In this podcast, Ashwin talks about never throwing away a good crisis, pivots on way to the first million, and how an early focus on brand smoothened PipeCandy’s enterprise adoption and eventual acquisition.
1:29: SaaS. Because it returns good multiples
3:57: How Chennai stole the SaaS crown
6:19: Going enterprise when others sold SMB
9:05: Pivots on way to first million
16:14: Yae or Nay? The Funding question
17:57: Brand marketing before product marketing
23:37: The line from positioning to acquisition
27:10: Filter Kaapi reboot
34:04: Slow and deliberate > fast growth
Rajan: Welcome to the Value SaaS Show. Today I have Ashwin Ramasamy. Ashwin is a good friend. He's the co-founder of PipeCandy, which he recently sold to Assembly and announced the acquisition in April this year. There are many ways to describe PipeCandy, one of which Ashwin says, is think of PipeCandy as ZoomInfo for the e-commerce industry. The other ways Ashwin will get into as we speak. And before he built and sold PipeCandy, he co-founded Contract IQ, which was like Upwork for mobile app development. Started in 2011. Again, sold four years later.
Ashwin is also very passionate about Chennai startups. He has played an important role in development of the Chennai startup ecosystem, starting with meetups and a community called the Filter Kaapi Club, which is one of the OGs of startup communities.
He started his career in sales but later realized that he has a penchant for writing, and somewhere along the line, the marketer in him drifted. So he's rediscovering that now. And we will talk about that in a bit. Ashwin is also a proud dad of a teen who's done her own neutral interpretation of Mahabharata.
Rajan: Ashwin, welcome to the show.
Ashwin: Happy to be here. That was an elaborate introduction. So maybe we'll do justice as we go.
Rajan: Sounds good. So let me dive in. Well, I've been dying to ask this to you. Like Chennai is called the SaaS Capital of India - and there are a lot of Chennai startups that are building SaaS by default - what is the one thing that you've seen people misunderstand about building a SaaS startup, and especially a startup coming from Chennai?
Ashwin: Yeah. So let's talk about SaaS startups. So subscription is a beautiful business model because you get month-on-month predictable revenue. Why is that important? It's important because it aids free cashflow the way many other businesses don't.
Since I have the benefit of also looking at the world of direct-to-consumer businesses, e-commerce businesses, and so on, they are very capital intensive. There is supply chain, there is logistics, there is storage, and so on and so forth. These are all cash guzzlers. And inventory forecasting is sporadic at best. SaaS does not have those issues. It's a beautiful business model in and of itself, which lends itself for very good cash flow management. And so it gives many options to founders to build it the way they want.
So the philosophical question of whether to raise money or bootstrap it and those things come up. SaaS business, because of predictable revenue, has good multiples and also gives you a way to build it your own way, build it the Value SaaS way. So that's what I like about the SaaS model.
Rajan: Coming to Chennai, we associate labels with cities like, Bangalore being tech and Bombay being mercantile and so on. So Chennai has, I mean, I would speak for Tamil Nadu, Chennai being the visible name there. It's a very industrious city and manufacturing technology has been around for a long time here, even before foreign investment was popular, with homegrown companies like TVS and Ashok Leyland, and so forth. And a very strong accounting mathematics type of background like, like CMI, and there are a bunch of economics institutes here. So strong industries, strong academic rigor and some really good homegrown successes in the SaaS business that we know of. So if you're building a data science company, you can get talent fresh from college, which is really good in mathematics here. So those are things that are going for Chennai.
Ashwin: Of course there are also other labels like being a conservative city. I think that's a good thing. Don't spend for, I mean, no growth for growth's sake and so on and so forth. So that's how I would, if I have to drop some anchors around ‘Why Chennai’, these would be it.
Rajan: What are the things that are misunderstood by the rest of the world, rest of the startup folks in Delhi and Bangalore about Chennai startups?
