“Delivering quality ”, With Douglas Brown and David Conforti of Varfaj Partners

Delivering quality — Getting in touch with people is one thing, but they wouldn’t keep coming back if it wasn’t for the high quality of work. The cliché goes that it is cheaper to keep a current customer than to find a new one, but it’s true! Especially in the technology space, customers have horror stories of […]

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Delivering quality — Getting in touch with people is one thing, but they wouldn’t keep coming back if it wasn’t for the high quality of work. The cliché goes that it is cheaper to keep a current customer than to find a new one, but it’s true! Especially in the technology space, customers have horror stories of developers dragging projects on and on or simply not developing the project at all. Customers are craving quality and providing that for them, along with a great customer experience from beginning to end, is a sure-fire way to increase revenue.

As a part of my series called “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Conforti. He is the Managing Partner of Varfaj Partners and CEO of Varfaj Ventures. While still an undergrad at NYU, David and his classmates founded Varfaj Partners, a technology consulting firm. In its first year, the business reached seven figures in revenue and, since then, the team has focused on growing the company in unique ways as well as introducing new business segments, such as the Ventures division.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I came to NYU as a freshman rather uncertain of what I wanted to do. The second day of school I met Steve, my eventual best friend and co-founder of Varfaj Partners, in our dorm on 13th street and 3rd avenue. The funniest thing is that, at first, I did not like him and we were connected more through mutual friends than anything else. Steve and I both happened to be in the business school, though, so we would study together, and a friendship quickly formed over our shared love of ideas and figuring out how to make them work. Our freshman summer we went our separate ways: Steve worked for Accenture in Singapore and I worked for a private equity firm, Arcadia Investment Partners. This professional experience proved invaluable, teaching us how businesses run as well as opening our eyes to a glaring opportunity. I had noticed how many legacy industries were relatively untouched by technology and Steve realized that we could build products just like Accenture did, but for a cheaper price. When we arrived back on campus in the fall, we began thinking of how the two could work in synchrony. We started Varfaj Partners, our technology consulting firm, out of a love of finding out how to make things work and the role that tech can play in that. From there we haven’t stood still, in addition to growing Varfaj Partners to a $1 million in revenue, we also raised capital and launched a venture fund, Varfaj Ventures, to help young entrepreneurs tackle the initial hurdles of starting a business. I love the flexibility and creativity that working for yourself allows and technology is a great backdrop to apply to a host of different industries. Between Partners and Ventures, we get to work with a range of industries and problem solve diverse scenarios, so life is never boring.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Varfaj’s backbone has always been our flexibility and creativity. We were always a partially remote work environment. Steve and I led up the New York branch while Cameron Zoub and Jared Wolff spearheaded the Austin,TX office. When COVID struck and the rest of the world resorted to remote work, we did the opposite. The New York office packed our bags and roadtripped to our southern office — 30 hours straight.

Working together, in person, in Austin was an incredible experience. Even though we would stay at the office downtown for 12+ hours a day, it didn’t quite feel like work. Work comes much easier when you are doing it with your friends. It also helped that we took Spikeball breaks at Zilker park almost every day and even took a Saturday trip to go skydiving! Unfortunately, COVID flared up in Texas and the office shut down. Ever flexible we brainstormed where to go, packed the car, and took off for Boston all in the span of 24 hours. We quarantined for the rest of the summer in an Airbnb that doubled as our temporary headquarters.

The experience, while a great story, taught us the importance of flexibility and benefit of working in person. The ideas that originated this summer continue to stimulate Varfaj’s growth and the mentality of staying nimble has influenced the way we think about our business and our strategies.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

At Varfaj, we have worked with dozens of companies in industries from fashion to education, each successful company has one common denominator: a great core team that complements each other well.

Our founding team of Steven Schwartz, Cameron Zoub, Jared Wolff, and myself is the reason why Varfaj has gotten where it is today. Each of us excels in certain areas; Steve is a great tech mind, Cam constantly spins up new sales and marketing strategies, and Jared is an operations workhorse while I do a bit of each, as well as set the longer-term goals for the company. That combined with our willingness to pick up each other’s slack is a huge plus. A great example of that is how we have each had times where we had to step away from the business for personal reasons, and every time the team has seamlessly picked up the slack and been supportive of the person who needs a moment. This perseverance allows us to ride out rough patches and makes a tremendous contribution to our overall success.

