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“Stay humble” With Douglas Brown & Neha Sampat

Stay humble. Tech moves so fast, and while you may be ahead today, don’t get complacent. We launched Contentstack because we knew that we could solve a problem that marketers had been facing for decades. But we continue to iterate based on new opportunities — like VR adoption — to ensure that we continue to […]

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Stay humble. Tech moves so fast, and while you may be ahead today, don’t get complacent. We launched Contentstack because we knew that we could solve a problem that marketers had been facing for decades. But we continue to iterate based on new opportunities — like VR adoption — to ensure that we continue to solve problems facing our customers today, and for years to come.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neha Sampat, CEO at Contentstack™ — a leading Content Management System (CMS) and Content Experience Platform (CXP). Previously, Neha was Founder and CEO of Built.io, which was acquired by German software powerhouse Software AG in September 2018. Neha also founded digital transformation consultancy Raw Engineering, which helps large organizations adopt API-first, cloud-native and SaaS technologies. Neha is a recognized industry leader, a proponent of diversity and an outspoken advocate for women in leadership.

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?

I’ve been an entrepreneur for as long as I can remember. It started with pretending I was running my own fashion house. Then, when I turned 12, my friend and I started a fan club for our favorite boy band. We charged $18 to teenagers from around the country for homemade “fan club” paraphernalia that we created in my parent’s print shop. We made over $1,000 in profit and then reinvested it to create a competitive Olympics event for our neighborhood, which then funded our next venture.

Fast forward to my early 20s. I had just moved to Silicon Valley and the entrepreneurial itch kicked in. I started a PR firm with some new friends and we ended up representing major consumer technology brands. Since then I’ve built parking apps and launched ventures in wine education, and ultimately found my passion in the tech industry, having since founded three thriving companies, one of which was acquired by German powerhouse Software AG. I always say that becoming an entrepreneur wasn’t really my decision; it was more of a calling.

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

Last year I embarked on one of the most interesting and exhilarating experiences of my life — raising funds for Contentstack. The company was growing exceedingly quickly, but our leadership team knew that in order to capitalize on the market we needed an infusion of capital to scale as quickly as possible. So we jumped right in and spent the next few months taking meetings with the most reputable VCs across the country.

We knew the time was right, and I was confident in our company’s ability to succeed, but a small part of me wondered how the meetings would go. It is no secret that female-founded startups not focused on female customers have secured less than 2 percent of VC investment dollars since 2014.

Despite the odds, we raised one of the largest Series A funding rounds led by a female founder — $31.5 M with Insight Partners as the lead investor. Coincidentally the deal was finalized while I was attending Contentstack’s Winner’s Circle trip in Mexico. I got the call while surrounded by company leadership and the top performers across our organization. I will never forget how jubilant I felt knowing that we had accomplished our goal.

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 was scheduled as a guest speaker for my very first panel discussion. I showed up to the event wearing a skirt. I took one look at the raised stage and quickly realized my mistake, and then spent the entire event uncomfortably trying to sit discreetly. Lesson learned — wear pants to all seated speaking engagements!

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?

The biggest challenge with being an entrepreneur and running a startup is cash-management and having enough runway with your funds. There were a number of months in those early, pre-fundraising days that I elected to forgo a salary so I could afford to pay my employees. In those moments it’s easy to feel like just giving up, but the thing that propelled me forward was that I had to make payroll next month. My team was depending on me to deliver. Knowing that people are relying on you to succeed is the best motivator out there.

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?

Prior to becoming the CEO of Raw Engineering, I worked at VMware and reported into one of the company’s early leaders, Dan Chu. I enjoyed my time at the company immensely but after some time felt called to honor my entrepreneurial background and become a startup CEO at Raw Engineering.

During my exit interview David said something that I won’t ever forget, “I hope that Raw Engineering becomes a large line item in our budgets moving forward.”

His support in that moment meant everything to me. Sadly, Dan lost his battle to cancer a couple years later, but I am so grateful to him and VMware is still an important customer today.

