Validating and Selling a Technically-Difficult Idea, Serving 2 Personas, Fundraising in a Tough SaaS Setting, and Working In-Person with Merge’s Co-Founder, Shensi Ding


A stop-start air pervades any startup’s pre-PMF journey. As founders remould ideas, markets, MVPs, and — what often goes unmentioned — themselves.

In the following exchange, Merge’s co-founder and CEO, Shensi Ding, recounts one such challenging, exhilarating passage:

Notes on early validation
Building all day (and contributing as a non-technical founder)
Selling all day (and figuring the enterprise motion)
Solving for two different personas at once
Hiring a VP of Marketing within a year of onboarding the first paid customer
Prioritizing partnerships from day one
Fundraising in a stark SaaS environment
Choosing to work in-person


“We were still nervous…”

Merge wasn’t always Merge.

Several iterations (as nobody wanted those :)) preceded it.

But during our research that involved talking to around 100 companies, as soon as we came up with the idea that was closest to Merge, we got a lot of validation.

We were still nervous, though.

And wondered if the idea would catch the same level of interest when translated into something tangible.

This was a result of Merge being a technically difficult product to build, which meant we wouldn’t go to market for a really long time. In fact, it was almost a year before the first customers came onboard.

The doubts weren’t unfounded.

When we were raising our seed round, there were a few companies that insisted on building their integrations in-house and stated that they’d likely never use a solution like ours.

Well, just this past quarter, we’ve been able to sign all those companies as customers.

Accelerating early-stage product development

After the initial validation of Merge’s core idea, for the following 6-8 months all we did was code. Nothing else. Really. Everyone (including me) just built all day.

Although I had studied computer science in undergrad, I had never been a software engineer in a full-time role and was pretty rusty. But my co-founder, Gil, really invested in me (taught me a lot) to make sure that I could contribute as an engineer.

It worked.

Both of us coding full-time certainly helped the first hires accelerate our development. Days, nights, and weekends were all dedicated to shaping out this new product.

In retrospect, I’m grateful that I could do that.

I helped build most of the early integrations and that granted me a lot of domain authority when we spoke with our first customers. I knew exactly what went into each integration, how we did each mapping, the gains and limitations of individual API providers, etc.

I highly recommend contributing hands on with the development of early product, especially non-technical founders, because in the beginning there really isn’t that much to do except building and it’s the best way to understand customer pain points.

Setting a solid foundation with founder-led sales

Then as we started bringing on the first set of customers, our roles as founders started transitioning towards pre-sales. Once those initial customers were set up there was a period where we shifted our focus to post-sales.

Because with those early folks, we didn’t even know where the bugs were. You don’t have any bugs until you have customers, right? :slight_smile:

After stabilizing the product for those customers, Gil and I were then fully devoted to sales.

Deploying Merge is a pretty big decision for a product. And it’s a permanent decision. Because it’s really hard to replicate what we’ve built in-house. So, even though we get interest bottom-up all the time, we’ve really adopted a top-down, enterprise sales motion

We pitched, demoed, and sold across hundreds of sales meetings and put in our 10,000 hours.

It was really, really great practice for us.

Gathering all those data points, building a specific sort of muscle memory as we nailed down our pitch helped us position ourselves to potential hires and investors as well.

And by the time Rob, our Head of Sales, came in, we knew what worked, what didn’t work, what people cared about, what they didn’t care about, and who truly resonated with Merge’s story and what we were selling.

He had a solid foundation to scale our sales motion instead of having to experiment and build it from scratch.

Serving multiple stakeholders across the product’s lifecycle

The pre-product conversations we did with over 100 companies spanned various teams that had touchpoints with this problem. Sales. Post-sales. Engineers. Product. Partnerships. Almost everyone.

But the two personas that viscerally felt the pain were engineers and customer success teams.

And it’s been interesting to discover that we get that initial buy from product and engineering teams but the renewals definitely have a heavy hand from the CS team. And it’s not the usual user vs buyer distinction as they’re both very much using us, just across different times.

Product and engineering teams evaluate the product and own the final decisions. The spend comes from their budget. And thus we gravitate towards selling to CTOs, CPOs, senior PMs, and engineering leaders.

Customer success is rarely involved throughout this phase. But once an integration is live, they’re the team we interact with day-to-day, and ultimately, they are important advocates during renewals.

We knew from our previous experiences that integrations weren’t only an engineering problem; there’s effort from sales, partnerships, product, design, customer success and engineering.

In addition, although people often-times think about the effort going into the initial build, maintaining integrations is actually much more time-consuming.

CS teams were the ones most involved in that maintenance work. Having to interact with customers, having to review authentication processes, respond to errors, and bring in engineers when necessary - it’s all in a day’s work for a CS team.

We really wanted to build features that could enable CS teams to self-serve most of their integrations issues and roadmaps.

As a result, a lot of our research also converged on learning about the post-sales experience and teams that managed it. What were their goals? What was the motion when something went awry? What tools did they trust and use? What was their customer interaction like?