Ashwin: See, I mean, the stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. It is true. I mean, I would recall the conversation I had with one of the investors and I was giving the quarterly update and it was a good quarter and we had some good logos, we had some good growth, but it wasn't what we anticipated it would be, but it was good nonetheless. And I was explaining this in a very apologetic tone. And he interrupted me and said, why are you being apologetic about doing well in a quarter? If this were like a Delhi entrepreneur, they would just have a party for the quarter done well. Why are you being apologetic about it?
Then it struck me how ingrained it is for us to actually underplay, And it's true. We are conservative and that label is there for a reason. It works well in some cases like financial prudence. It doesn't work well when you're telling a story. So one broad brush does not do justice. There are some traits to a city, traits to entrepreneurs coming from a city. In some situations it's a plus, some situations it's a minus, but I think we have done a reasonably good job as Chennai founders towards marketing ourselves. Like now we have taken the SaaS Capital moniker. Hey, that's a win.
Rajan: Fair enough. One other thing that I specifically wanted to ask you Ashwin is that there is a stereotyping of Chennai and SaaS in some sense, but this is all about SMB because there has been a lot of success around building SMB-related products. But I remember you specifically being one of the first saying, ‘No, I'm going to focus on closing on and interacting with enterprises’. And I remember the five ways of building a hundred million SaaS post from Christoph Jans. Most of them were focusing on rats and rabbits and you were taking an explicit choice of going to go hunt elephants. Talk to me a little bit more about why you made that choice?
Ashwin: I think we are conditioned by our experiences. So I started with SMB sales. My first job was selling shopping carts to e-commerce companies back in 2003 to 2006. SMB is fun, but the sales motion needs a lot of resources, people and so on.
Then I moved to enterprise, selling typically $1 million to $10-$25 million deals. And it does take time, but the customers don't go away. And if you have a truly unique product, then the success rate is predictable. So for all of those reasons, it made sense to start focusing on enterprise and not be bored by it. It is just familiarity. I was very familiar with enterprise selling as a sales guy personally.
Rajan: Ashwin, if I may interrupt, when did you make the shift from SMB to enterprise?
Ashwin: My first job involved selling SMB. The second job was with Satyam and I was selling ERP, CRM technology to automotive companies in the US and then selling technology to sovereign wealth funds.
So you are familiar with numbers. The sales guys are slaves to the numbers they are used to. So the 100,000, 500,000 million dollar kind of number did not scare me because these were very familiar numbers. That's kind of how I got to start with enterprise.
Rajan: And that shift in that experience of going and closing enterprise deals, I found it interesting that you use this word saying ‘those types of numbers did not scare me’. So going after those accounts, you had that experience, you made that shift and that gave you the confidence to go after it.
Ashwin: Right. And so in many ways SaaS is reinventing, or it’s like old wine in a new bottle type of thing. ABM, for example. Enterprise tech companies have been doing it for a long time. Wining and dining and bringing people on to a stage. IBM does a really good job of it. So bring the five CEOs they want to convert and put them on the stage and talk highly about them and get them on a panel and wine and dine and get them to a box seat for a game. So this is ABM. And then specific pitches to them.
So this playbook has been there in other industries. Like defense is one such industry which does that really well. So it was easy to kind of demystify and not be scared about these three-letter acronyms, which we create like very, very often?
Rajan: So you started PipeCandy in 2016 and initially you started out as an outbound email company and then raised a little bit of money. Then I remember you mentioning that you ran into this small data problem, not big data, but a small data problem. And then after you had raised money, you ran into this problem and then you realized that your initial story or pitch, the way you had envisioned it, may not work. And then you had to make some choices. Talk us through that.
Ashwin: Right. So our original idea was an intelligent outbound email marketing tool for sales teams. So essentially we would look at the responses that were coming for outbound emails, understand which personas, which segments respond better for what kind of messages and continuously suggest the teams on who to target and what messages to deliver.
The assumption was that data about target customers would be clean and teams would be able to scale email campaigns effortlessly and we would get a critical mass of responses. The data about target customers was not clean and the data was not specific. It was very generic. Email IDs are not specific data points. The data was mostly industry agnostic and fairly flat. So response rates were actually poor. And so if you have a thousand emails going and you get like five responses, how much data science can you run on that? Right. That was the problem.
