Subrahmanyam Vempati of Cuspera: “Be relentless in your differentiation”

Be relentless in your differentiation. I was talking to some of the software vendors in the so-called “Conversational Intelligence” category. The leader in the category is frustrated because he wants to be known differently as Revenue Intelligence. One of the emerging players is frustrated with the category classification because they want to be known for […]

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Be relentless in your differentiation. I was talking to some of the software vendors in the so-called “Conversational Intelligence” category. The leader in the category is frustrated because he wants to be known differently as Revenue Intelligence. One of the emerging players is frustrated with the category classification because they want to be known for behavioral coaching. My recommendation to both of them is the same. Don’t try to position yourself in a category. Use Cuspera to connect with those who are more interested in that differentiation


As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Subrahmanyam Vempati (Subbu).

Subbu is the co-founder and CEO of the AI startup Cuspera.com, which is on a mission to enable the digital transformation of business by discovering the right software. He was previously founder CEO of another tech startup, Indiverein, that had reimagined how the latest technology start-ups would reach the enterprise faster based on a disruptive business model. Before that, Subbu was a corporate VP at Hewlett-Packard, managing a pull-through revenue of eight billion dollars from worldwide software alliances. Earlier to that, he worked to enable the emerging markets business for HP’s enterprise products, managed a third of the product team, drove the establishment of HP Labs in India. He had also worked at DRDO and NGEF.

Subbu graduated from NIT, Trichy. He is also an alumnus of Harvard Business School.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

One of my passions is democratization of technology. Technology created a divide of Have and Have-Nots. It is not just about people. The same divide applies to the businesses as well. Cloud and SaaS have removed some of the barriers in the access. Yet, most businesses are challenged in what and how parts of the journey, putting them at risk. Believing a healthy business ecosystem is healthy for the economy, I have become passionate about creating a level playing field for all the businesses.

The genesis of Cuspera goes back to Feb 2009, when I had a conversation with Steve White @ IDC regarding SaaS adoption rates by ISV. He had convinced me that the Cloud and SaaS would be the mainstay. And, there were some excellent data points to prove his point of view. Some of you may remember that Zoho had “emerged” in 2009 from AdventNet, and Salesforce had hit a billion-dollar mark in revenue. At that time, I was the President of world-wide software alliances for the then HP’s enterprise hardware business.

By 2016, the cloud and SaaS models have become prominent. These two factors enabled the business managers to move into the lead role for software purchases, particularly those related to the digital transformation. Yet, based on my own personal experience, software selection is a non-trivial task — it requires quality time and expertise. Wrong software selection can significantly impact the business outcomes. Knowing that the business needs tend to be unique and localized, Every business manager can benefit from a personal AI guide for this effort. And Cuspera was born to fulfill that. I was fortunate to get Krishna Prasad Chitrapura, an AI guru, to become interested in the challenge and join me to cofound Cuspera.

Cuspera has but one goal. Make the business manager and the business team successful in their digital transformation journey. When we help the businesses buy the right software, we also enable the software vendors to sell.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

By the time Cuspera was founded, AI had taken hold in B2C. I thought it would be a simple application of existing models with a new data set. Our very first version of Cuspera used B2C models. When we demonstrated this to the CDO at HomeDepot, we fell flat on our face! The B2C models did not cater to the nuances in the business world. The CDO asked whether HomeDepot is a Retail, E-Commerce, Wholesale or a combination? Just understanding the business context turned out to be complex.

We ended up developing models unique to our context and filing patent applications for that! In retrospect, the simplistic view I had taken of how easy to adapt AI to our needs sounds funny and naive in retrospect.

Simultaneously, the very B2C examples we could not directly leverage have inspired us to begin this journey. They have served as role models for us.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

When I had left HP, I was preparing to enroll as a Ph.D. student at IIM. It was Mahendran Balachandran at Accel who had encouraged me to think start-up. I still remember his comment that every start-up has its own PhD journey. Those discussions and his mentorship tilted my decision from a PhD enrollment to entrepreneurship.

The framework for solving the business manager’s challenge I have highlighted earlier came from the “Platform Theory” class by Marshall W. Van Alstyne of MIT. I had a brief opportunity to discuss my ideas with the Professor and the classmates. The discussion helped bring clarity to my thinking that what we need is a two sided platform matching the business managers to the right solutions.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

That we are in a Pull Economy was brought out powerfully by the book “The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion.” by John Hagel et al. It used to be that software used to be sold a lot. Sold to the IT departments, procurement teams. RFPs/RFIs were the vehicles through which the vendors engaged early in the buying process. It is akin to push sales.

