Founder Files: Building the Team at Rocket.Chat with Gabriel Engel

Bessie LiuProfiles

Rocket.Chat CEO, Gabriel Engel. Image courtesy of Rocket.Chat.

Rocket.Chat is a communication platform used by the likes of Deutsche Bank, The U.S. Navy and Credit Suisse. Although it may seem simply an open-source version of Slack, Gabriel Engel has a much greater vision in mind for his company.

Engel knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur from a young age, which played a role in his decision-making for college.

"I learned how to code early in my life, so when I had to decide what to do when I went to university, I decided I was going to study business management rather than computer science," Engel told The Org.

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Gabriel Engel, founder of Rocket.Chat. Image courtesy of Rocket.Chat.

"My understanding was that if I ever build anything, and if the project was to become successful, I will then not be the developer anymore and I would actually have to run the business behind it."

After selling his first company, Engel, who lived in London at the time, decided he wanted to experience working for a big corporation, so he found his way to Vodafone, where he served as a Product Manager.

"What I learned was despite having so many resources, big corporations became slow because there were so many meetings, live presentations, and steps along the process just to get one thing done. So when I built my startup, I wanted to make sure everything was very lean and we did everything very efficiently," Engel said.

Founding Rocket.Chat

Engel founded Rocket.Chat in 2015 after learning that clients at his previous startup, Konecty, wanted an integrated communications platform.


"They had a very specific challenge, not only did they want to talk internally with their colleagues, they also wanted to have a communication tool where they could interact with their customers through social media,” he said. “But when we looked in the market, there was not a single tool where you could talk to everybody in the same place, so we decided to build our own."

Soon after building the product, the open-source communication platform received a lot of attention from the tech community, gaining recognition on Hacker News and Product Hunt. The publicity eventually led investors to Engel, helping him raise a seed round of $5 million in 2016 for Rocket.Chat.

From the very beginning, Engel wanted to make sure Rocket.Chat became an international corporation and he was insistent on creating a product that could be widely available to users in English-speaking countries.

"It's harder in the beginning, but the compounding effect of being an international company will pull you in a different place in a different market over time."

Scaling the team

The embryo of Rocket.Chat is its technical team. Besides Engel and his personal assistant, who came from a non-technical background, the founding team at the company consisted mostly of developers, a designer and a user experience specialist.

"At the beginning, we were really trying to build traction in the developer community, so what we needed was a good product," Engel said. "If you have a good product, people talk about it, they blog about it and they will refer it to friends. So for our first year and a half of existence we were pretty much dependent on word of mouth."

Once his team was confident in its product and it began to gain traction in the developer community, Engel began to grow his sales and marketing teams to spread awareness.

Initially, Engel had an outsourced support team which took care of customer complaints and questions, but he soon realized the importance of knowing his customers and understanding exactly what they liked and didn't like about the product.

"We realized we needed an operations team, someone to take care of CRM and sales cycle documentation, so one of my developers stepped into that role."

One regret, Engel noted, was not hiring a Head of People sooner.

"We made a lot of mistakes with hiring, and there was one point where we hired too fast, just based on skills not based on values and culture and we ended up letting go of almost a third of the company because we felt that we were losing our identity," Engel said.

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The Rocket.Chat team. Image courtesy of Rocket.Chat.

"Hiring is definitely the most important thing, having talented and aligned people internally is how you'll be able to deal with challenges and how you'll be able to grow fast."

After raising a $19 million Series A this year, Engel focused on hiring a VP of Product and growing product management. He divided the engineers up into several squads, each focusing on a different product area and led by a single product manager.

Looking forward, Engel is now looking to build a professional services team to provide proactive support for his customers.

"The support is very reactive right now -- they deal with problems as they appear. But now we want to have a team that will do projects for large customers," Engel said.

"I know that's usually something companies try to stay away from for as long as they can, as it's a 'not recurring revenue', but we hope to keep this below 20% of our total revenue and I want to do this so that we can better sell our services."

Founder Files Q&A:

What's one piece of advice you wish you could tell your younger self?

"I would have started the people team a lot earlier. Hiring is definitely the most important thing, having talented and aligned people internally is how you'll be able to deal with challenges and how you'll be able to grow fast."

What does a day in your life look like?

"I spend a lot of my time interviewing people and doing one-on-ones with people. Not just the people that report to me, but the people who are two, three or even four times my junior. I want to know how they perceive the company and understand what is going on, what problems, risks or challenges they are seeing. If I only talk to my direct reports, by the time the information gets to me, it's already been filtered and polished; so I want to know what is going on in the front lines and also make sure they understand our values and missions so they can make decisions by themselves."

If you were in any other role at the company, what would you be?

"I'm a product person, so I would love to have to just work on the product and not have to deal with all the rest. I am happiest when I'm just looking and talking to the designers and developers, so I'd love to be on the engineering side of the company. If I had a co-founder, I would love to be the one that focuses only on the product, that's what makes me the most happy, and that is the kind of work I don't feel tired doing."

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