We still thought companies have good stories to tell and it would resonate with certain specific types of customers. We simply looked at it and said, let's cut out email as a medium. Let's still help companies tell good stories. That's when we decided we would build an industry-specific data sets that gives a lot of context to sales teams when they pitch their stories. That's how the transition from outbound email campaign software to data business happened.
Rajan: Right. But this was like a pivot. So what did it mean in terms of your runway, in terms of your team coming along with you for the first vision versus changing? How did this pivot play out for you?
Ashwin: See the outbound email tool was not a failure. I think it was an unforced error on our part. If I had to go back and do things again, I would have kind of stuck to it.
What happened was we had run into some trouble with Gmail cutting our access. I mean, not just our access, like several companies’ access. And we thought we would be beholden to Gmail's whims and fancies. And so it's a long-term risk for the business. And it wasn't. It was a transient thing. We should have not made any big calls based on that. We did.
Right out of the gate, we had phenomenal success with that business. In about four months, we were close to $30,000 MRR. And we could have continued growing it and built a substantial outbound email marketing business. But we didn't. One of the problems we faced was, because we thought we would build industry data, contact data would come from partners. Even that was messy. So we had to build a contact data business ground up.
It was like building a contact data business. And overnight, practically over a weekend and a couple of days, we built a 32 member team in Tirunelveli for contact data building. And every new customer we added, we were worried because, ‘oh shit, some more contact data’. So do we add some more people? And it felt like a services business, massively adding people very quickly.
We were thinking we'll build industry data. Now we are building contact data, getting into a commodity business. And then we said let's put a full-stop to it. No contact data, no e-commerce, no outbound tool. Let's just build data for e-commerce.
So we had to let 32 people go at one go and the engineering team that was building the outbound thing also. But the market was in good shape. The folks in Tirunelveli came and said ‘if you support us enough, we'll run this business ourselves’. We spun it out and they still run that business successfully.
So that was taken care of. We still continue to be their largest customer. And the engineering team got placed in another gen X SaaS company. So it was a difficult one-two month period, but a happy ending after that. We had about a 10-month runway. So it wasn't like we were running out of money.
So e-commerce data was not there at all. So we said we have e-commerce data, and people started buying it immediately. We had to change the target customer base but since the data did not exist, there was an immediate uptake for it. So it's not like there was a period of trough and like we had to figure out and disillusionment - that didn't happen.
Rajan: So you had a wide range of audience through outbound that you were targeting, but then within that you had the e-commerce niche that was looking for data and then you just had to sort of focus your attention towards them. So with this pivot, from then on, how long did it take to get to your first million in revenue?
Ashwin: So two years actually. We were on the first product, we were on our path to getting to a million dollars in about six months, but with this a year-and-a-half. So we launched in the second quarter of 2016 and then around February of 2017 is when we said you're only e-commerce and somewhere around mid of 2018 is when we hit the million dollars.
Rajan: Usually at the million dollar mark, it is a point of, you know multiple choices forward from here. So after you hit a million dollars, what were the choices? How were we thinking about growing the business further?
Ashwin: See the quality of revenue is important. It's not a million dollars. It's how the million dollars happen. So when you make a pivot, you don't let a good crisis go away.
So we were bold enough, is how I would reflect back and think about this. Yes, we had our start in outbound email marketing and we built prospect data for outbound email marketing and e-commerce. Had we spent some more time, we would have picked up a higher value use case than prospecting data.
So building e-commerce data from public sources, estimation of revenue for millions of companies is a non-trivial task, both in terms of data operations as well as data science. And we did all that and then we are selling for like a dollar-a-piece. So it's like building a Ferrari and then you say, I would keep it in the parking lot.
Rajan: Love that analogy.
So but then that was bringing in the revenue. So you have a dilemma. You already have done one pivot and it's working. We've always had this conversation. So if your business is obviously bad, you would kill it. If it's obviously good, everyone's happy. What if it's somewhere in between. That's when you get into a lot of soul searching.
