Jeroen: What does that mean in the company? Is that putting a foosball table or something?

Mikita: [laughs] A foosball table…

Jeroen: Today I read on The Intercom Blog that they don’t put a foosball table because work is serious, and you shouldn’t put foosball tables because that’s not serious.

Mikita: I see. We don’t have one in San Francisco. We might have one in Belarus. We do have a ping pong table though.

Jeroen: A ping pong table?

Mikita: Yeah. We have a ping pong table, to be completely transparent.

First of all, I think for work to be fun for anyone, it’s important to own what you do. It’s important to have a stake at whatever is that piece of work you’re involved in. It’s important to understand the vision, the mission and the goals. It’s important to understand the direction of the company. If you’re all in and you get it, then it’s a lot more fun than to just do the job, if you know what I mean.

Jeroen: I know what you mean.

Mikita: I don’t know why I’m doing it. I don’t know what’s the purpose of it, what’s the point of it. I was told to do it, and I’m paid, so I’m doing the job. Yeah. When things are not like that, when things are mission-driven, vision-driven, when you truly care, it is a lot more fun, and when you own what you’re working on, when you’re completely bought into the stuff you do.

Jeroen: Cool.

Mikita: I don’t want to pretend we’re doing an amazing job on that front. But we try to be there. Like I try to basically enable others at PandaDoc to own their part of PandaDoc. That’s number one.

Jeroen: Ownership.

Mikita: Yeah, ownership. Number two is the ability to travel, ability to interact with other cultures. I mean, half of our business, half of our people are in Belarus, and the other half is in the US, and we try to blend people together, blend the offices, blend the functions within the business. It’s not easy, and it requires a lot of work from each employee, but it’s different, and we try to be different.

We try to mix and match cultures, and there’s a travel budget. There’s an education budget. There’s a budget for everyone to have fun. So whenever we’re doing really well, we travel somewhere together, and that kind of stuff.

Yeah, then finally, just regular, I guess, startup-y ways of having fun. We do have parties. I think a lot of people at PandaDoc are friends, so we go to shows together. There’s this weekend, a couple of folks from Belarus visited. We went surfing.

Our VP marketing came, so we had a little group doing that. Weekend prior or two weekends prior, we had a barbecue. That kind of stuff you do. A lot of companies do that, and we do that as well.

Jeroen: Back to the serious stuff, what is it that you do on a daily basis?

Mikita: What is it that I do on the daily basis? At this point, I communicate. Really, that’s what I do on a daily basis. Yeah, I mean, there are 160 people at PandaDoc, right. When we were at 30, I would answer this question, “Oh, I do some things on product.” Or like, “This.” Or, “That.” Or, “Blah, blah, blah.” But I don’t really do anything anymore.

All I do is talk. That is actually my most important job right now, to communicate the vision, the goals, the mission, what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and just repeat it over, and over, and over, and over.

Then I work with the executive team and the rest of the company on strategy of the company. Again, a couple of years back, this was very vague, and it’s like what do you mean ‘strategy’? What do you mean you ‘work on strategy’?

But now it becomes a lot more tangible. I do work on strategy. I do a lot of planning. I do try to ensure that the strategy is solid, put it through stress, go get feedback on it, and so forth.

Yeah, then finally, of course, external relationships – be that with investors or analysts or other CEOs or we’ll also stop there. Oh, and partners, yeah. That’s a big one.

Jeroen: Yeah. You’re mentioned that strategy became much more tangible now. What does that mean?

Mikita: It’s like I actually devote a lot of time to it, and I do it. Yeah. That’s what it means.

Jeroen: Okay. You do strategy.

Mikita: Yeah.

Jeroen: Okay.

Mikita: It’s like basically I would probably build 10 presentations a quarter on all kinds of different topics. There’s a master presentation for the company’s existence. Then it changes over time a little bit, gets tweaked, and it needs to be messaged, and blah, blah, blah. Then out of it, there is a yearly plan, and that gets tweaked, and that gets messaged. Then, there’s a quarterly plan, and that gets tweaked, and that gets messaged. So on, so forth.

Jeroen: With all these things, what is it exactly that keeps you going? What is it that gives you energy?

Mikita: What gives me energy?

Jeroen: Yeah. You’re doing all these things for years now. How do you keep going?

Mikita: I don’t know, actually.

Jeroen: Okay.

