“Be a lifelong student.”, with Jayaram Bhat

In the face of adversity, choose optimism. — It’s easy to worry and start thinking about the million ways a situation can go wrong. It takes courage to do the opposite. Think about everything that can go right and look for opportunities within every difficult situation. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jayaram Bhat, CEO of […]

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In the face of adversity, choose optimism. — It’s easy to worry and start thinking about the million ways a situation can go wrong. It takes courage to do the opposite. Think about everything that can go right and look for opportunities within every difficult situation.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jayaram Bhat, CEO of Squelch. For Jayaram, founding, building and growing enterprise software companies have been his passion for the past 39 years. Jayaram is currently the co-founder and CEO of Squelch, a customer experience optimization solution. Jayaram brings more than 39 years in high-tech marketing and management for companies such as Cadence, Daisy Systems, Intel, and Mercury Interactive. As CEO of Zenprise, he led the company through a successful acquisition by Citrix. Jayaram also serves as a venture partner at early-stage venture capital firm Shasta Ventures. Fun facts: He loves mountain biking, burgundy, and ham radio, and will do the dishes in the office from time to time.

Thank you so much for joining us, Jayaram! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was growing up in India, an American anthropologist once visited my coastal hometown of Mangalore. Despite my limited understanding of English at the time, she told me a story about the U.S. Postal Service. In India, delivering mail was considered a low-income job typically done by walking or riding a bike, so I was shocked and in awe when she told me that mailmen in the U.S. deliver mail by driving cars.

I tell this story because, at the age of 6, it was a defining moment. Her story painted a mental image of the wealth of opportunities available in America and, from then on, I worked towards a singular goal of eventually moving there.

Can you share your story of Grit and Success? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?

As an entrepreneur, grit is one of the most important factors that has helped me get to where I am today. Being a serial entrepreneur and venture partner in the tech industry means grit is part of your DNA.

I came to truly appreciate the importance of grit in August of 1989. I was living in Munich and serving as the Director of Eurpoean Sales for a tech startup based in Santa Clara. The company was in a tight spot and funds were low. Fortunately, I had just received a $200,000 order at the beginning of the month.

Unfortunately, the order wasn’t moving very quickly. In Europe, everyone goes on vacation in August and most business slows to a crawl. Later that month, I got a call from our CFO. She asked me, “Since they already placed the order, are you able to have them expedite the check?” I responded that I would get it to California as quickly as possible, and she said “Good. Because if that check doesn’t come in by next Monday, we can’t make payroll.” Needless to say, I spent the rest of the week frantically hunting people down and pushing it through various departments. Ultimately, I was able to get it Fedexed to California by Thursday, and everyone got paid.

In another financial scramble for the same startup, I had to rely on grit to ensure our valuation was accurately reflecting our revenue. We were about to be acquired, but another company had forgotten to send me a major purchasing order and the incomplete records were negatively affecting the process. These were the days before the internet — when the fax machine reigned — and my contact in charge of the records was in the middle of a month-long vacation.

Waiting for him to come back wasn’t an option, so I tracked down his home address and flew to Milan to meet him in person. Even now, I still vividly remember how shocked he was when he answered the door. I drove him to his office, got the paperwork faxed over, and dropped him off to meet his wife for an excursion at a nearby shopping center.

Looking back on it now, I wonder what the heck I was thinking. But grit never stops; my success today is a testament to the power of focusing on one singular goal and doing everything in your power to achieve it. Even if that means getting on a plane and flying to the home of your business associate!

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

My journey started with two things given to me by my uncle: a one-way flight to the United States and $100 in my pocket.

While I was excited for new, long-awaited opportunities, I also knew that leaving the familiar environment of my home and family would be a daunting challenge. However, I did as much as I could to prepare myself and set myself up for success ahead of time.

Before I left home for school in America, a few of my friends introduced me to a community of Indan immigrants already living in the U.S. who had experienced challenges similar to the ones I would face. Many of them were also students — in fact, the person who picked me up from the airport was a part of this community. What I came to realize over time is that those same challenges tested my own abilities in ways I had not yet anticipated and that helped me develop my sense of resiliency.

When I first arrived in the states, I had $100 to my name. At the time, it seemed like a lot of money to me. But once I started to add up all the necessary expenses like food, transportation, rent, and textbooks, $100 didn’t get me very far. As a result, early on I found myself sleeping on other people’s couches to make ends meet. With the stress of classes and lack of financial resources — not to mention the hopes and expectations my entire family had of me — I was under intense pressure. I relied on my grit and resiliency to help me do whatever was necessary to survive in my new surroundings. So, yes, I slept on couches; but like many things in life, it was only temporary.

While they were difficult, those challenges helped me emerge as a stronger, more resilient person, which set me on a path of grit and determination that has served me well throughout my career. And despite the challenges, I still considered myself lucky because I always had my dream of pursuing an education in the U.S. to fall back on.