So we never stopped looking at other options. We wrote some really good blog posts about e-commerce market size. People started asking for source data and some research and we figured we could monetize our research. We figured we could monetize our API. So we started looking at other revenue streams. We knew those revenue streams were actually much more profitable and upfront revenue, limited chances of churn and so on. But we didn't know - I wouldn't say we didn’t know how to scale - we lost the plot in terms of marketing. That's when the intervention happened later on, like with SaaS Boomi and so on. And we figured out our positioning, we figured out pricing. That's when we took off.
Rajan: So I remember in 2018, you mentioned that you had considered raising funding again in 2020. Would you say that since you weren't clear about which way to take this and run really fast, is this where you chose not to raise funding. What were some of the thoughts that were going on in your mind?
Ashwin: So we knew we were building something valuable and at scale and some of the logos that we had justified or validated that fact back to us. So we knew we were onto something. But even people who were in the e-commerce world discouraged that - that if you know all about 2000 e-commerce companies, why do I care about the remaining? Why do you care about the million e-commerce companies? They are coming in and out of business, like 30% of them go out of business every year.
E-commerce was still 10% or 9% at that point of total retail. So there's only one way and that's upwards. So we knew if we put our heads down and continue building it, we will build something valuable. It's only a question of when the market will turn. And because we were also discovering other use cases - and there are so many adjacent products to build - I was of the opinion that we should fundraise. And my co-founders were of the opinion that we should not, because, hey, like, you know, it's okay. You can tell a story and raise the Series A. But are you sure that if you raise $5 million, you would return $50 million? Are you sure about that? Everything looked like a risky bet. It was not scale money that we were raising. It was still experimental money, masquerading as Series A.
So I turned around and saw that point of view. And so we all decided we will not raise money and revenue was supporting the company anyway. And this would give us the optionality. So the idea was we'll continue building. Let's revisit this in 18 months and see if we are ready. That's how we looked at it.
Rajan: I have seen you do sessions for other founders, share what you have learned so that others can learn from your mistakes. And I remember seeing your website in 2016. I went back to that website and it said ‘new outbound sales is intelligent and smart’. That was H1 of the website. Then in 2018 in Chennai, when you did a session, it was ‘predict the next moves of eCommerce and B2C companies’. I think that's where the pivot happened. But in 2021, when you did a session and up until recently, I think even now on the website, the H1 says something to the effect of an encyclopedia for B2C and eCommerce companies.
These are all small changes and it looks like just an adjustment in words, but these small changes are very, very impactful, very powerful. I want you to talk a little bit about that. And I want you to also talk about product marketing in that context, because that's a word that many founders get completely bowled over by.
Ashwin: Yeah. So these changes, especially the last change that we made was truly a moon landing moment for us. You know, one small step for mankind, one giant step for humanity - that kind of a monumental change for us.
If we don't tell the stories for ourselves the customers will assume a story about us. And that assumption may not be ideal for us.
When I was studying, I was a very, very ardent student of marketing and I really loved that topic. But then over a period of time, when sales does things to you, I lost touch with what I really loved, and that is like copy, content, advertising and those kinds of things.
I think one bad advice that a lot of SaaS founders have imbibed is that brand marketing is for late-stage. You need to think about your brand. It's a big advantage if you start thinking about your brand from day one.
So let's talk about positioning a little bit. Positioning is what customers think about you in relation to your competitors - in relation to your competitors as the operating word. So there are a few blocks in their head and they are giving you one block. They're giving other blocks to others. And you need to deliberately nudge the user, or the customer, to give the block that you want. Otherwise they will slot you somewhere.
We were a lead generation company. That was the block that was given to us because that's what you would find on our website. That's a very low value use case.
Rajan: That's what your first H1 I spoke about.
Ashwin: Yeah. Even after the predicted next moves, the H1 was trying to do most of the heavy lifting, whereas the rest of the website was just talking about leads. So here you are selling to large consulting firms, strategy consulting firms, like hundreds of thousands of others. And, an API solution starting at $25,000, the high-value customers and use cases were poorly positioned. We were doing a disservice to ourselves. And we weren't even packaging them as products.
