“Don’t underestimate the power” With Douglas Brown & Vidhya Subramanian

The softer aspects of a tech app or a platform should be in the agenda from the very beginning. If you, as a tech person, don’t have those core skills, you need to surround yourself with people who do. I’m talking about design, color, fonts, brand voice, and customer personas.Don’t underestimate the power of PR […]

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The softer aspects of a tech app or a platform should be in the agenda from the very beginning. If you, as a tech person, don’t have those core skills, you need to surround yourself with people who do. I’m talking about design, color, fonts, brand voice, and customer personas.

Don’t underestimate the power of PR and marketing. This is something tech people don’t typically think about. Us techies tend not to realize it intuitively, because we think that if you have an amazing product people will inevitably come. But a lot of it is about perception as well and how you present your brand to the world.

Asa part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vidhya Subramanian.

Born in India, Vidhya Subramanian is a strategist, technology leader, founder and CEO of Zymmo — an innovative new app designed to bring local, freelance chefs into foodies’ homes. A self-made entrepreneur, Vidhya previously held prestigious executive management positions at Goldman Sachs, Target and JPMorgan Chase & Co., delivering technological advancements to run successful global businesses. After years of providing solutions for corporations, Vidhya sought to develop a dining solution for local communities. Her creation, Zymmo couples chefs with food lovers for unique culinary experiences.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Growing up, my mom weaved the practice of ayurveda into her cooking, ensuring every meal we ate was balanced according to weather, time and temperament.

If it rained, she fried vegetable fritters. If she served a spicy dish, she cooked a cool one to calm the palate. Every meal had a purpose, every meal had balance and, growing up in south India, every meal had to be vegetarian.

I always admired my mother’s commitment to home cooking, but when it came time for me to feed my two daughters, my career cut into my time in the kitchen. I chose to be a working mom and I always had the guilt that I didn’t eat well myself, nor did I feed my family well.

About a year ago, I founded Zymmo. It’s an on-demand foodie marketplace aimed at sparking the same joy I felt as a child eating on my mom’s cooking. Unlike Grubhub or Uber Eats, which connect diners to restaurants, Zymmo connects customers directly with freelance chefs.

Being a chef is like being an artist, you need creativity and passion. I wanted to give them a platform to shine and define their own destiny, and connect with foodies in a meaningful way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I founded Zymmo to solve a problem I faced every day as a working parent, which was choosing between sharing meaningful meals with my family and having a career as an executive.

One of my best friends from college said to me, “Most moms who feel bad about feeding her kids would go out and find a chef. But what do you do? You start a company to solve the problem for everybody.” When Covid came along it validated this idea even further. Right after we launched, restaurants were closing, chefs were out of work, people were struggling to cook every day for their families while working from home. Zymmo became even more relevant after Covid, and I don’t know how many start-ups can say that about their products.

Food is something we all need, and that’s a need that’s never going to go away. But it can also be an indulgence, an emotional experience. We don’t eat food just to survive. We eat food to thrive. Zymmo has shown that is something we can continue to do, despite what’s happening out there in the world.

Incidentally, Zymmo is run by a fully-remote team. When I started the company I considered opening a physical office in Austin, and hiring locally. But I wanted to go for the best talent no matter where they were. If they’re the right person for the job, I don’t particularly care where they sit! For a while I wondered if I had made the right call, creating a virtual team. As it turned out, the whole world started working remotely just as I was staffing up. That’s another thing where maybe I had a premonition that worked in our favor. A virtual staff became a normal thing for everyone.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that.

I have made mistakes that are probably funny to other people! Before Zymmo had even written a single line of code to build the app, we hired an influencer. Looking back, that was just so premature — a typical newbie mistake. I was anxious to get the brand out there, but there was nothing to back it up! Despite my seasoned career experience, I’m a first-time founder, so there are things I’m continuing to learn. Our influencer created our social media accounts, and started posting about food, but that was it! Week after week, we were saying, “What do we post? What do we talk about?” We’d barely finished with the product design and there were only 4 or 5 of us at Zymmo. When I look back at this, I see it was clearly a mistake. What was I trying to influence people to do?

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

I was at a large company. The stability and predictability of the corporate world has its own stresses and challenges. There’s more managerial overhead, there are promotions to worry about, there’s politics to play.

I always felt that I had more to offer. My playing field was not big enough. And I don’t think feeling valued has to do with the size of your team or your title or how much you’re getting paid. You have to ask yourself: Are all your skills utilized? Do you feel like you’ve been able to offer everything you can? That was the biggest trigger for me. Philosophically, you only have one life, do what you want. I’d rather fail if I have to than carry that regret forever in my life.

