Launching a startup while battling a mysterious illness is no way to start out as an entrepreneur, but George Azih didn't have a choice. In 2014, while working 90-hour weeks between his accounting day job and a side hustle building LeaseQuery, an accounting software company, Azih started seeing double and experiencing excruciating headaches. Looking at a computer screen was unbearable, so Azih took a leave of absence from his job in Atlanta and flew to Minnesota's Mayo Clinic, where he finally got a diagnosis: myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease causing muscle weakness. In Azih's case, the disease was stress-induced.
The doctors were unsure when the headaches would go away, even with treatment. Azih quit his job and dedicated himself to LeaseQuery, which had generated just $30,000 in total revenue since its founding in 2011. Part of the treatment included wearing an eye-patch.
"I was seeing from only one eye, but at least I could still sell," Azih says, adding that his diagnosis didn't prevent him from traveling around the U.S. to give product demonstrations to prospective clients. He took off the eye-patch before every demo, but removing it made simple tasks like shaking hands a challenge. "I'd have to squint, look at their hand, and make sure I catch it," he says.
Six years later, LeaseQuery has grown from a one-person startup to a thriving software company with 180 employees. Its products help businesses track leases, avoid overpaying on rent, and manage lease accounting. Number 29 on the 2020 Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies, LeaseQuery has seen its revenue grow 8,080 percent since 2016. Last year, the company hit $24.9 million in annual revenue. Azih credits his ability to run the company while keeping his stress levels down to hiring well and empowering his employees to make decisions without seeking his approval first.
"I will never undermine them, because then everyone will come to me, which increases my stress," he says. "I like to say that I want to be the least powerful CEO in America."
Despite LeaseQuery's rapid growth, the company didn't raise capital until a Series A round in November, when Goldman Sachs' Merchant Banking Division invested $40 million in the business.
"We didn't take any investment because we didn't need it," Azih says, adding that even Goldman Sachs's investment is more of a safety net than a necessity. "If we want to acquire a company or hire more talent, we can afford to without worrying about the money."
While LeaseQuery has grown steadily during the past several years, the ride hasn't been entirely smooth. In 2016, Azih realized that the company's pay-as-you-go billing model would soon lead to negative cash flow, prompting the business to require upfront payment. The coronavirus pandemic also erased much of LeaseQuery's expected 2020 gains, leading the company to cut its 2020 revenue growth projections from 100 percent to between 20 to 25 percent. Part of the reason for the revised forecast involves the Financial Accounting Standards Board's decision to delay new lease accounting standards for private companies and government entities, giving both more time to focus on the impact of the pandemic.
"People are not as inclined to purchase our software," Azih says, adding that 20 percent growth year-over-year would still be "pretty good in a pandemic."
To keep morale high regardless of company performance or economic conditions, Azih tells his team to always celebrate the small wins, as selling software involves hearing a lot of no-thank-yous. Any conversation that leads to a demonstration should be celebrated, he says.
"It gives you this euphoria of, wow, somebody wants to see a demo!" he says. That level of humility may not typical for the founder of a business with nearly $25 million in annual sales, but Azih is hardly a typical entrepreneur. "You don't find a lot of CEOs who are accountants," he says.