So if I were to get to the nuts and bolts of what SaaS founders need to do is really find out why people are buying what they are buying from you in terms of pains and aspirations and so on. And tell a really good story. I mean, hire a really good storyteller. I mean, I don't know if that tribe exists in India, except for a couple of people. Tell a really good story. And, the story will then position you in the minds of the customer.
In our case, we overnight went from a single product to a multi-product company. We gave names for our products, even though they were all the same product. So it's a bunch of dominoes, like the copy has to look world-class. The pricing has to align with the values. The product and the pricing plans have to be named in such a way that customers self-select them to the right plans. It's not like gold, silver, copper, whatever. It's not like the starter, premium. It's like - online plan, tech plan, commerce plan, and so on. So we set out a bunch of these dominoes, color schemes we use, the lines we draw which look like balance sheets, the font we use for text versus like, you know, numbers. So if you want to be treated like a million dollars, you need to look like a million dollars. Our aesthetics are not world-class in India. We've got it right in, in several cases. It's not as bad as it used to be in the early 2000s or 2010s even.
But we don't benchmark ourselves against Apple in terms of copy or website. We devolve to the lowest possible denominator. Like, ‘hey, illustrations are easy. I'll buy some illustrations and stick it here’. And every website has illustrations and then all of those SaaS companies look the same. So these are things that are worth spending time on.
PipeCandy is the only data company out there which puts a pricing plan on the website. And that was a deliberate choice because we are pricing high and we wanted the enterprise to know that they are priced high. They are for me. So the positioning literally opened the enterprise pipeline for us. And that's a self selection that you deliberately do. So that's one of the parts of the enterprise motions that founders need to do. It's not only about going and attending conferences and so on and so forth. You need to look bigger than you are and enterprises should believe you are big. So this is not the usual product marketing conversation that you would have expected, but brand marketing to me proceeds product marketing.
Rajan: And by brand marketing, you mean telling a good origin story or value story.
Ashwin: Yeah. Positioning and, and the look and feel and how the sales enablement is all very cohesive in terms of the documents that you put together. How do you, how does your sales team present your story? Not just you the founder, but the sales team, what does the presentation deck look like? What does the demo experience look like? So these are things that you need to be very, very cohesive about and deliberate about.
Rajan: How did the acquisition conversation happen? Is there any correlation between your changes in positioning, or is it a function of what's happening in the market? Or did you do anything specifically for precipitating such conversations?
Ashwin: We always had a list of companies that could be potential partners and acquirers from day one. And I had an Excel sheet of about 163 companies or something. I see a company, I read about it, I'll think of an angle and I'll put it out there. So, you're not available for sale. You're always available for a sale for a price. Ironically, Assembly was not on Atlas. And it points to how no matter how diligently you do these things, you have someone who has an angle that you've not thought about.
In fact, I've never said this, I actually want to thank you guys because the Magic Box Paradigm, oh, that is worth its weight in gold. I have yellow highlights on every page of the book.
So coming back to how this happened. I mean, honestly we don't know how they found us. Like one of the things that I hear is a customer of ours moved to Assembly and they recommended us, and I also heard in other conversations that they found us through our content. So we don't know exactly what the source was but it was an inbound reachout for like partnership and eventually leading to this discussion. And what we realized even in these conversations, when people on the other side play the exact words that you wanted the positioning to do for you, you know you've done your positioning right.
If they use the words in the conversation and they have a vision for those products through the acquisition, you know that your website, and anything that you put out, all have done a good job of hitting the right spots.
So when an acquirer acquires you, I mean again borrowing from the Magic Box Paradigm book, they have a mountain to climb and they need this magic box, and they have a vision for what you are going to be as a part of them. And the starting point for that is for them to understand who you are and what your vision is. So that is coming from your copies and your enablement and those kinds of things. I think that quickly helped them understand where we are and where we want to be. And that made the conversation a lot easier.
Rajan: So that's how discovery happened. Then how long did that conversation or that relationship building take and when did you guys finally pull the trigger on ‘Okay, let's join forces’.
Ashwin: Two months from December to February.
Rajan: What are some of the memorable experiences and painful experiences out of that entire journey?