So it was a difficult decision to start Zymmo. I was on the verge of getting promoted and I had a really good role, a good reputation, and a lot of support in the company I was with. They didn’t want me to leave.

It took me a month to resign. It was a month full of discussions and counter offers.They don’t want to lose diverse leaders. But I did it. And being an entrepreneur is very liberating. It’s fun to set up your company from scratch, and establish the culture yourself. Of course, in the words of Uncle Ben from Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility! That big difference is, it’s a bigger canvas where I can paint something with all my creativity as opposed to working in a particular predefined construct.

A few months after founding my company, Covid arrived. There were two reasons I took a step back and I wondered if I should continue. One was the general uncertainty the virus had introduced for all of us. I wondered: Do I want to continue building a business not knowing what’s going to happen to the economy? I didn’t know if people would — or could — buy food from chefs. I wondered if I could even keep the team going.

The second reason was fundraising. Many of the investors I was in touch with postponed or cancelled, saying they needed to figure out how covid would change their investment strategy. So there was a lot of uncertainty in the environment, which did give me a great deal of fear.

But I decided to continue despite all that because of what I just said earlier. I realize Covid has made the case stronger for Zymmo. It became obvious there was going to be a role for us to play. The reaction of our foodie focus groups, and the response to our marketing campaign indicated that I was onto something. I realized that we had enough to take the product live and that’s where we are now. Of course, our path forward depends on the funding we can obtain over the next month or so!

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 about that?

One person who has supported me through this journey, and who has invested in Zymmo while mentoring me, is Rabih Ramadi. He works at another young company; a really great place called Unqork. They’re a more mature startup than Zymmo, having finished their Series C. Rabih has a senior role in Unqork, and he was one of the people to join there early. He continues to inspire and motivate me and he’s always been there for me from day one. Fortunately, there are many people I worked with in my prior life who encourage me to keep moving forward. I’m thankful they offer such support and continue to encourage me.

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

One of my favorite books is The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. This book re-connected me to something I remembered growing up, which was a quote from an Indian saint who asked “Who am I?”

I grew up 30 minutes from where he set up his ashram and we actually know their family. Reading this super-popular book, and hearing Michael Singer, a fellow tech CEO, talk about that concept of being something much bigger than just a body or a mind, really hit me.

This book brought me back to a life lesson from Bhagavad Gita, which I’ll paraphrase: ‘Don’t always measure what you’re getting out of something, just do your duty and let things happen.’ This is something we were reminded of every day in school, and by our parents at home.

(The whole quote is: “Your right is only to perform your duty. You do not have the right to expect any consequences thereof. You should neither be motivated by the fruits of your action, nor should they encourage you to be inactive.”)

Start ups are often viewed as a quick way to become wealthy. It may or may not be. That depends on a lot of factors. When I founded Zymmo I wanted to have a mission. I wanted to make sure to impact communities in a very positive way.

Some people ask me, So what’s your plan for Zymmo? Are you going to sell it? I tell them I’m not thinking that far ahead. Yes I’m a strategist, and if you ask me I can tell you the five different paths Zymmo could take. But I’m not thinking about it every day. I’m thinking about how to put out a good product. I’m thinking about how to make the tech work. How to get my customers superior service. I’m thinking about how to keep my team motivated, so to me it’s like every day will bring progress, and I’m not thinking about what I am getting out of it.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Historically there has not been a meaningful way to connect foodies and the chefs directly. When we think of chefs we think of restaurants, or private chefs, who one assumes are only for the wealthy or a different class of people.

The Zymmo platform creates a direct connection between food lovers and independent chefs. There’s no middleman involved; no restaurant, no food truck, no delivery service. It’s more than just a meal marketplace. We designed it to be a social experience that just happens to enable transactions among people who share a passion for food.

Zymmo lets you do it all as a chef: ordering, menu publishing, event promotion, and culinary word-of-mouth. The result is a hyperlocal community with a commercial purpose. It’s a place for social and financial transactions related to food for gig chefs, commercial kitchens, foodie groups and, when the world opens back up, venues.

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

Aside from the fact that there isn’t anything like it and it’s one of a kind? Or aside from the fact that it’s mostly women founded and run? There are so many things that make Zymmo unique. From a product standpoint, there are startups trying to crack the space but there isn’t anything like Zymmo.

The reason I say that is, Zymmo is not something we are simply doing to bridge the supply and demand gap. The next phase of our plan is to actually build a community for people who are passionate about food.

And while food is a global thing, our focus is also local communities. We can support local economies and chefs while we build Zymmo, because typically people are ordering food from someone who’s around the block or in their town or zip code.