The game has changed a lot, particularly in the digital transformation space, where the business managers are taking the primary role in procuring the software. They spend a full 70% of their effort researching what to buy before engaging the vendors in any fashion. They talk only to those vendors who fit their vision of a solution. The game now is pull-based software sales, pull by the business teams.

This book influenced me to think that our solution should prioritize the business managers as they are the prime moves of the Pull Economy for the tech business. They are experts in their own business, and if AI can augment them in software selection, they can become agile and take quick steps in transforming digitally.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Our vision is simple. Enable all business managers to navigate the digital landscape successfully.

Our purpose is to serve the business teams to find right-fit answers to their transformation needs and help them succeed.

So, we have designed and built Cuspera to help the business teams find a hyper-personalized match of a software solution to their business need, reducing TTV and the risk of a wrong selection. The business teams get to use business language to describe their problems, review industry practices, peer experiences, and trends while finding the matching right-fit solutions.

Our solution is novel because we don’t bin either the business or the software into categories:

Every business is unique, and the business needs are individual.

Most of the software brings something unique to the table.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Big enterprises have the necessary resources to solve the digital transformation puzzle. Beyond that the mid-market enterprises have the resources but are still challenged as there is no cookbook for digital transformation! There is a hesitation is a large number of companies that the digital transformation is a big beast and difficult to tackle. Yet, our own work shows that digital transformation can progress in byte-sized agile experiments. We have been exploring the possibilities how we can make this a cookbook for businesses, working with a Mid-Market CEO association.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level, what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?

I am answering this question specifically in context to what we learnt helping business teams digitally transform across the world. Over the past three years, we have had hundreds of conversations with different business teams. What comes out strongly is an urgency in customer-facing units in digital transformation.

The urgency drives even big enterprises to stay competitive (say, against an Amazon). All the growth-focused teams see the new places where their customers hang out are all digital platforms, so they want to connect. The same is the case with support and service teams.

For the businesses to succeed in digital transformation, they need to address:

1 . Where to focus the efforts. It’s simplistic to say that the business should have a roadmap. I believe that the technology world is moving fast. Planning is everything, but the plan is nothing. Business needs to be agile and experiment rapidly on what works for them.

I also believe that business managers are excellent judges of what to do if presented with options. I once read somewhere that “Show me the stuff that I really need that I don’t even know exists” isn’t much of a search string. That is no longer true. Artificial intelligence is capable of inferring and nudging business managers on what is possible. AI can augment the business manager very powerfully here based on industry best practices and peer insights.

2 . Change Resistance in the team. As I had learned in a round table discussion with a group of mid-market CEOs, CEOs fear this resistance in the organization the most. Change resistance comes about for various reasons, such as fear of the unknown and fear of failure. Being able to see where the transformation has worked in a similar context can significantly lower the resistance. AI can act as a guide to surface examples of success to encourage adoption.

There is a tailwind for the digital transformation today. The COVID pandemic has shown remote working and collaboration as viable options even when working with customers. I see more business rapidly taking advantage of this example to push the boundaries of the transformation.

3 . Software selection. It used to be simple to select a software solution when there are just a dozen categories, 20–30 products to the category, and the products get updated once in a year or longer (any remember that?).

Today’s reality is that there is an explosion of available solutions. Cloud, open source, new tech such as AI made possible niche software solutions. Just in Marketing and Sales, Cuspera has an inventory of 16,000+ solutions. There are more than 600 pure-play “CRMs” in our inventory. And, they are not copycats. They all have something unique to bring to the table, resulting in the verticalization of software. There lies the opportunity for the business teams to find a perfect match of a solution, enabling them to experiment rapidly and more successfully.

Yet, the traditional selection process doesn’t work when there are so many solutions and 500 odd categories of software. Our answer is to use AI to match the business requirements to the software’s functional capabilities, emphasizing the software differentiation, best practices and forecasts so the best possible solution emerges on the top for the particular business context.

4 . Execution and Continued transformation. The challenge does not end with software selection. Actual deployment and evolution bring their own challenges. We believe that the software user community is one of the most effective ways to support the business teams in navigating the cycle’s execution part.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Is there any business that can avoid the digital transformation and survive? The short answer is no.

The customers’ pull is the driving force that is compelling all businesses to adopt the technology. Even a solitary restaurant can’t avoid taking online orders and expect to grow. Even a single taxi owner can’t avoid being digitally available and hope to survive in the long run.

