Adrian Camara is co-founder and CEO of Athennian. The company provides a cloud-based legal entity management system, used by law firms and in-house teams to manage complex corporate groups. Launched in 2017, the business has grown rapidly and now has 89 employees across its HQ in Calgary, Canada, and other offices in North and South America.
Tell us briefly what your platform does: what problems does it solve?
In any big corporate group, a lot of activities require collaboration between the Legal, Tax and Finance teams.
So, for example, if you want to expand into another country, Tax and Finance and Legal will get together and say, “Sales & Marketing are telling us that there's revenue opportunity in this country and that they want to start acquiring customers and servicing those customers there. What's the best way to do that? Can we just set up a branch? Do we need to set up an entity? If so, what type of entity? Are we going to have employees there? What registrations do we need? Do we need to have a facility there? Do we need insurance policies there? How are we going to treat the revenue from a tax perspective? Do we now need to start collecting sales tax and paying it to that government? And then how does that impact the rest of our tax planning at a multinational level?”
So there's all these ripple effects from the revenue side of the business saying, simply, “There are customers here and we want them.” And it varies from country to country. For example, if you're setting up a company in Italy, 25% of the board directors must be from Italy. So now it’s, “Do we have anybody who we can appoint to the board or do we need to bring someone in?” So there are all these complexities that emerge.
This obviously involves a large amount of data – the details of the ownership, control and identity of all these companies. This goes all the way through to the actual stock certificate numbers, the paid-in capital and the shares. Also the date of birth of directors, and their addresses, and oftentimes KYC [Know your Client] information, because that needs to be reported to the government.
So the information gets quite deep, and it's needed throughout the organisation. Even just to know what entity should be used to sign a particular contract. And then obviously more intensively when the Tax team is thinking about things like intercompany agreements and transfer pricing and so on. It's all about the relationships between all of the subsidiary entities.
Our platform brings it all together and streamlines all these workflows.
It centralises the data?
Exactly. It creates one single source of truth. That sounds simple, but it's very difficult in large organisations, because there's a lot of information. Legal will hold a master file but, for various reasons, they can't give everybody access to all of that information due to privacy concerns and things like that.
So Legal will say to Tax and Finance: “Just contact us and we'll give you the information you require.” But people don't want to do that. So they just start developing their own data set. And so what our software does is it collects all the information in a really easy to consume way that's easy to maintain. And then it has a permissioning system that allows Legal to say, “Tax needs access to this information, but they don't need access to all that, so we will block their visibility to it.” So now if the Tax team want to know something they don't have to email Legal and wait for a reply.
And then there's also automation. We automate all kinds of documents to generate reports like organisational charts, board resolutions and things like that. So you don't have folks in the Legal department spending all their time generating standard form documents. They can be spending more time working with other business units, to help them be more productive and have access to more accurate information.
So your platform makes these processes much more efficient?
Yes, but not just that. Oftentimes in large companies there's multiple data sets. Tax will have their own spreadsheet showing all the information about the group’s entities, Legal have their own spreadsheet, Finance will have their own spreadsheet. And then what ends up happening is that information goes stale and becomes incorrect. And then Tax and Finance are making decisions based on that data.
A lot of those decisions are impactful to the business, and are difficult to unwind: filing forms with the government, for example. It's difficult to tell the government that you want to update your filing.
What sort of decisions are we talking about?
There's not really data on that, because when companies make bad decisions they don’t like to publicise it. But anecdotally, often what causes a company to go and buy this type of software is that something bad has happened. They have felt the pain of this function not being managed well, so they want to make an investment in it. They hire somebody to take responsibility for it, and they buy a software product, and they start building processes around it.
Typically, the point at which the bad decision emerges as a problem is when there's some type of transaction going on and there's due diligence happening. Maybe it's an audit, maybe it's tax planning, maybe it's financing or some type of M&A activity. But there's some type of review of the corporate structure. And the problem is then discovered, and it delays or even cancels the transaction. And, obviously, that's very costly.
Or sometimes what can happen is in a tax audit, certain transactions will get unwound because of bad decisions that were made. Tax authorities can find something really simple within the structure, like your board was not properly constituted. You cannot produce a resolution of the shareholders appointing the board for that year, and the corporate law in this country requires that that happens. Therefore, the board was not constituted. Therefore, all the actions that the board authorised were not effective. Therefore, we're unwinding all of this and you have a new tax bill you have to pay.
