Thejo Kote Of Airbase: “Surround yourself with the right people”

Again, optimism. Being optimistic really helps to build a business. I’m not sure if this is something you’re born with or something you develop yourself over time — but I’m an optimist, and having this particular character trait has really helped me get to where I am. Naturally good entrepreneurs tend to be optimists because they are […]

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Again, optimism. Being optimistic really helps to build a business. I’m not sure if this is something you’re born with or something you develop yourself over time — but I’m an optimist, and having this particular character trait has really helped me get to where I am. Naturally good entrepreneurs tend to be optimists because they are always looking at the world and thinking it could be better.


Thejo Kote realized he needed to move to the epicenter of the tech startup world after his first company’s software thrived in India but ultimately failed to break through globally. This was around the time of Twitter’s meteoric rise, and he couldn’t help comparing his company’s performance! SoThejo chose to pick himself up and go again and his decision to move to the United States, get a master’s degree from UC Berkeley, then start another company in 2011 proved to be the right one.

Automatic, which he co-founded, was sold to SiriusXM for $110 million. Thejo’s experience at Automatic revealed that widespread inefficiencies of accounting and finance in small to midsize companies can actually curtail a company’s growth. The most inefficient area he saw was non-payroll spending — no one had designed a fully articulated, consolidated software solution to fix this broken process. So he did; he started Airbase.

Airbase was founded in 2017, and so far has raised $30.8 million in venture funding from leading VC firms including Bain Capital Ventures, First Round Capital — and from others including the former CFO of Netsuite and co-founder of Okta, Airbase has gone on to become the world’s leading spend management platform.


What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I started Airbase, at least in part, as a response to something I saw too much of while running my first company: well-educated, truly intelligent people sacrificing huge amounts of their time doing low-value work. My talented finance team was bogged down in the chaos of approvals, time-consuming reimbursements, and repetitive manual bookkeeping tasks. What’s more, inefficient processes and inadequate tools meant that we were unable to get an on-demand, real-time view of what the company was spending.

As I began to learn more, I came to realize that the status quo for AP in small and midsize companies is broken and that the disparate systems for simply operating a business’s transactions were relics of technical limitations that no longer existed. Using the design thinking concepts that are central to the product design approach at Airbase, I worked with my team of developers to take a holistic view of the entire process and develop a deep understanding of their users’ needs in order to solve the problem.

Spend management is a different way of thinking about spending company money. It frees up time from manual tasks and provides the tools for finance and accounting professionals to contribute insights, analysis, and strategic thinking, making them more valuable to their companies. An important innovation whose time has come.

Airbase was founded in 2017, and so far has raised $30.8 million in venture funding from leading VC firms including Bain Capital Ventures, First Round Capital, and from others, including the former CFO at Netsuite and Co-founder of Okta, Airbase has since established itself at he world’s leading spend management platform for small to midsize companies.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Everyone defines success differently, but the things that I care about most and the things that have worked for me are the following:

  1. Optimism.

I think I’m a naturally optimistic person and I think optimism is an extremely important trait to have should you choose to go down the path of entrepreneurship.

It’s an unpredictable path that leads to many highs and lows, but the important thing is not to let the lows get to you — not allow yourself to be beaten down by them. It’s also important to put the highs into perspective, celebrate them to be sure, but don’t be overly influenced by them, it’s important to be dispassionate about interpreting your wins. To be a successful entrepreneur, it’s helpful to be optimistic, after all, you have to wake up everyday day and do it all over again…

2. Perseverance.

Doing anything meaningful takes time. People talk a lot about grit, and for entrepreneurs, it really is important. There are plenty of times you’re running on fumes and pushing through these difficult or uncertain times takes true perseverance. A lesson I’ve learned on my journey is that nothing of value comes easy. It takes a lot of time, energy, and effort to do something meaningful, something that stands out. It’s a crowded field of talented, driven people, if how you define success is to have a real impact, you’ll need the fortitude to get there.

3. Being Level Headed.

When you choose to be an entrepreneur, you’ll find that the highs are very high, and the lows can be very low. It’s important not to let either of those get to you, to remain levelheaded and composed throughout these moments.

If people are saying really nice things about you or things are going really well for the business, as an entrepreneur, we have to understand that the next low is right around the corner and things could get worse, of course, it’s important to also understand that it’s going to get better and you just have to stick to it.

You can’t let the see-sawing of emotions get to you one way or the other. Staying level-headed is a matter of perspective and a personality trait that some enjoy. If you fit this type, you’re going to have it easier and you’ll be able to take the good and the bad in stride.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I’m very fortunate that I don’t have a lot of regrets in life for the most part. But even the few that I have almost always come down to trying to live up to somebody else’s definition of happiness and success.