On top of being a great fit professionally, it helps that we are so close outside the office. We all share a love of sports and travel; things like skydiving, playing basketball together, or travelling around Europe are all cool ways we’ve bonded beyond work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There is an African proverb that goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
In many ways, we’ve done both. We thrive off of thinking of ideas and implementing them as quick as possible. So we place an emphasis on trying things, moving fast, and going alone. But in the larger scheme of things, we are all working towards the same goal, and as I have said, we are able to rely on one another for help and guidance so that we can go far.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Lots of people have good ideas, but with the hurdles of launching your own company, most of those ideas never become a reality. Our goal has always been to lower the barriers to entry for new and aspiring entrepreneurs. If a student, or anyone for that matter, has an idea — the first step, building out the tech, can be a tough one. You could go to a larger tech firm that would charge an arm and a leg for their services or take a risk and hire a freelancer, who’s quality of work may leave you with an unusable MVP. Both scenarios are extremely deflating to someone starting his or her own business. We wanted people to be able to bring their ideas to life without compromising the quality.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Originally, what made our business stand out, and really all we had, was our tenacity. Varfaj had just opened its doors when we saw that Mark Cuban was coming to speak and listen to “Shark Tank” pitches at NYU. We got there early and grabbed seats as close as we could to the front. It was an incredibly cool experience; the skill and precision with which he dissected companies and broke them down to their key drivers was impressive (to say the least!). After the event was over, we shoved our way to the front to ask him a question. We asked about a defunct ICO he had been involved in, Current. Caught off guard by the directness of our question, he said to shoot him an email. We corresponded over email and pitched him on letting us help his portfolio companies with their tech, pro bono at first. He said yes! I believe it was our attitude and tenacity that led to him giving us the opportunity, which we have parlayed into an extended partnership.

When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?

Our motivation was two-fold: 1) We enjoy starting companies from scratch and bringing ideas to life, 2) We wanted to help other entrepreneurs realize that they could do it too and provide resources and know-how to help them start. These driving motivations have metastasized into our Ventures division.

Last December we organized the largest student-run pitch competition in the country at UT-Austin. Over 80 teams entered and 60 were selected to present. It was an amazing day of “Shark Tank-style” pitches followed by several days of follow up meetings. The talent and potential that we saw on display far outpaced even what we had expected. We met with students creating education technology for elementary schools, self-defense devices for women, and self-motivation apps. The array of ideas was amazing to see!

What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?

My favorite part of the business is still meeting new people. You never know who you can talk to and the opportunities that will come your way. Now with a steady sales pipeline, I’ve focused on approaching and partnering with people or companies that interest me. For instance, we are currently working with the director of our favorite music videos, Lyrical Lemonade, on a project as well as on a site for one of our favorite NBA players, Kelly Oubre Jr. Projects like these are so motivating because you’re excited to be working with and for your clients. Forming relationships is the best aspect of my job and delivering for them is the overall goal and extremely rewarding.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Of course! 2 come to mind: Frosted and POSH. Frosted is a platform targeted at the “Flip”-economy that we started in March. The “Flip”-economy is a subculture that includes dropshipping, sneaker reselling, and other forms of alternative income. It really is an entire industry that we’re excited to tap into. More importantly, it is great to give people different ways to supplement their income since their jobs may have been lost during the pandemic.

POSH is a ticketing platform aimed at the hospitality industry that we helped launch this fall with fellow NYU students, Avante Price and Eli Taylor-Lemire. The space is traditionally very oligarchical, with a few big players at the top. Our goal is to democratize the industry by buoying the smaller venues and hosts, who have been seriously hit by COVID. Our tools on the platform, such as SMS texting, guest lists, and codeless customer segmentation help them market their events and adhere to COVID protocols.

The best part of taking both of these companies from 0 to successful, POSH has processed over $200,000 in ticket sales with its private alpha and Frosted has over 300 active monthly users, during the pandemic has been the teamwork behind them. We sit around for hours after work, just hanging out and kicking around ideas: “We should include an attendee portal”, or “Let’s add gamification”. Not all of the ideas that are tossed around in those brainstorming sessions are good, but it only takes one.

I feel extremely lucky to be able to work with friends and to help people who have been impacted by Covid at the same time has been an added bonus.

The topic of this series is ‘Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue’. Congratulations! Seven figures is really a huge milestone. In your experience what was the most difficult part of being able to hit your first million-dollars in sales revenue?

The toughest part for our team wasn’t getting to a million dollars in sales, it is delivering efficiently on a million dollars in sales. I think that many companies are enamored with the top line and Varfaj was not immune to that. Our first year we sacrificed a lot of efficiency and left a ton of money on the table by trying to grow too big too fast.

