Black History Month Startup Profile: Craig Lewis and Visage Payroll
Black History Month was created and is observed annually for remembrance and appreciation of notable people and events in the history of descendants of the African diaspora or people of African ancestry. This month gives us a chance to highlight what these notable people and events not only mean to black history but to general history at large. Within the startup and entrepreneurial community, black men and women are increasing their contributions but are still behind other racial groups in owning their own business or creating a product. Less than 1 percent of black Americans receive the venture capital necessary to get their business or product off the ground. Despite those setbacks, there are black men and women, especially in North Texas, who have been successful. Here are some of their stories.
Could you give a summary of what your company does and the idea or inspiration behind it?
Visage Payroll is an SaaS [Software as a Service], and we provide free payroll for small businesses. It’s really free; it’s not a ‘freemium’ model, meaning there is no upgrade. It’s the premium package for free. It is payroll, taxes, tax filing, tax compliance and tax payment.
In essence, I just wanted to make payroll better, so I wanted to design a better payroll system. In the process of doing that, we studied what we called ‘the great technologies of today’ so we could make it [Visage] look and feel like those technologies, instead of the old school payroll system. We looked at Facebook, Google, YouTube, Instagram and all of these wonderful platforms that have a lot of users who enjoy and like the platforms, and we wanted to design in that manner.
As we started to design the software, it was just going to be regular payroll, just designed better. I couldn’t escape the fact that all of those platforms were free. The naysayers would say all of those platforms are consumer products, not business products. And so, I kind of held off on the idea for a while, until one day I was on Facebook — and I’ll never forget it. I was doing my Facebook thing when my wife called me and said, ‘Babe, can you transfer some money to my account?’ So, I clicked the tab and went to Chase and transferred some money to her account. That’s when I knew it could be done.
I had utilized Facebook, which was free, and I had moved money from one account to another via Chase online for free. And that’s when I knew. That’s when we set out to say not only would we make it beautiful and modern, but we will make it free. So, that’s where [the idea] came from.
We focus on what I call the most overcharged and underserved market, which is small business. That, in the payroll world, means 1-49 employees. Our average number of employees is five, so 1-10 is our sweet spot. That segment, to all these [payroll] companies — like ADP, Paychex — they service that market, but they don’t pay attention to it. They will help them, but they aren’t trying to solve problems for them. What you find is, they [payroll companies] end up making these big payroll systems to try to fit these really small businesses; they’re too complex, they’re too cumbersome and then small businesses get overcharged for it. The systems are built on old technology, and the small businesses get nickeled and dimed.
When you look at the small business, you see that they are the heartbeat of our economy. These are the people who make the country run. Why would we be gouging the small business? If I really take a step back and look at it, no matter how much you gouge them, you can only charge a small business so much, so it’s not really a great business model. If I look at Google and Facebook and the type of money they generate, they’re not charging the user and they’re making way more money.
These small businesses are being overcharged and undeserved, let’s serve them better and not waste time charging them at all. And we can make so much more money in modern ways. The small business market is the biggest market; most businesses are in that space. We think we could be the largest stimulus package for business in our economy that we’ve ever seen, because if you add up what these small businesses are spending in time and dollars, we can save them a lot and, collectively, that does a lot for the economy. So, we’re really excited about serving that market and really having a major impact.
What got you into entrepreneurship?
I started out in sales, which is a really good breeding ground for entrepreneurship, because you work with numbers and you kind of control your own destiny. What happened was, as a sales professional, I was generating 60-70 percent of my income. You get a base [salary], but you really have to sell. So I knew I could generate revenue. In 2009, I went out and got private insurance. I worked for a smaller company, so the insurance was more expensive, so I went out and got insurance for myself. At this time, I looked at what the company was really doing for me. If I was generating 60-70 percent of my own money and I was paying for my own insurance, that kind of gave me the courage to know that I can do it. And then I slowly but surely progressed into diving in head first.
So I joined a startup as employee three or four, and I was chief strategy officer of another startup, and so I understood the fundraising and project development process. I already knew sales, business development and marketing. I took all of those things and incorporated it into Visage in June 2014 and really set the wheels in motion a year later.
As an entrepreneur who is black and a man, how have those intersections affected how you do business or how you approach your market?
I think that it has definitely been more positive than negative; there are some obstacles. First and foremost, what I would say is that I’ve embraced the concept that your disadvantages are your advantages. I’ve enhanced or tapped into who I am and embraced my self-awareness. As an entrepreneur, when you’re early on, you are the company and the company is you; you have to go out and find talent, and what attracts customers, partners and employees was me.
What I found was being me was the best thing I could be, because it gives people something different, something refreshing. So I’ve just embraced who I am. I come from a corporate background, and in corporate, you dress a certain way. And in startups, you kind of have to dress a certain way. And I didn’t want to do either one. I found myself comfortable in between, and so, even in the way I dress, I have on jeans, but I also have on a blazer and a pocket square.
I found my own uniqueness. I have a high top fade, and not many CEOs and Fortune 500s have a high top fade and a side part, but I’ve embraced that and actually started getting recognition for that. I just found it important to embrace your own being, your own style, and part of that is me being a black man. I come from a sports background and have a lot of the stereotypical things people may have heard about black males, but I’ve embraced those things as differences and along the way, worked my butt off, mastered my craft and made sure that I know what I needed to know.
There are also other things that are noticeable, like sometimes I’m the only guy in the room. I have a handful of investors that don’t all look like me, and that’s okay. There’s always learning moments and cultural opportunities to educate others and learn yourself, so I’ve embraced those. For me, it’s something I don’t ignore; it is what it is. We all know what’s going on, but I just move forward with a very fresh perspective. I know at the end of the day, I’m building a hell of a business. You can put whatever skin color or gender you want. I’m building something really special, and I think, bottom line is, if you know that and you’re committed to that, I can’t be denied.
What advice would you give anyone about becoming an entrepreneur?
First, you have to fall in love with an idea. The reason that’s important is a lot of people talk about execution and how it’s important to execute. But what gives you the strength to execute, to go through the tough times and conversations? You can’t be idea to idea every three or six months; you must have a passion and a purpose that you’re committed to if you want to be an entrepreneur.
Once you find that thing, it won’t leave you alone. It keeps pecking at you and wakes you up at night. You’re thinking about it while you’re at work; you’re talking to your family and friends about it, and you have to share it with the world. Once you find that idea, then you’re probably ready to see what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Everybody has different paths to do that. At some point and time you have to figure out when to jump all in. You can’t keep sticking your toe in; you have to go all in. People say, ‘Well what about my bills? I have a wife, three kids and a significant mortgage.’ I was in the midst of having a baby and building a home when we started Kairos [a human analytics company]. I was in the midst of having another baby when I founded Visage.
People talk about how, how will I … the ‘how’ is irrelevant once you’ve fallen in love with an idea because you know why you’re doing it. So the key is to fall in love with an idea and at some point find that point where you’re willing to go all in, go into debt, and sacrifice relationships, friendships and sleep. I think that’s what true, high-growth, impactful entrepreneurship is all about.