Things like that happen all the time. You have tax authorities and enforcement agencies, and that's what they do. They look for the easiest way to get the company to pay more money. There are all these small procedural requirements that are black and white: you either did them or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, that makes it really easy for the tax authorities.
What gave you the idea to start Athennian?
I was a corporate lawyer at a big law firm in Canada. I was constantly working with corporate clients. They were doing transactions, and always, ahead of each transaction, we’d have to clean up all their entities. If companies don't have a good entity management system and a team focused on it, this creates all kinds of problems. It makes everybody's life harder, and adds all kinds of risks to their businesses, primarily from a tax perspective.
The products on the market were very old: a lot of spreadsheets and stuff like that. We thought that we could build a better product that the market would find more compelling. So that's what we did.
Five of us started the business: three engineers and two of us from the business side. Josh is my COO; Shane, Mark and Andrew are the technical founders that built the original version of the application.
Did you already know them?
I met them all as the idea was forming. So it was very convenient that I met them, and it was convenient for them too: they were all the stage of life where they were looking for something a little bit more interesting to do.
You've grown spectacularly over the last four years. Are you planning to continue that rate of growth, or even increase it?
Yeah, we're at a fortunate point now where we have the best entity management product on the market. And the market is really understanding that, so our revenue is growing quite nicely.
We have a lot of plans to start adding capabilities around statutory filing: to be able to file directly with Companies House and different government agencies directly from the platform. That will add a lot of value to our customers.
We'll also probably do some more geographic expansion. So we'll probably next year start hiring our first people in Europe, in the UK. For a variety of reasons, a lot of multinational companies have their subsidiary management functions based out of London.
What are the main barriers you have to break down in order to turn a new contact into a customer?
All we really need is for the people that actually do the work to sit down for a 20-minute demonstration of the product. They understand pretty quickly that this is a better product that will substantially improve what they do.
And then, because the platform involves several functions, there's a bunch of people that you have to get aligned: to agree that now is the right time to make a change, and that there's a budget for it, and those sorts of things. You need to manage that in the sales process.
How did the pandemic affect you, commercially speaking?
For the first six to eight months of the pandemic, unless you were selling video conferencing software, I don't think most software businesses did well. But after that it's been helpful, because there are still a lot of businesses that are using pen and paper – they have physical binders on the shelf and things like that. And I think this gave them a real life application of their disaster management plan.
So now a lot of Chief Information Officers in groups are saying to their organisations: “This is why we shouldn’t just leave the disaster management plan on a shelf for ten years. These are real life events that can happen. And if you want business continuity, you need to be investing in better systems, and they’d better be in the cloud.”
So far, what career achievement are you most proud of?
I think probably the first time we saw a company post a job description that said “Experience using Athennian strongly preferred.” That's when I realised, One, we've helped this company so much that they're making this type of commitment to our product, which is very humbling. And Two, this is a large organisation that we've made: there's enough people in the market who have experience of using our software that they can make it a job requirement.
What would be your ideal job if you weren't in the corporate or tech worlds?
I like to build physical things. It's nice to build a software company, but it's very intangible. I’d probably like to be in some type of construction or manufacturing, where there's something tangible there and you can see it.
What you do to relax?
My wife and I just had our first daughter four months ago. So we're very busy with that – just enjoying time with family right now. We like to travel. We're planning a trip to the Caribbean early next year. And I think now is a fantastic time to travel. I did a little bit of business traveling during the summer, and it was fine, and prices are low.
What is your biggest extravagance?
Describe yourself in three words.
That's a hard one. Focused, adaptive, and hardworking.
What's your favorite film?
Inglourious Basterds. I like the way it combines comedy with a historical story.
And sticking with films, which actor should play you in the film of your life story?
Oh, wow. I don't know. A very good looking one, I'll tell you that! Let’s just pick someone with dark hair. George Clooney.
Who would be your ideal guests at the dinner party?
Barack Obama. I think what he did is an enormous achievement. And also Bruce Springsteen. He's a soulful guy. I think he’s spent a lot of time reflecting on life, so I’d listen to him talk. I think he's an interesting character.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Start a business sooner and don't spend so much time in University.
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