George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, spurred millions of Americans into social action. Many took to the streets to protest Floyd’s murder and other acts of police brutality. Secret Service Special Agent Mudassar Malik channeled his frustration into a 13-year-long dream of systematic change – a SaaS business that holds cops accountable for their actions.
As a street cop for the St. Louis County Police Department in the early 2000s, Mudassar imagined an independent accountability system. A system operating outside of the department, to track police-civilian interactions. One month after Floyd’s death, the law enforcement agent launched Officer Survey to do just that.
Police agencies use Mudassar’s software to survey community members who’ve interacted with a police officer. The citizen rates their experience and flags any bad behavior. Any potentially biased supervisors can’t interfere with civilian reports.
Officer Survey has since grown to include different types of interactive surveys. Officers can now rate their experience as employees, for example, and communities can weigh in on the department’s role in local townships.
But post-launch, Mudassar struggled to promote his SaaS business, even with Black Lives Matter protests unfolding everywhere. He needed help marketing his business to reach more police departments, but venture capitalists (VCs) were reluctant to fund his efforts.
“I was knocking on their door, but I had a miserable failure rate with VCs,” Mudassar says. “It got to a point where I thought, screw this, I’ll just do it on my own.”
Life Lessons They Don’t Teach in a Classroom
As a child, Mudassar remembers perching on the edge of his bed with his dad, watching hours of Cops on Fox. The reality show sparked his interest in law enforcement, which he later pursued in college with a criminal justice degree.
Mudassar admits to studying marketing and advertising at first, but the material didn’t stick. So he returned to law enforcement, earning a bachelor’s and then a master’s in criminal justice from Columbia College. At the same time, he hit the streets of St. Louis as a rookie cop.
Balancing full-time studies and work is challenging enough, but Mudassar also patrolled a rough neighborhood. From 2004 onward, he witnessed horror after horror in the streets. Worse was that few of the people Mudassar detained passed successfully through the justice system. By 2017, the burnout hit hard enough that he stepped away from policing altogether.
“Unfortunately, it got to a point where I’d seen too many dead bodies,” Mudassar says. “And I felt like no matter how much we kept locking these people up, our criminal justice system would not punish them. They would be out of jail by the time I finished my paperwork or got off work. I was extremely frustrated.”
A friend of Mudassar’s recommended he apply to the Secret Service for a change of pace. After a grueling year-and-and-a-half application process, the St. Louis cop joined the federal department. Already, the work has felt more rewarding – yet Mudassar hasn’t forgotten the 13 years of valuable lessons he picked up as a street cop.
Namely, Mudassar learned that not all cops treat civilians with respect. He remembers feeling shocked by some of his fellow police officers’ behavior in smaller municipalities outside St. Louis. Some officers, he says, were “openly, extremely racist.”
“I found some of the cops’ behaviors unethical,” Mudassar says. “Nothing along the lines of pinning drugs on people. But it was to a point where it was always a one-sided story. What the cops said was always right and whatever the citizen said was always wrong. And that was never true.”
As a rookie cop in the early 2000s, he wished he could do something to change these biases. Or at least report them. But it took several years for Mudassar to learn about the administrative processes that keep police agencies running. Disciplinary issues are handled internally, with a points system that leaves too much wiggle room for supervisors to excuse officers’ behavior.
“I knew there had to be a better system.”
After George Floyd was murdered, Mudassar decided it was time to take concrete action to implement the changes he wanted to see.
“I knew there had to be a better system. And that was the kick in the butt for me to see if we can come up with the solution,” Mudassar says.
Self-Taught Business Practices
Mudassar developed Officer Survey within weeks of Floyd’s death. He’d been considering an external accountability system for years. But he finally felt confident enough to execute it in the summer of 2020 after years of teaching himself how to run a business.
When he stopped policing, Mudassar also launched a fitness apparel brand called Badge Life. He spent hours watching online tutorials to master the marketing and business concepts he’d struggled with in college. When the idea for Officer Survey emerged a few years later, Mudassar took that same approach to learn how to build survey software.
“I knew nothing about the tech industry or anything like it,” Mudassar says. “I learned everything by watching YouTube videos or listening to hundreds of hours of podcasts on marketing, business, and SaaS. I didn’t even know what the hell SaaS stood for.”
A week into June 2020, Mudassar sat down and wrote out a list of all the components Officer Survey needed. He hired two developers and emailed them the list, asking if they could put something together that accomplished these goals. At the same time, he sold two of his cars and took out $10,000 from his savings to invest $30,000 into the business.