Thankfully, I learned this lesson very early on in my career. Instead of focusing on what others were doing, I asked myself what my definition of success or happiness was and I pursued that instead.

There were brief times in my life where I tried to live up to what other people thought was success and what other people told me would make me happy, and I regret listening to them at the time. Thankfully, this is something that I resolved early on in my journey and I believe it’s an important element for someone with the ambition of becoming an entrepreneur.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

The approach we follow in Airbase is to, first of all, hire good people you can trust. We really try to put an emphasis on this during the interview process and that becomes all the more important when you are a completely globally distributed remote company.

We’re not in an office with jobs. have daily engagements and occasional interactions to know what they are working on, how they’re approaching their So you have to trust people.

We hire professionals, work with them to set goals and get out of the way.

With that in mind, it’s very important to have a culture that is reinforced and made explicit so that the decision-making of others reflects the intent, values, and brand of a company.

It’s also important to inform new hires a, that it’s going to be demanding. You have to make sure that people understand what they’re signing up for. Startups tend to be a lot more unpredictable than larger companies that have more resources, people, help, and capacity.

With that in mind, Getting it right means setting the right expectations upfront with people.. You need to have an honest conversation with your new hires, especially those that are coming from a larger company, and let them know what they are getting intoIf it’s not the best fit, it’s not the best fit, and that’s fine.

Something I have learned over the years is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint so avoiding burnout is essential to a company’s success. I happen to think if the culture is one where your teams are pulling all-nighters and working long days and weekends, it’s a failure of planning. It’s a failure of management.

But if you are finding that right balance, you don’t have to do that except on occasion.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and authority in their industry?

There are no shortcuts to building these elements. There are no simple tips and tricks to build trust, credibility, and authority. Unless these things are deeply important to you, you’re probably not going to do the work to build them.

Trust and credibility are outcomes based on the work that you do, the way you conduct yourself, and the things that you say. It takes a long time to earn this thing and even if you dedicate yourself to building trust, it’s not assured that you will succeed. It is behavior over long periods of time in various settings that ultimately results in how others perceive you, your company, and the expertise you’ve built.

That’s the only way I know how to do it and that’s what I try to do every day. It takes a really long time to build up trust and credibility, but it only takes an instant to lose it.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

We live in a world where trust and credibility are more important than ever. They form the basic foundations for systems to work effectively and efficiently. When the line between facts and opinions is blurred people will naturally gravitate towards those that they trust and those that have built up credibility with them.

The big question facing us is: “Are we going to live in a world where facts are debatable and everything is an opinion?” Maybe, maybe not.

Trust and credibility should be natural outcomes from how we behave, what we produce, and to a lesser degree what we say. We need to have the ability to build that trust and credibility both in how we perceive others and how they perceive us. In a world where basic facts are up for grabs, it’s harder to build trust.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The biggest mistake that I’ve made, and also that I’ve seen a lot of others make, is not spending enough time to deeply understand the customers’ pain points.

The lesson that I’ve taken away — especially from first-time founders who are beginning that journey of entrepreneurship — is to really spend time understanding the customer’s pain points as deeply as possible and not rush that process. I also caution you to not deceive yourself about whether you have identified a very real pain point because it starts there.

You can always come up with a solution for that pain point and then answer the question: will people actually pay to have that pain point resolved?. But it all starts with building something that solves a very real problem and giving yourself the time to fully understand it.

OK, fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview to How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why, no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

It’s absolutely true that being an entrepreneur comes with many highs and lows. Part of the reason why it’s not a regular job is that it’s never someone else’s prompt.

In a regular job you go in, you work, and you get your salary at the end of the month. When it really comes down to it, in a regular job you can say:

“Oh well, I did everything I could” and you hand over the problem to somebody else and you can walk away.

But ultimately when you’re an entrepreneur or CEO of a business, there is no problem in the world where you can ultimately afford to do that.

Every problem in the business — it doesn’t matter what sector it’s in — if nobody else can solve it then it will come landing at your feet.

As the CEO, you have to find a way to solve it, and if you can’t solve it then you, and only you, are dealing with the repercussions of that.

That’s why it’s different from a regular job — there’s no hiding, there’s no passing the responsibility to somebody else, there’s nobody above me to say “above my pay grade.”

That is part of what makes the highs very high and the lows very low, because when you manage to work through incredibly challenging things, there is a lot of satisfaction in that, and when you have teams of people come together and accomplish very challenging things, that’s amazing.