Industries such as healthcare that were not too keen on the digital revolution have taken to telemedicince very effectively owning to the pandemic.

No, I see no way any business can avoid digital transformation and survive.

We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes, and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.

While Cuspera wants to address all of the digital transformation space, the area we serve is around the enterprise’s customer-facing part. We have over 16,000 marketing and sales solutions on our platform. And, business teams search and select software for their marketing and sales-related problems. With over 50,000 searches per month growing at 12% month on month, I can see how the business teams are focused on the customer journey and the entrepreneurs innovating in this space.

Another way to think about our work is that we simplify the research part of the business team’s buying journey. From weeks of tabulating data from different sources with different quality levels, Easier said than done! Our value comes from our AI engine and the 100 million curated insights from tens of thousands of data sources. Without the use of core technologies such as NLP, and Machine Learning that made the process of compiling, curating and assimilating this massive trove of data, we wouldn’t have got to where we are today. Without the use of Machine Learning, we won’t have the ability to personalize the search or bring to the fore the core differentiation of the software solutions.

The most gratifying part is that the software vendors listed on our platform use Cuspera to find other software products they need. That’s a significant endorsement of the value that we bring to the customer experience. As a result, we have seen a nearly 400% increase in SaaS (Software As A Service) vendor sign-ups on our platform with this pandemic.

We are improving the software selection process.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

One of the enterprises empowered 900 business managers to spend up to 100K per annum in extending the software to serve their local customers. This initiative energized the organization and created tremendous interest and support for digital transformation among their business teams. As the software selection without a structure or a tool is error-prone, the teams found it challenging to maximize the ROI. We hope to help them uncover best practices from different experiments and streamline software selection using Cuspera as it is fundamentally built to solve this challenge.

Software selection has another dimension. It has to fit! Fit from the perspective of integration with existing tech stack, fit from security, risk, privacy, and compliance requirements etc. Only when all these requirements are met that the software is a right-fit for the organization. Cuspera is designed to address this right-fit.

Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Be rooted in your business needs. There is no need to compromise on your needs. Every business is unique. Both Dell and HP sell PCs that barely differ from each other. Yet, nobody can say HP and Dell are the same. There are so many unique solutions there that you will always find a near-perfect match for your needs.

Be aware of Peer experiences. They can be excellent stepping stones for your experimentation and success.

Be future proof. Peer experiences tend to be retrospective. Don’t forget to listen to the experts about what the future portends. Your best decision always involves what has worked — and what is around the corner.

Be agile. With verticalized software solutions, byte-sized solutions, it is now possible to experiment and tune your strategy faster and better. Digital transformation is all about agility. Shorten your selection time by using Cuspera. If you need to manage your advertisement on TikTok, you just need something to do it (and it works seamlessly with your existing solutions). You don’t need full-fledged ad management software. If you are not agile in your software selection and execution, don’t expect your transformation to quickly take you to the next level.

Be relentless in your differentiation. I was talking to some of the software vendors in the so-called “Conversational Intelligence” category. The leader in the category is frustrated because he wants to be known differently as Revenue Intelligence. One of the emerging players is frustrated with the category classification because they want to be known for behavioral coaching. My recommendation to both of them is the same. Don’t try to position yourself in a category. Use Cuspera to connect with those who are more interested in that differentiation

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

The very word “Culture” presupposes pervasiveness. In the new world order of fast-paced technology changes, no single individual can be the point person for innovation. Diversity brings unique capabilities to the table. It’s then about empowering your diverse team to experiment and learn.

With another company that we are in discussion with, the management team did precisely this, but without equipping the team with the right tools for experimentation. This Pharma company empowered its front-line managers to go digital. Despite the training, this created a business risk that the technology bought by these managers doesn’t meet the compliance requirements. Instead of expecting all the business managers to be proficient in the selection, I argue that they should equip these managers with solutions such as Cuspera that can automatically ensure only compliant software is selected.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be a student. Learn from everyone and everything”. I once read a story of a prince. His teacher asks him to learn from everybody. The prince points to a gangster and sarcastically asks whether he should learn how to be a gangster. The teacher smiles and says that the prince should learn how not to conduct himself from the gangster.

I have never found a better truism. It taught me to listen to learn. And, it helps me to align with my customer’s real needs.

How can our readers further follow your work?

· Cuspera Page on LinkedIn

· Twitter

· YouTube

· Cuspera.com

· Medium

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