Ashwin: It's a separate podcast episode. We will record that. Only about that. But see, I mean finally you're working with people and you really enjoy working with the people that you want to work with. So I enjoyed every conversation. It took about like 11 months for us to close the deal. It was not a single conversation where we felt drained out and it was very energetic and we are well aligned. So that was the best part.
Everything else was the worst part. Usually what will happen is in acquisitions, there will be a sponsor and they will be different from the executive. Here the executives were involved so it was good. And there would be miscommunications, there would be issues related to negotiation, and so on and so forth. All of that worked out pretty okay for us, at least principle to principle. The India-US structure, the accounting legal issues because of that…
Rajan: The biggest nightmare for any Indian founder. …
Ashwin: And we had a cap table of like 35-40 people, thanks to what we thought was a syndicate, but like individuals sitting on a cap table. All of that became a big drain, what we could have accomplished in five months took us almost 11 months. That was the nightmare.
Filter Kaapi reboot
Rajan: We'll switch to another part of this type of conversation. We will record a separate M&A related one. I remember once you telling me that there's something about the air in Chennai that turns every B2C founder in Chennai to a B2B founder. And that's why we don't see a lot of B2C founders coming out of Chennai. Why do you think that is the case?
So a lot of brand building, advertising, initially in India had a Parsi influence and had a lot of upper middle class or those kinds of people; the Bombay crowd, that influence. So brand-building, storytelling was all happening in Delhi and Bombay. And solving computational problems or engineering problems happened this side. So it lent itself well to B2B. That's kind of why I think that happened.
I do see a bunch of B2C founders, especially from places like Coimbatore. They are used to building for others as OEMs, supply as OEMs. And now they are coming up and building it themselves. It calls for a lot of cost and marketing effort and money was available freely, at least for some point in time. Marketing is still a hump that people have to climb over. That's why probably, more B2B than B2C.
Rajan: You're very active in shaping the startup ecosystem. Since 2010, I remember many people talking about Barcamp and Open Coffee Club, but Filter Kaapi was started even before that.
Ashwin: No, no. Open Coffee Club started first and then Filter Kaapi. Open Kaapi was pretty successful. But beyond a point, it was kind of a meetup for entrepreneurs or wantepreneurs, not so much as product builders. So we needed a space for product builders. That's why we started Filter Kaapi. This was actually Vivek Durai and then Krish and then Sharan of Indee.TV and I. So we four decided this is something we need. And we started and we did a half a day event and that's how we kick started it. Now it's eight years.
At the beginning of 2021, it was six years. For those six years, pretty much every month, we met rain or shine. And no lurking and you have to come. Otherwise, we'll take you off the WhatsApp group. Those kinds of things were there. And it was a lot about building first-name familiarity and sharing things without feeling vulnerable and walking into someone's office without an appointment and getting help.
It accomplished all of those. So a lot of us are really good friends. We meet with families, we go on road trips impromptu and help each other with acquisition advice or fundraising advice, people. So it ticked all the boxes because it was a very close-knit community meant to only foster friendships. And COVID kind of knocked it. Also because each of us were at different stages of our journeys and it didn't have a common recurring theme to meet and discuss. But the friendships were already very strong that we could anyway, we could go phone and talk and go and meet and so on.
Now this is like a call out for everyone in Chennai. On the 24th of December, I'm putting together a lunch meetup for all product founders in Chennai. Essentially rebooting Filter Kaapi. Because there are a lot of new startups in Chennai, thanks to Freshworks IPO, and a lot of learning because operators are now becoming SaaS founders with operational experience in SaaS for the first time in Chennai. So there's a lot of shared learning and acceleration that is possible. So why don't we make that happen?
Rajan: So what has happened or changed in the last 10 or 12 years that you have been part of the startup ecosystem? What has become easy to do? What is still very hard to do as a startup?
Ashwin: So the most fascinating thing is none of us knew what it was to build a product company. A lot of them knew how to build products from an engineering standpoint, but like building products as the finished product of taking to the market, marketing sales, all of that was difficult for many. The most humbling thing is people were very forthcoming to teach what they learned the previous week. They weren't waiting to become good at it. They learned something the previous week and they would come and talk about it the next week.