By the beginning of July, Mudassar launched a minimum viable product (MVP) that allowed police agencies to send surveys to civilians post-interaction. His main goal now was to reach those agencies and improve the product with their feedback.
After the Black Lives Matter protests that summer, Mudassar convinced some police chiefs in predominantly blue (Democratic) states to try his product. But to reach more departments, he needed to invest more in marketing, and he just didn’t have the budget.
Instead, Mudassar asked VCs if they’d support his campaign. Of the 180 VCs he contacted, few responded – and they all said no.
Recovering from Rejection
Mudassar was bewildered: Why hadn’t VCs jumped on this service so soon after the national conversation about police brutality? He’d built an accountability system that put the public’s experience first, and he challenged these VCs to show him another product that did the same.
“Many of them said I was too early. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s bullshit,’” Mudassar says. “Because that’s the whole point of a VC – you risk the early stage. If you’re only going to invest in companies earning millions in recurring revenue, you’re a banker, not a VC. The whole idea behind venture capital is that they take the risk.”
And already, Mudassar’s earliest agencies were reporting huge successes. They’d opened up better communication lines with their communities and retrained officers based on community feedback. Various police chiefs also told Mudassar how to improve the software, so he spent the rest of 2020 developing new features and enhancements.
But he still needed to test these improvements, so he researched marketing strategies to help him sell to a government agency. He also added different service tiers, creating a subscription model affordable to most departments. If that didn’t convince officers, he explained how a portfolio of evidence could save money in potential discriminatory lawsuits down the road.
Mudassar’s number one marketing advantage came from his authenticity as a former police officer. He understood his audience’s language and could relate to their struggles in the field and behind a desk. Encouraged by Mudassar’s authenticity, police chiefs recommended his software to other departments, so Mudassar developed a referral system.
When a police chief convinced another department to sign up to Officer Survey, they’d get $500 off next year’s subscription. The incentive gave Mudassar the funds he needed to grow Officer Survey without VC help.
Later, when two investors offered Mudassar $200,000, he turned them down. The referrals were already bringing in enough cash to keep Officer Survey bootstrapped.
“I had almost $40,000 in my bank accounts. I could live off forty grand and continue to build,” Mudassar says. “I reached out to both guys and said, ‘Hey, I really appreciate it. But I don’t know if I’m ready to take VC money. I want to ensure I’m not wasting it, so let me continue to build.’”
“I wanted to make sure that if I took their money, I still had the bootstrap mentality.”
The founder keeps in contact with these VCs in case they want to discuss big upgrades to Officer Survey. But at the time, Mudassar says, “I wanted to make sure that if I took their money, I still had the bootstrap mentality. And I wasn’t just throwing money around because I had it.”
Ultimately, Mudassar doesn’t regret his decision to fly solo. All of the profits and decisions belong to him and no one else. But when thinking about the future of his SaaS business, he admits that it’ll soon be time to pass the mantle.
Planning for an Exit
Since launching in the summer of 2020, Officer Survey has continued to sign up at least one police agency every month. Some months produce four or five new customers, adding to Mudassar’s growing contract list. In 2022, every department bar one renewed its plan.
But aside from two full-time engineers, Mudassar runs the business himself while still working for the Secret Service. In 2020, he would start his shift at six am, clock off at two pm, and then spend the next six to seven hours working on Officer Survey. While automation has saved Mudassar some time, it’s still a lot for one man to juggle.
And Mudassar knows how he wants Officer Survey to evolve. He pictures it nationwide, in every police department, supported by government funds. But to achieve that, someone else will have to build upon his dream.
“As a one-man show, it’s hard to scale it,” Mudassar says. “Especially given my poor experience with outside funding. So I would like to see a bigger player in the market adopt our technology and expand it in every state. It’s a lot easier for them to do it with hundreds of employees versus one guy working in his basement.”
Within the next few years, we’ll likely see Officer Survey on a platform like MicroAcquire, where founders can sell their startups to trusted buyers. Until then, Mudassar will do what he can to execute his vision, starting with a promising statewide initiative. One East Coast state has committed to deploying the survey software in every police department, on the state’s dime.
If more regions follow this example, Mudassar won’t have to spend hours persuading each police agency to subscribe. But he acknowledges that “grinding” and working those hours ultimately helped Officer Survey succeed.
For fellow founders looking to break into SaaS, especially without VC backing, Mudassar encourages you to never stop putting in that work. The payoff was worth it for Mudassar, who’s made that rookie cop from St. Louis proud.
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