But, on the flip side, there will be times when you cannot make it through some of those challenges, and then the lows can be very low, and it can be very hard not to take them personally.

So, there are times when you can confuse your inability to complete a difficult task or situation and make it personal as a failing of your individual self, and that’s not good for your own psychology — so it’s important to be aware of all these things and be fully prepared for what you’re getting into.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

All of the times that spring to mind, when I reflect on moments of my journey which were the most enjoyable, revolve around a group of people that I could be a part of to solve a big goal.

One particular example that sticks out to me was during my time as CEO of my previous company, Automatic.

We had decided that we wanted to make a consumer hardware product. I set a goal from the beginning that the product would be deemed good enough that it would be carried by Apple in the Apple stores.

Obviously, the bar for that is very high — Apple rarely carries any third-party products in their stores.

We knew the challenge for this was going to be very difficult, but the ambition we set for ourselves was that the product was going to be so good, that Apple would be willing to sell that product in-store.

Fast forward two years, and after a lot of hard work from some truly talented people, we actually accomplished this goal. We managed to sell our product in the Apple store.

I remember vividly: we rented a bus and the whole team went down to the Apple store office in San Francisco and we all stood outside the store to see our product hanging on the wall of the store, and that was amazing.

It was just an incredible feeling to work so hard for a couple of years on a long-term, ambitious project and then finally see that come through.

For me, it’s usually about a group of people coming together, setting audacious goals for yourself, and actually doing it.

That’s the ultimate high.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

As a founder and CEO, the worst days of my professional career have always been when I’ve had to do a layoff.

It’s always terrible.

Of course, it’s much worse for the person at the receiving end of the news — that they don’t have a job anymore — but, when it really comes down to it, at some level it’s a failure of how you run the business and the business failed to deliver results. In these moments you have to make a decision to reduce costs and, unfortunately, let people go.

As a CEO, that falls on your feet, you’re responsible for that and it’s not a good feeling. That’s a feeling of failure. Having to look into somebody’s eyes and tell them: “I’m sorry I don’t have a job for you anymore because of my failure.” is a tough thing to do.

Based on your experience, can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

You don’t have an option but the bounce back.

I can recall an experience of having to lay off a quarter of the company but, as horrible as that was when I got up that following morning, I still had the other three-quarters of the company that needed my attention, that needed my focus and, ultimately, that I was still responsible for.

As a CEO, it’s up toyou to lead them through that traumatic experience as a team.

And if you don’t, you’re not doing your job by them, you’re not doing right by them, and you do have responsibility for the remaining people in the company — their families and their income — when you remember that, and think about that responsibility, it doesn’t take long for you to bounce back.

OK, super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur?” Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Again, optimism.

Being optimistic really helps to build a business. I’m not sure if this is something you’re born with or something you develop yourself over time — but I’m an optimist, and having this particular character trait has really helped me get to where I am. Naturally good entrepreneurs tend to be optimists because they are always looking at the world and thinking it could be better.

And even in a bad situation, you need to be able to say to yourself: “Ok, this was terrible, but what did I learn from it?”

2. Patience.

Everyone’s in a rush. Unfortunately when you’re on the journey of becoming an entrepreneur, these things take time — and a lot of it. There are very few overnight success stories, and when you look at successful people in business, you cannot begin to fathom the amount of time and effort that went into developing their business. So with that in mind, patience is a vital element in riding the highs and lows of being a successful entrepreneur.

3. Surround yourself with the right people.

Having a strong peer group becomes more important when you’re in a job such as a CEO, as it can become very lonely.

Having a peer group of similar people in similar situations outside of your own company is helpful because you can have conversations and you can learn from each other — you can be open about some of the challenges that you’re facing. You can’t always do that with your own team, or with your own board or colleagues, and, in these moments, having a strong network of peers to confide in is truly invaluable.

4. Hire a smart team that you can trust.

It’s important not to take the emotional highs and lows on your own. If you assemble a smart group of people, who you build up trust with, then you can share that load.

Everyone in the leadership roles at the early stages of a startup knows that they are signing up for, and they should be able to help carry and absorb some of the highs and lows of the journey with you.

5. Don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong.

Nothing works out exactly how you envisage and things will inevitably go wrong along the way — that’s part of the job.

But it’s important not to let those losses get to you. The journey of an entrepreneur has loads of mountains to climb, and there are so many times where you’re going to fall back down before you get to the top.

Giving yourself a good beating whenever you fall down is not helpful and it’s not productive.