The fact that Zymmo is building a community with purpose sets us apart. We are not a delivery platform. We are a marketplace that brings freelance chefs and foodies together. There is demand for this and that’s been validated over and over.

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

Right now I’m not working on any other project other than Zymmo. This pretty much consumes all my time and ability. We are looking forward to adding more features like community-building, and we just added private experiences to the app, which was a big project. But to be honest, fundraising is pretty much my full-time job right now!

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I do see a movement lately. I have two girls, and one of them is already in college and studying computer science. She did camps like Girls Who Code and was very excited about the program she got into. My younger one also wants to go into STEM. I have seen, in the last decade, a trend making science and technology cool for women to be in.

I’m enjoying that shift, especially as the mom of two girls, and I think it’s a very positive thing. A lot of companies are very focused on hiring and there’s a lot of investing in the pipeline as opposed to just recruiting. You have to create a supply of technically-trained women, starting from middle school or high school. That’s how you’re going to get more women into computer science and tech careers. It’s still a struggle for women to make it and those who do have to jump through enormous hoops. I think they still have to put in a lot more effort to get to the same place as men in tech.

We still have a long way to go when it comes to making it a no-brainer for women to study computer science and tech degrees. Once they get into those careers they’re going to need the right role models and support to continue to grow and be successful.

Here’s something interesting: Covid has proven that we can all work remotely. Working from home has become an equalizer. It’s no longer ‘Moms with little kids can’t work late’ because everyone’s working from home. Sometimes women get left out because of office politics. But without offices, all of that has gone out the window.

Everyone’s working from home. The value of what you bring to your career is measured by output at this point. And that’s a big change. This is a big thing. Working from home is an equalizer.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

This generation of girls, because they’re very connected through social media, are more aware. Connecting online has allowed them to break some of barriers better that existed in the past. Has the problem gone away entirely? No, but it’s better than it was even ten years ago.

I see a lot of the high schools investing in tech programs. A ton of companies are funding high school-level programs to bring those women to the job pipeline. They’re addressing the problem more and more upstream which is a good thing.

Supporting women through the entire lifecycle is still a challenge, but it’s become OK for women to study computer science. It’s OK for women to be nerds, quote unquote. Women can be tech savvy and it’s not seen as being less feminine. That is the shift that’s happening. It’s not fully there, but it’s happening.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Rediscovering yourself can happen at any point in your life. When I started Zymmo it felt like jumping off a cliff, but still, I jumped. And it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career.

Now I know that I gave this a try, and it’s going phenomenally well so far and the support that has turned out for me has been heartwarming. And I’ve met so many great people along the way — I mean would I ever have worked with a Chopped Champion at a typical financial services corporation?

It’s really opened up my horizons in the truest sense of the word. So my advice is: don’t take yourself for granted. Always challenge your inner thoughts and ideas about yourself and confront your own self-limiting beliefs.

I met with a friend last weekend for lunch who told me, “I am so proud of you. You’re doing something that many of us only fantasize about. We all want to quit our jobs and do something fulfilling and fun, but you’re actually living that dream.” I would tell people to take the chance and if you feel something strongly go after it. Don’t limit yourself based on how you look at yourself. Break out of that mold.

My background is in tech. It is not in food. I’ve built systems for traders. I’ve built systems for wealth managers to manage money. I’ve never built anything for chefs in my life, but I do know that tech is very fungible. Tech is something you could apply across the board.

What really helped me to jump ship is being aware of that. As a technologist you’re not tied to a particular problem or a particular industry. If you think outside the box, you’ll see how adaptable your skills are. It’s all about being creative with how you look at yourself.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

The way I’m doing is it by getting my team to buy into the vision. For me, this is the most important thing. If people believe truly in what they’re working on, it becomes less about compensation, and more about the value of the company and the experience. I only bring on people who truly believe in the mission.

I’m not paying people just for their skills and their work. I’m paying them to be a team member who makes Zymmo stronger. If they believe in that, it’s going to show in the work they do. This is particularly true for sales people who have to sell this idea or product to customers.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

We are doing everything a new company needs to do, like social media campaigns, PR, events, ads, and email programs. We have a fairly typical and relevant marketplace customer acquisition strategy.

What we have found to be most effective is simply telling customers how Zymmo can solve their problems. In other words: Why Zymmo? It’s not just simply inviting them and explaining how awesome we are. We show them how we are solving their day-to-day problems in a very cool way.

That has been the most effective strategy. Our first Zymmo Chef, Chase Gitner, approached us and said he wanted to be part of the Zymmo launch because he believed in it so much. We want more chefs like that, who are drawn to the idea and can see the value.