This past year, we have turned our focus to increasing our efficiency by streamlining and improving our internal operations. As a tech consultancy, this has included spending more time on idea generation, turning those ideas into iron-clad statements of work, and setting milestones to improve project timelines. This has wildly increased our gross margins from ~30% in 2019 to upwards of 50% in 2020 leading to a material impact on our bottom line. Of course, there are still hiccups here and there, but increasing our efficiently has led to a noticeable improvement in our business.

Could you share the number one sales strategy that you found helpful to help you reach this milestone?

Something my partners, Cameron and Steven, know very well is the concept and process of providing value before asking for anything in return. They spearheaded our cold outreach campaign and for a while we only did free work to establish ourselves. During this period, though, we added names such as The Guardian, Colliers International, and Mark Cuban to our client list and converted all of them to contractual relationships. Adding those clients did wonders for our credibility, as well as allowing us to partner with Lyrical Lemonade, 3Data, Curu, and others.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you or your team made during a sales process? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Cold calling is a huge outreach channel for us. All of our team members are well-versed in it and it is a tremendous way to stand out in the current environment where people are inundated with emails and LinkedIn messages. However, it wasn’t always that way. My first cold call was a month after we had founded Varfaj Partners. We had compiled a list of companies looking for services into a spreadsheet with contact info and began going down the list. First call, no answer. Thank god I said to myself. Second call, the person picked up: “Hello?”
I dove into my pitch, hands shaking the whole time. At the end of the call, the potential client said this is great, what is your email? I want to follow up with next steps.
I said sure it is [email protected]. They asked how to spell Varfaj. So I recited V-A-R. And I blanked. I was so nervous I couldn’t remember how to spell my own company’s name! I hung up the phone and everyone started howling with laughter. It was a great learning experience and, luckily, I am a bit better at those now.

Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

At the early stages of a company, you have to do everything. We are Project Managers, customer services reps, CFO’s, and, yes, the sales team. We think of new, creative ways of getting in front of people and then implement them. Lots of companies I’ve spoken with have a standardized outreach process that use Hubspot, Salesforce, or another CRM to create email funnels and track progress. I’d rather spend the time actually doing the outreach than tracking it.

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”. Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Quality Core Group — I think this one speaks for itself. I cannot stress enough how integral the team aspect is to Varfaj Partners, and how easy it is to enjoy work when you are doing it with people you enjoy being with 24/7. For example, this past summer we were constantly pranking each other to liven things up (the day to day can get a bit monotonous, especially in quarantine). Cam used a wood cleaner to slick the floor right at the bottom of the stairs, turning it into a hockey rink. Steve and I came running down the next morning, hit the last step, and went sprawling on the living room floor, much to Cam’s amusement. There are a ton more, but they get a bit more risqué, so I’ll save those for another time. The lesson is: being with the right people makes it easy to have fun and having fun is a harbinger of success.

2. Saying yes to everything — This is an easy change that I’ve focused on for the past 3 years now. When an idea was brought up, I would naturally try and poke holes in it. I’d prod, find flaws, and surmise why it wouldn’t work. I started noticing the effect it had on my partners. They would come to me excited about their ideas and leave with an air of dejection. This is no way to spur creativity and good ideas may be killed in the crib. I began a practice of always thinking of 3 reasons why something will work before thinking about the negatives. Immediately ideas and conversations that may have lasted 2 minutes before turned into hours long tangents in which we could fully explore, flesh out the ideas and begin identifying its strengths and weaknesses. Some of these incidents have turned into our best pivots, strategies, and ideas to date.

3. Do an internal audit — A big turning point for us was this spring during COVID. The first year or so of the company had been focused on growing as large as possible as fast as possible, but efficiency and stability had been cast to the wayside. This spring we took the opportunity to sit down and conduct a thorough, honest analysis of our operations. We identified our strengths and our weaknesses. We thought through future opportunities and potential threats. Having everyone openly discuss their thoughts and putting them down on paper gave us a game plan of how to move forward.

4. Delivering quality — Getting in touch with people is one thing, but they wouldn’t keep coming back if it wasn’t for the high quality of work. The cliché goes that it is cheaper to keep a current customer than to find a new one, but it’s true! Especially in the technology space, customers have horror stories of developers dragging projects on and on or simply not developing the project at all. Customers are craving quality and providing that for them, along with a great customer experience from beginning to end, is a sure-fire way to increase revenue.