Even on the toughest of days, I would look around and acknowledge how far I had already made it in my journey. This spurred me to keep trudging forward, working one step at a time to get to my goal of receiving a college degree. The combination of support from my new-found community, support from my family, and my grit and perseverance pushed me forward.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What lessons did you learn from that?

No matter what stage you’re at in your career, mistakes are inevitable. One moment from early on in my career still makes me laugh today. Back in the 80s, I had just started at Intel. At that time, everyone had cubicles, and smoking was still allowed inside the office. (How times were different then!)

One day, I came back to my cubicle to find someone sitting at my desk. He was deep in conversation, using my desk phone, and even smoking. I was surprised and annoyed, thinking to myself, “Who does this guy think he is?” I was about to kick him out when he turned around, looked at me with a smile and said “Oh hi, sorry. Thanks for the phone!” before walking away. I just shook my head and went on with my day.

Later that afternoon, I found out that the man sitting at my desk was none other than Intel’s SVP of Marketing at the time. Moral of the story: If you don’t know who someone is, don’t kick them out.

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

I was the CEO of a startup named Zenprise when I first met my co-founder Giorgina Gottlieb. Having previously worked at Apple, she helped connect me with a contact there. We later met up at a wine tasting, got to talking, and bonded over a mutual love of Burgundy. Many conversations later, she and I developed a product that would help people connect with others to surface tribal knowledge within their networks.

The technology was so effective that we started receiving requests to apply it to the enterprise. At that point, I realized there was something really special about what we’d created. Giorgina and I brought on our third co-founder, Ilan Raab, and evolved our concept to focus on customer experience with an initial emphasis on customer support and success professionals.

Today, the modern customer is more empowered than ever before and, as a result, companies are increasingly focused on the importance of providing great customer experience (CX). In fact, Forrester reports that 95 percent of business leaders see CX as their number one strategic priority.

At Squelch, we believe support and success agents are a company’s heroes, engaging in key customer interactions at pivotal moments where speed, knowledge, and empathy are essential. By surfacing current, relevant intelligence, the Squelch platform enables these heroes to more quickly and accurately resolve customer issues, thereby providing a superior customer experience. Using AI and ML capabilities, the Squelch solution continuously improves over time as customer-facing agents input queries and locate the information needed.

What tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Each person is different so what works for some may not work for others. But in my experience, having a good work-life balance is key to not burning out.

Having a good work-life balance doesn’t just mean taking time away from your desk to relax and recharge but also having hobbies to take your mind off work. Spending time focusing on other parts of your life is healthy and keeps your mind fresh.

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?

I agree — no one achieves success in a vacuum. Every person has gotten to where they are now thanks to the help of others.

From a young age, my family instilled in me the importance of education. My uncle, in particular, was a huge proponent of education. He always told me about all of the opportunities an education could afford me and was the one who helped make my dream of going to school in the U.S. a reality.

When I was still in India, my uncle explained to me what it would take to get an education in America and helped me through the process of actually taking the steps to make it happen. When I was accepted to the undergraduate program at the University of Texas at Dallas, my uncle bought me my plane ticket. He was also the one who gave me the $100 I carried in my pocket when I stepped off the plane.

Without his support, and of course the support of my entire family, I would not have been able to make it to the U.S. and chase my dreams. They have always been there to help me in everything I’ve set out to do.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

There are people who have a hunger for an education but don’t have the resources to get it. This is something that really resonates with me and, given how education has been a key component to my own success, I want to give the opportunity to receive an education to as many people as possible.

I am a member of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TIE), a nonprofit organization made up of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and senior professionals with roots in the Indus region. My work with TIE focuses on mentorship, education, and fostering entrepreneurship in our youth. Our mentorship program for Iraqi refugees helps generate and nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs.

In addition to TIE, I am a member of the Foundation for Excellence (FFE). FFE members from around the San Francisco Bay Area sponsor dozens of young students from India looking to pursue educational opportunities. I love my work with FFE because I see it changing the lives of so many brilliant students, launching them onto a path of excellence.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

To give everyone the most powerful weapon: education. Education has the ability to change the world and, if I could start just one movement, it would be to give everyone — regardless of their situation — access to free education. Education has empowered the lives of so many people, myself included.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit?

In the face of adversity, choose optimism. — It’s easy to worry and start thinking about the million ways a situation can go wrong. It takes courage to do the opposite. Think about everything that can go right and look for opportunities within every difficult situation.

Establish bold goals. — It’s important to have a dream you can be passionate about. In the toughest of challenges, your dreams and goals have the power to inspire so you can see things through to the end.

Be a lifelong student. — Always be in the pursuit to learn from others and maintain a curious mind. In Silicon Valley’s sea of change, constant learning is crucial to staying afloat and relevant.

Failure is key. — Every goal worth pursuing was never achieved on my first attempt. Einstein said it best: “Failure is success in progress.”

Never give up. — When you do fail, it’s how you respond that counts. Hard work knows no substitution.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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