Zymmo actually has two kinds of customers at this point. Chefs and Foodies. We have a separate app for each. It’s our responsibility to make sure that they have a positive experience on the platform.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

The most important thing is to think about your customer early in the process, not as an afterthought. We think about this a lot as we build the apps, and as we onboard chefs. At every turn we consider the most user friendly approach.

The second thing is to see your company through the customers’ eyes. What do they expect? Will you be able to solve their issues with technology, or do you need a person on call? You need to put yourself in their shoes, whether it’s designing your UX or thinking about the level of service people will expect from you.

We recently had a problem with a chef’s order in a launch market, and when I heard about it, I decided to send a personal email to help work things out. We’re small, so we can give customers that level of service. Though I’m not gonna be able to do that when we have thousands of orders!

UX is particularly tricky. It needs to be simple. Because while you’re designing and coding, you’re so in the weeds it’s easy to forget that somebody new looking at this screen will see it differently than you.

You also have to know your audience. Today’s customers are very tech savvy, and they’re expecting things to work pretty quickly. They’re used to things being automated, and functioning flawlessly on all their devices. So you need to be prepared for that sort of a demographic.

So start early, put yourself in the customer’s shoes, keep it simple, and know your audience.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

We don’t have the critical mass yet to execute this in a meaningful way. But we’re going to have a customer retention position once we get to that point. We’ll hire somebody whose full-time job is retention strategy. Of course, customer acquisition is a lot more expensive than customer retention. And there’s a lot more value in keeping existing customers than just adding new ones.

So some of the things we’re thinking about are loyalty programs, superior customer service, ease of transactions, and using Zymmo promotions to keep our customers engaged.

Our goal is to build a community where they’re not just coming to Zymmo for transactions, but to be socially engaged as well. They’ll be able to see what their favorite chef is up to, what new dishes have been published, what foods are popular in their zip code, what ingredients are trending, and what events are coming up. That’s why we call it a community with purpose.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

The answers are sprinkled all over this conversation. First, I would say to start small, and do things incrementally. We launched a very simple beta app, and we’re regularly rolling features in response to the market. This way our UX stays simple, and we can grow along with our customers.

The second thing is to think long-term, but execute for the short term. Put out the daily fires, but keep an eye on the road ahead.

Third, get some of the basics right from Day One, like performance, security, and scalability of your technology. Don’t let these things be an afterthought.

Fourth, the softer aspects of a tech app or a platform should be in the agenda from the very beginning. If you, as a tech person, don’t have those core skills, you need to surround yourself with people who do. I’m talking about design, color, fonts, brand voice, and customer personas.

Last, don’t underestimate the power of PR and marketing. This is something tech people don’t typically think about. Us techies tend not to realize it intuitively, because we think that if you have an amazing product people will inevitably come. But a lot of it is about perception as well and how you present your brand to the world.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

For me the absolute top first thing would be cleaning the oceans. It’s something that I’ve been meaning to influence or impact in a big way, and I unfortunately haven’t figured out what that platform is yet.

At my home, we recycle ruthlessly. On recycling day we’ll be the only house with ten bags out. I’m sure everyone is aware of the Pacific garbage patch — again, we haven’t really found a solution to all the plastic we’ve ended up putting in the ocean. I wish we could spend at least some of the space exploration budget on keeping our current planet clean and livable. I think that may be what’s next for me; something that impacts our sustainability in a very positive way.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Kamala Harris. I want to understand how she stays resilient, and how she continues to believe in herself. Rising so high must have had its challenges. I don’t want to make this political, but she’s an inspiration. She’s also half ethnically similar to me so I definitely feel I can relate to her in that way!

From personal experience, I assume she must have been underestimated by fellow politicians over the years. I sometimes think, when I’m in a restaurant or if I go to a nearby store, people are never going to look at me and say, ‘Oh, here comes a CEO.’ They’re never going to think like that. So to me, breaking these gender and color barriers is a big deal.

We need more role models like her. This is a topic I talk about with my kids all the time. They know what is possible because of what I do. They know it’s possible to start a company. As a result they’re going to go after their dreams. They’re not going to settle.

When Zymmo takes off, I have a very selfish wish: I want people to learn how to pronounce my name properly! I want to make Vidhya a name everybody knows. Kamala, by the way, means ‘Lotus’. It’s actually a Sanskrit word.

To get to her level I’m sure she’s had to make tough decisions, and it cannot have been an easy journey. How does a woman who’s half black and half brown, raised by an immigrant, become a senator, an attorney, and a vice presidential nominee? That would be an amazing story to hear in person.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success

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