If you’ve given something your absolute best and something still goes wrong, learn from it. You can’t change the past, so all you can do in these moments is take a step back, learn from the experience, then pick yourself up and go again.

Beating yourself up and dwelling on defeats isn’t going to get you anywhere.

If you know that the journey you’re on has many highs and lows, and you start to see that pattern and enjoy the highs and learn from the lows, then you’ll be fine.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

I spoke earlier about the importance of perseverance, and how vital that is, but on the other side of that coin is resilience.

It’s definitely one of the most essential character traits for people who want to become entrepreneurs or aspire to build their own businesses.

My definition of someone who I classify as resilient is someone who will not take no for an answer very easily, someone who doesn’t give up very easily, and someone who keeps pushing through the hard times.

You want people who can walk through walls, who can face up to adversity, and who can conquer challenges put in front of them.

Many people see an obstacle and they simply reflect on how difficult a challenge it’s going to be. But the resilient people think: “How do I get over it? And if I can’t get over it, how do I get under it? How do I go through it? How do I get around it?”

They have this mindset of having a challenge in front of them and not letting it get them down, or block them or prevent them from working towards the goal set for themselves.

That’s important because, especially in entrepreneurship, it’s unnatural trying to get the people around you and, in general, the world to do, something that they aren’t naturally inclined to do for you, and often something that they don’t want to do for you.

This could be convincing a customer to buy something from you and give you money, or convincing an employee to come and take a risk and work with you, or convincing an investor to give you money and to invest in your business.

All of these things are not naturally comfortable things for people to do. The natural inclination for everybody is to not do it — to not take that risk. And so you’ll have to be resilient through that process.

You have to make sure that you are not letting the default state of somebody not wanting to do something pull you back, and that makes it an incredibly important characteristic, especially for entrepreneurs.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

The experience that comes to mind almost immediately, as the major influence on me growing up, is my Grandfather.

He had an incredibly hard childhood — the worst type of poverty you can imagine — but he was also incredibly resilient as an individual.

He had such a passion and interest in the arts and literature, but he grew up in poverty, getting an education was a major challenge, and paying school fees was really hard. In the end, ultimately, he had to educate himself — he never really had any support from family or friends.

Starting at the age of 13, he basically had to go to school for a year and then drop out of school to work for another year to collect the fees that he would need to go back to school the following year. He would drop out of school for a year to build up the funds to go back until he finally finished the tenth grade at the age of around 21.

But, at that point, he had to drop off permanently, he had a family to support, and siblings under him. He was the oldest in the family and he had to get a job, but that didn’t stop him — he got a job, and he continued his own self-study.

He burned the midnight oil in the evenings and the weekends, and he continued his study even when he could not go to university.

By the time he passed away, he was one of the most foremost authors in my native tongue, which is called Kannada, a South Indian language, and he was very well respected in his field.

His journey took a remarkable amount of resilience and, even today, whenever I’m faced with any hardship, I just look back at his life and ask myself: “Does this even come remotely close to what my Grandfather had to face in his life?”

And the answer is always: “Hell no.”

If he could do all that, then what am I complaining about. So in terms of someone that has inspired me and who continues to inspire me, it’s definitely him.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

Being an optimist, and having that positive attitude, is incredibly important because it rubs off on your team and, ultimately, entrepreneurship is not an individual sport. It’s a team sport.

If you want to build companies, you have to bring along a group of people and, as a leader, you set the tone with your attitude during difficult situations. Should I give up here, or should I be optimistic and keep going? You set the tone for how your team feels.

As a leader, you’re bringing it to the job every day and setting that positive attitude.

You’re not going to succeed if you take the opposite approach because, as soon as you know it, it will rub off on your other team members, spiral off in the wrong direction, and you’re done.

OK. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” — Steve Jobs.

When you start to look around you in life, you realize that everything that was ever made was a choice by another human being.

It could be the laws of the land, it could be the products that we use every day, and every building, road, or garden.. Somebody did that. Somebody made a choice.

It was another human being who decided to build something, to create something, or to make something better. So you just have to stop and ask yourself: “Hey, why don’t I have an influence on that?”

We don’t have to go through life thinking that things just happen to us, we can control our own destiny and decide to change the world for ourselves.

When I first heard this quote, it really made a huge impact on me, and that’s how I’ve lived my life ever since.

I think that when you choose entrepreneurship, you have to believe that you are making a positive change in some way.

You have to believe that you can take something that is broken and you can go fix it; you can go change it so you don’t have to live within that broken system.

That is how I live my life. I believe I can change the world. I don’t need anybody’s permission. I can go and do things and not be put in a box that I think a lot of people tend to put themselves in.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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