Ashwin: So that culture has been preserved in many ways. We have exported that via SaaS Boomi across India and it's a phenomenally good forum. You guys are doing it with Value SaaS through Upekkha. So it's good.
What has not changed is, I know company building is hard and as a new set of people come and start companies, they have the same problems that others had like previously. And they have to go through their own journeys to figure it out. Access is available, but people need to be forthcoming to take that and learn and so on and so forth. The opportunities are available. But the challenges are pretty much the same.
And there are also scale challenges now. So who's out here who has taken a company from $15 million to $100 million? Who are those people like who can help us talk about it? Not really so many people. Those challenges we have not just in Chennai, but in the broader ecosystem as well. I think that's the evolution of the ecosystem.
Rajan: There is an ecosystem where willing to share more and make newer mistakes. So that way, you know, in terms of pace of growth, and newer things. I also noticed you say that earlier, it was about building products, but it is now about product business. We've all often had this conversation saying building a product is different from building a product business, and there is a lot more maturity in building product businesses. But the part that you said is very difficult still is the company building, no matter how many times you have done this before, when you are coming and thinking about this as a company and a business, the next time that you do it, it doesn't become any easier.
Ashwin: And there's this whole vertical SaaS - honeypot on the horizon. And a bunch of us have built vertical SaaS companies - myself, there's Ashwini. There are a few others who are built like vertical SaaS companies. So there needs to be a way to take all that knowledge and share with people. Because the SaaS motions that apply for you know, horizontal SaaS and like SMB does not apply for vertical SaaS and enterprise. So some new things, new learnings like new forums need to be in place.
Rajan: In the last 10 years, what is one mental model that you think you have changed or what is something that you've changed your point of view on related to startup-building or anything in SaaS?
Ashwin: Very, very difficult question to answer. So I would, I would think slow is better. Slow and deliberate is better than fast growth.
Rajan: Fast and without control. Yeah. Deliberate is better than fast and without control. Yeah.
Ashwin: Yeah, So, you know, not just in terms of what you want to do for your company and what outcomes you want to get, but when you are deliberate about solving a problem, you can be true to the problem only when you apply yourself to the problem in the true sense of that word.
So I mean, unfortunately we have started seeing customers as a way to a means, the means is like an IPO or the means is like an outcome and so on. Solving a problem for problem's own sake and making money as a by-product of it is something that I've been thinking about for a long time.
So why do you have revenue goals?
I mean, it's probably a privilege of having an exit, but once you have that privilege, that's how the ecosystem grows. Once you have those kinds of privileges, you can start taking long-term views about what you want to build. If one thing that has definitely changed for me is solving a problem truly comprehensively and not worrying about interim milestones.
Rajan: Oh, yeah. You said it was a difficult question, but you know, it's a fantastic, deeply thought through answer. Is there a question Ashwin that I should have asked, but I did not ask you? And your journey on choices that you made on how some of the choices that you made are very unconventional and how you're thinking about like, you know, your future choices that are also really unconventional.
Ashwin: Right. So I'm not sure so I don't have a profound thing to share, but what I would say is that the big side product or side benefit of being a founder is the kind of community that you get to self-select yourself to. There are really phenomenal founders, like say Ashwini, Krish, some of these, Hari, these are people that have a good fortune of talking to almost on a daily basis. It shapes your view of how things have to be done, how you need to approach employees, how you need to approach things in general. Creates a lot of humility in you and rootedness in you.
On the other hand, there is also a treadmill, like, they have run the company for five years and exited like, and it's been 10 years in my journey, what am I doing? Or like they have bought a mansion in the Valley, what am I doing and so on. So you can pick your heroes, you can pick your role models.
So I mean, if you are a founder in the early years, my recommendation is to pick your cohort really well, because that will make a big difference to your inner peace.
Rajan: Awesome. With that Ashwin, we'll wrap up this conversation. Thank you so much for being very candid about all the things that you've done. And I'm sure this will help many of the first times as founders that are listening to this.
Ashwin: Always nice to talk to you. This is one more such.