5. Building lasting relationships — This goes hand in hand with number 4. In the field of consulting, trust is the more important thing you can instill in the client. At first, clients engage with us because they like our approach, enthusiasm, and conviction. Why they continue to work with us is because of the quality of work and the relationships we form. There is a level of trust and rapport that we generate with a client where we know what’s happening in their lives, such as graduations, birthdays, and weddings. It is the little things like the small talk at beginnings of calls or gift baskets at birthdays that go a long way.

This doesn’t just apply for the demand side either. At Varfaj, we pride ourselves on how we work with our Senior and Junior Developers and Designers. The exact same rules apply. If you are genuinely interested in your employees’ lives, it will show through and they will be genuinely interested in putting in the best work they can for you.

What would you advise to another business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Yes, we actually did that ourselves. After 1mm dollars in revenue our first year, we had to hit the pause button. We were so excited by the inbound sales traffic that the execution of the projects had taken a back seat. We turned off the sales engine for about 3 months. Then COVID hit, after about 1–2 months of uncertainty sales started to come back. There is no secret formula. The process was similar to when we first started, just putting ourselves out there with cold outreach, pro bono work, and starting small. This time though, due to the established portfolio and word of mouth references, the sales have come back much quicker.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

For us, it isn’t about targeting the “right” client. We are able to be rather picky with who we take on as a client and want to work with people and teams that are exciting! The best method my team and I have found is reaching out to potential clients that we would thoroughly enjoy working with. It makes the tedious tasks of the project so much easier to do if you are doing it for a cool client. For instance, it is enjoyable to get on a call to go over revisions when Cole Bennett (Lyrical Lemonade) is on the phone or you hear, “Mark loves the site, nice work.” I would encourage entrepreneurs just getting started not to focus on finding the “right” customer, but instead find 1 customer and go from there.

Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

My two biggest goals with every client are to set expectations effectively and communicate; the two go hand in hand. From the outset I want the client to know the process that we are embarking on, its stages, and the finished product at the end. At Varfaj, we’ve accomplished this by increasing the emphasis on comprehensive scopes of work and clear milestones. The next step is communicating that clearly to the client before and during the projects. We aim to always be proactive and provide the client with an update before its asked; it is tough to know if progress is being made without consistent updates. It’s important to set expectations not only externally, but internally as well. I make sure to communicate with the team clear deadlines, often a day or two in advance of the client deadline to avoid last minute fire drills. In return, the team communicates well with me, letting me know if they are at capacity, or if circumstances make it tough to meet certain deadlines. Most poor experiences, for customers and for our team, stem from lack of communication, so it is our top priority on all projects.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

It’s a tough thing to do, especially if we are building one off web projects for our clients. Those are, by nature, expected to churn. We’ve limited customer churn in a few ways: one is by encouraging them to tell us about their experience with us and how we can improve with a post-project survey. Clients like the opportunity to tell you feedback and appreciate being heard. The second is thinking of products and packages that we can offer to them such as monthly maintenance and hosting for their projects. This keeps them in contact with us and offers retainer opportunities. Of course, the best way to limit customer churn is to provide the best experience from always taking their calls, offering keen advice, and providing a solid product. Clients will come back, or at least refer others, after experiences like that.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think there is a vast amount of untapped talent in high schools and universities across the country. I would encourage more young entrepreneurship for two main reasons: 1) This is the world that the younger generation is inheriting, I believe that it is important to instill the notion that young people can have an impact on the world too; 2) As young people, we have the least to lose! Say you start a business or explore an idea and it fails. At 17, 18, or 19 the stakes are much lower, and the lessons learned are much larger.

This is one the passions of the team, which is why in addition to Varfaj Partners, we have also raised a venture fund, Varfaj Ventures, to provide the capital and expertise to lower the barrier of entry for young founders. I agree with your question — you never know what idea you may stumble upon. The toughest part, in my opinion, is getting started and we are helping student entrepreneurs across the country conquer this hurdle.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would say Jim Clark, who I first learned about by reading Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing.

Jim Clark, to me, is the embodiment of entrepreneurship. I find his creativity and problem solving across a range of industries to be remarkable, first with Silicon Graphics, then Netscape, myCFO, and Healtheon. I would love to pick his brain about how he identifies problems, visualizes his plan to solve them, and executes it at an exceedingly high level. I think it’s amazing to be able to see a problem and run at it full speed. Many people can identify problems, but few can follow through like he has. He refused to take the traditional path and has lived an incredibly interesting life while helping others- what more can you ask for? With his experience, I’m sure a lunch with Jim Clark would prove to be more useful than any business class.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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