Founder Stories

Valarian’s Max Buchan on risk, product market fit & the evolving role of the founder

Founder Stories

Valarian’s Max Buchan on risk, product market fit & the evolving role of the founder

Words Max Buchan

November 13th 2023 / 10 min read

Dig deep enough, and most folks I’ve met in recent years have wanted to be a founder. Everyone has their own business idea. Unfortunately, there’s often a big focus put on risk, but I know that once people make the mental shift, they begin to feel empowered and excited about the endless possibilities that come with building their own business. 

It was this feeling that drew me to founding Valarian, the data compliance and cybersecurity business I started back in 2020 and now numbers 30 employees across 4 countries. We’re establishing ourselves as a go-to solution for highly regulated industries, working with top tier international banks and Fortune 500 companies. 

Along the way, here’s what I’ve learned about starting and scaling a business, fundraising, and overcoming the daily challenges of being a founder.

Foray into the startup world

In 2017, I joined an exciting new fintech business just out of university. I was their first employee, reporting directly to the co-founder & CEO, which was an incredible learning experience.

Seeing a startup that hadn't raised any external funding suddenly explode and reach $50m+ revenue within 18 months was transformational. The company later went onto IPO, again without having raised VC money.

There were several important learnings I took from this experience. First of all, I glimpsed the boundless opportunity that comes from building the right business at the right time. I thrived in this non-typical working environment, having grown up in a household that was never your typical 9-to-5, and so I had an appreciation for the different career paths that were available to me. I relished having the freedom to creatively solve problems in a non-linear way. 

But simultaneously, I struggled to be so close to the founder journey, without it being my own. I knew that, whatever my next step was, it would be something that I was leading myself. 

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Changing behaviour in highly regulated industries

This experience also exposed me to the challenges of operating in a highly regulated environment. Chief amongst these challenges were the security and compliance issues associated with using popular business productivity tools to communicate with clients and colleagues across multiple jurisdictions. 

We initially envisioned Valarian as a secure messenger solution that would help address existing issues in cross-border communication. In fact, when we started, there were already innumerable secure messaging platforms globally. But we quickly realised that these were all going about things the wrong way.

The hardest thing about implementing this is trying to change people’s behaviours. You might build the perfect, most compliant messaging platform but people will always default to the platforms they know and use—whether that’s Slack, Teams, or even Whatsapp. Trying to encourage companies to overhaul their systems in favour of something they’ve not tried before is nigh-on impossible. 

So we decided to flip it around. Rather than build a new platform, we would build an essential compliance and data protection layer that would integrate seamlessly with organisations’ existing collaboration platforms. This means that enterprises can now ensure the security of their data and compliance with data sovereignty laws worldwide, without compromising their user experience. 

Finding Valarian's product market fit

Measuring milestones as a business is often tangible things, like some of our first marquee raises or bringing in our first big clients. But for me, the biggest milestone to date was finding true product market fit, which is repeatable and scalable. By this, I mean developing a product which really addressed our customers’ pains. 

It's certainly not something you stumble upon instantly, but rather is the result of an ongoing process of refinement. Here are the key steps I’d want to highlight: 

  1. Iterative Messaging. We continuously refined our product messaging to ensure it resonated with our target audience. 

  2. Quantifiable Metrics. We focused on quantifiable metrics, such as shortening the sales cycle, to understand which strategies are truly effective and follow them. 

  3. Repeatability. We ensured that the process and messaging work for different organisations across our key industries and geographies. 

  4. Patience. No one typically achieves product-market fit on day one. Prepare for a cycle of iteration, tweaking, validating, and even pivoting from your initial thesis. Be open to change based on customer feedback. 

Finding product-market fit can often involve struggle. Having a dose of naivety really helped: we weren’t afraid to reach out and present our solution to key decision makers, even at top institutions. Not every meeting will go smoothly, but it's still a learning process and the main goal is to get as much useful, constructive feedback as you can. 

One of the big outcomes of this is our recent rebrand and repositioning to Valarian. From a design perspective, our new look and feel reflect a key piece of what makes our product unique: Valarian is a transparent, seamless layer of security and compliance over our clients’ existing infrastructure; and our name reflects the platform’s key features: resilience, scalability, and efficiency.

Evolving responsibilities as Valarian CEO

I don’t think I’d appreciated how hard the role of CEO is until I was doing it at Valarian. 

Obviously, the role of CEO constantly transforms over the lifespan of a business. I think the earliest days can be the hardest. It’s unbelievably hard to start: to take something from zero to one, from an idea into existence. As founder & CEO, your responsibilities are limitless—you’re marketing, you’re sales, you’re development, and so on. You have an endless list of tasks and that can be overwhelming. 

The most important task as founder, therefore, is to convince people who are better than you to join your team, to take on the roles and responsibilities you’d previously been doing and to take them to the next level. We’ve had tremendous success in this regard, attracting people from the likes of Palantir and Robinhood to bring in a wealth of experience from successful startups and inject that into our business. 

Of course, to do this, you need to fulfil your second most important role as founder—fundraising. We’ve been successful in bringing together an incredible group of investors, raising $11m in seed funding to date from the likes of Molten Ventures, Playfair Capital, and IQ Capital. My biggest learning about fundraising is how quickly it inverts over time. At the early stage, venture can feel like an exclusive club, and you’re banging on the door and getting no response. But as soon as you start to get some traction, and the attention of one or two important funds, suddenly all the others start to pay attention. It’s quickly inverted from firing out cold emails (and getting little response), to those funds now reaching out to me asking for a call. Of course, it never gets particularly easy—but once you’ve raised that first institutional round, it becomes much less hard to make those in-roads with investors.

To summarise, I think it was Fred Wilson, who said the role of the founder is three-fold. One, set the vision. This is important, but visions change (we’ve certainly found this to be true). Two, be good at raising and make sure the money doesn’t run out. Three, understand how to hire people who are better than you. 

Clearing the path for the company’s success 

Since those early days, my role as CEO has transformed. The difference between building a small early team and now leading a team of 30 to 40 people is huge. This current stage feels like the sweet spot between being small enough to feel decisions being impacted very quickly through the organisation, while still having enough resources. 

No day is without its challenges. I often describe it as fighting hand-to-hand combat on a daily basis, overcoming obstacles that come our way to try and clear a path for my team to thrive. 

Where do I source my inspiration for overcoming these challenges? I don’t listen to podcasts really, nor do I read business books. Rather, being able to lean on the expertise of others has been instrumental. I’ve benefitted hugely from those who are always at the other end of a phone call when needed—certain people who have built and run successful businesses themselves. This can be everything from the macro view of running a business, to nitty gritty specifics that you encounter on a daily basis. 

We’re entering a critical and exciting stage at Valarian, and I often think about what it will take to succeed here. And other macro factors aside, I don’t feel it's complex. It’s really just about relentless execution, something that is firmly in my control. I feel confident that success comes from compounding time, that if I spend 10 to 12 hours every day executing, I’ll wake up in 3 years and have built a fantastic company.  

About Max

Max Buchan is the CEO & Founder of Valarian. He started his career at a multinational financial services organisation, helping the company reach over $2 billion in assets under management. It went on to achieve a successful public listing. 

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