Mikita: I don’t know. I wouldn’t be able to answer precisely what gives me energy. I think I’m a normal human being, so winning definitely helps to release the right hormones, and keep me excited, and motivated towards inventing something, coming up with some kind of ideas. Or I really like finishing projects, however they come out, before that successful or unsuccessful. I just like getting things done. Interacting with people, that also makes you a lot happier. Yeah. Those things help you move forward, and of course, my family is a huge support.

Jeroen: You have a wife and kids?

Mikita: Yeah, I got a wife and two kids.

Jeroen: How do you keep it all balanced? Do you work a lot at home or mostly go to the office? What kind of hours do you do?

Mikita: I mostly go to the office. I don’t really have a set schedule, but if I’m not working before nine, then I don’t know, something is going on. I don’t really have a set schedule. Sometimes I take a flight in the middle of the week or try to work outside of the office just to basically reset my brain.

My job is not about putting a lot of hours in. It’s not how I believe I can be effective. My job is about making the right decisions, and that requires a clear mind that’s not triggered by anxiety or that’s not tired or fearing or whatever negative emotion that we might have because of that.

Jeroen: How do you keep your mind clear?

Mikita: Oh, there’s a ton of stuff I do. Ta, ta, ta, ta, I meditate. I like to do morning runs. I surf. Surfing is amazing, and surfing in California, where I am, means surfing in the cold water. There is something about the cold water – be that cold showers or surfing on the West Coast in Central California, it refreshes you. It recharges you, and gives you that calm. Surfing gives me calm. What else?

Jeroen: Quite a, how can I say?

Mikita: Workout.

Jeroen: Yeah, it’s quite a big workout.

Mikita: It is a workout.

Jeroen: I think surfing is cold in most places, at least as far as I know. Like if we go surfing in Spain or so, it’s pretty cold. If you go to, I think Bali, perhaps could be warm. I don’t know.

Mikita: Yeah, dude, I lived in Hawaii, and there it’s beautiful.

Jeroen: Warm?

Mikita: It’s so warm.

Jeroen: Yeah.

Mikita: It’s really nice.

Jeroen: Is that where you mostly like to spend your time when you’re not working? Family and sports or surfing?

Mikita: Yeah. Family and sports. Honestly, if I can live in the forest for my vacation, for like a month, I would totally do that with my family, and surfboard or something. Something like that. I’d be really happy.

Jeroen: Yeah. That’s also what you do, if you wouldn’t work on PandaDoc, would it be that or would it be having another company?

Mikita: I don’t know. I really don’t know. Honestly, I thought about it, but I don’t know if I get bored, like if I will get bored really fast, but I’ll be sure to try. I mean, it’s just kind of like seeing the difference because the pace of life in Silicon Valley and the pace of a startup is very high. It’s intense, right? Yeah, sometimes you get to really wanting a break or a little bit of time to relax. The past five days, totally served that purpose. It was enough. Yeah, I don’t know if I can do a lot more than five days.

Jeroen: Do you read books?

Mikita: I do, but I listen a lot more. I listen a lot more books these days.

Jeroen: What’s the latest good book you’ve listened to and why did you choose to listen to it?

Mikita: The latest one I’ve listened is called Quiet Leadership. It’s a good book, and it’s about management, but based on the theory of management based on neuroscience. That was a really interesting book.

Then prior to that, I listened to Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, very good book, extremely useful to executives. Actually, it’s extremely recommended for anyone as it is on how to have uncomfortable conversations that are hugely important to have.

Prior to that, I read a book about the CIA. Doesn’t matter what it’s called. Then prior to that, Five Dysfunctions of a Team, amazing book. I recommend it to everyone. Yeah, that’s the kind of stuff that I’ve listened to recently.

Jeroen: Final question, if you were to start over with PandaDoc, what would you have done differently?

Mikita: Oh man, a ton of things. I’ve done so many things wrong. I think the biggest thing I would change is that I would focus on people more. That’s definitely the case. I’m not necessarily the most, oh, it’s going to be hard, it’s a terrible thing to admit, but I’m very analytical. I’m not super empathetic.

Jeroen: Yeah, more task-oriented, less people-oriented.

Mikita: Exactly. And that is something that I would change, the proportion of that. I would change that.

Jeroen: Yeah. Cool, well, that’s all I have for today, Mikita. Thank you for being on Founder Coffee.

Mikita: My pleasure!

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Jeroen Corthout
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