This has meant not only building Merge for two different personas, but also evolving our own sales and customer success motions to accommodate every stakeholder that interacts with Merge, and setting up our teams for success.

“…this was a big gap in our knowledge and experience”

With marketing, at first we hired a few junior team members to help us try out ads, run the website, push out the first SEO-related content, and other tactical things.

When we realized that Merge solved a well-known problem for people who ran into it all the time, we started approaching our go to market strategy differently. “These potential customers just need to find us. Whenever they face this problem they should know that they can use us and not go down the path of building something in-house.”

We needed to invest heavily in marketing.

Because Gil and I were far from experts and had very little experience in marketing, this was a big gap in our knowledge, so we prioritized hiring someone who had the know-how and tenure to help us set the fundamentals and scale our go-to-market strategy.

How did we onboard this person?

Gil and I don’t micro-manage. When we hire someone we trust them to make their own decisions as long as company metrics are pointing in the right direction.

So when Nick (our VP of Marketing) came in, we offered him access to data on what worked and didn’t work with our sales and marketing motions, and what we had experimented with until then.

The data that we had gathered over hundreds of research conversations was a great launching point for him to gather a bird’s eye view of our company positioning and our go to market motions.

Apart from these, we didn’t do much. Which helped him quite a bit. He had the necessary inputs, the autonomy to experiment and do what seemed right. He ramped up pretty quickly,so looking back, we wouldn’t onboard him any differently.

How we’ve approached partnerships so far

Partnerships, as you can tell from the nature of our product, have been super important to us. We knew we had to prioritize them upfront.

I did a lot of the direct partnerships myself. Our first business hire was similarly involved extensively in those discussions.

Over the summer, we really dug into hiring for this role. Brought in Zack, our Head of Partnerships, from Gusto. And guess what? We met him during one of those partnership meetings as well.

Zack has been pivotal for our company. He’s helped open many doors, started new conversations, and holds proactive, recurring meetings with companies we’re looking to partner with.

Our partnerships strategy has and continues to revolve around approaching companies with good intent, hoping to contribute first, and set clear grounds for mutual benefits from the beginning.

Crafting a high-quality business especially when times are good

Why raise a round in the current environment?

Well, we didn’t know where the market was headed in the near future, we were doing really well as a business, and we had amazing investor interest. It was really a seize-the-moment situation.

We’re really happy that we did because now we can scale faster, build out more integrations, support more customers, and hire more post-sales team members.

We could make this fundraising decision primarily because of another one we had made long back. Hiring a Head of Finance and Ops very early in our journey is something we’ve been incredibly grateful for, especially since the market turned.

Thanks to that hiring decision, we have always been a very efficient business. We’ve been really careful about our spend, about how much money we were generating, and we’ve been really deliberate about ROI on every single hire.

Over the past few months, it’s been reaffirming to have been focusing on building a high-quality (and also high-growth) business.

The ethos of pushing and stretching as much as we can as a team has been a helpful, hard-won strength for Merge.

Having a great finance leader really changes the game for a company. It makes you more careful with experiments and more thoughtful when hiring.

It’s definitely a critical early hire in my book.

“It’s been totally worth it”

We’ve always been an in-person team.

Save for one team member who owns DevOps (it was such a hard position to hire for), who works remotely out of Florida but he flies into both of our offices to meet the team whenever he can.

I’ve always valued how much having everyone in-person has helped us: it accelerates trust, tackles thorny product development issues, and has created a supportive community.

It’s also been rewarding to witness team members, especially those who are fairly early in their careers, learn a lot more, grow deeper into their roles, just by the virtue of sitting next to someone. That’s just hard to replicate in a remote environment.

Having this hiring filter does take away a lot of candidates from the pool but the people who do apply are very keen on what we’re building and know exactly what they are signing up for. They’re more committed to the challenge, the company, and stay longer.

It’s been totally worth it. I would much rather have highly engaged, quality candidates even with a reduced top of the funnel.

One a personal note, when I first graduated, it was at my first few jobs that I had made so many friends and many of those connections have lasted to this day. Those wouldn’t have existed if I had joined a remote workplace, and I wanted to create a similar experience here.


Related reading from the Relay archives:

Contenda’s co-founder, Lilly Chen, on why being “enterprise-ready” can wait
Knack’s first Head of Finance, Christopher Chan, on setting up finance as an impact multiplier
Airplane’s co-founder, Ravi Parikh, on the first sales hire


Looks like the past couple of years have been quite a journey at Merge, Shensi. Thank you for sharing a great snapshot of that time here and congrats on the recent raise!

For founders who’ve not brought in a strategic finance hire yet (and I absolutely agree with you, this can make such a profound difference), it’ll be helpful to hear you unpack some of the operating principles and tactics that made Merge an efficient, high-quality business.


Great question! We always tried to hire and then see what the outcomes were before pouring gas on the fire. A lot of companies (especially in 2021) hired a lot and then tried to see what the outcomes were after.

We would try to collect a small amount of data before moving forward very quickly, while being open to change if something was clearly the wrong decision.