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

The best life advice I’ve ever received came from an entrepreneur I truly admire and I can only wish it had sunk in even earlier in my career. This individual has impacted his entire community and literally millions of people with his work. He once said, “Don’t think about what you can get from someone or something. Think about what you can give.” He gave several examples of how he has given back selflessly and relentlessly in his world. This mentality has shaped how I think about building my career, my companies, my home and all of my relationships. It has not only made me a better entrepreneur, but a better citizen of the world.

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?

Contentstack’s mission is to enable brands to use digital experiences to create customer connections. As brands look to expand their digital capabilities and focus on offering greater digital experiences, three needs are revealed: new channels and services must get to market quickly; previously siloed data needs to be connected to power the experiences on these channels; and data must be delivered at scale.

With Contentstack, customers can launch new initiatives faster. Our customers can integrate their favorite tools or quickly take advantage of trends using Contentstack’s composable architecture. This empowers businesses to choose the best and latest tools in the market, integrate it quickly, and iterate as the company continues to grow.

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

This year has really demonstrated the importance of having a digital strategy — companies that had been used to a face-to-face business model were being asked to operate fully online, virtually overnight. One example that comes to mind is our customer Ellie Mae. The company holds an annual user event, with an estimated 3,500+ planned attendees. Instead of cancelling they quickly pivoted to hosting a virtual event. Within six weeks, the team organized a full-scale digital event and relied on technology to create new assets, collateral, market the event, register attendees and determine a live-streaming strategy. Using Contentstack, they were able to take content (including sessions and keynotes) and virtualize it. The event exceeded all expectations: Not only did the number of attendees double to 7,000, Ellie Mae was able to gather new and valuable data at previously impossible levels, including attendee behavior, preferences and engagement. This allowed the organizers to determine what content was most useful, relevant and interesting for future interactions.

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

This year Contentstack moved its India office into a prominent local college, embedding innovation alongside learning. Beyond that, we are active in local college recruiting events to share more about our mission and purpose, and to encourage young people — but especially women — to consider a tech/STEM-based career.

Diversity is a key part of our company’s DNA — as is providing opportunities to individuals that may seem an “unobvious fit” at first glance. Our work to ensure Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion begins long before the office. Early access to education provides girls the tools they need to prepare themself for a better life and more success in their careers. I am proud that 50% of our campus recruiting hires are female, as this effort is helping to increase the talent pool across not just our own company, but within the industry.

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’ve been very fortunate to have great mentors throughout my career, and many of them have been incredibly smart, successful women. But there is absolutely still work to do. It’s no secret that globally, women are paid less than men. The gender wage gap is estimated to be 23 per cent. This means that women earn 77 per cent of what men earn, though these figures understate the real extent of gender pay gaps, particularly in developing countries where informal self-employment is prevalent. Women also face the motherhood wage penalty, which increases as the number of children a woman has increases. Women are also largely constrained from achieving the highest leadership positions. Only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

Technology offers so many opportunities across the board. There is a significant skills gap in technology and a huge need for talent. Additionally, technology offers some of the most lucrative salaries available today. CompTIA estimated that there are more than 700,000 unfilled IT jobs in the U.S. alone. A survey from Robert Half found that 87% of IT executives say it’s challenging to find skilled technology professionals today. These jobs may not be skewed in favor of women — only 25% of technology jobs were filled by women. While we are seeing improvements, I — and others — would like it to go faster. Young women should be encouraged to acquire STEM degrees, particularly in engineering and computer science. Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but less than one-third of the science and engineering workforce. Going deeper, only 15% of women are in engineering roles and 25% are in jobs related to computer and mathematical sciences.

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?

I strive to help Silicon Valley and the technology industry overall become a level playing field. There are some key areas that stand out.

  1. Access to Funds: For example, males are 63% more likely to raise capital than women, all other things equal. Research also shows that 95% of venture deals and dollars are going to companies without a single woman in the top management suite.
  2. Subconscious Bias: We live in a society that has been trained subconsciously to think about capabilities of men and women differently. With awareness, this is slowly changing but it’s still out there. Those organizations moving the needle on this are taking real action in analyzing and correcting salary inequities or removing names from resumes to prevent gender bias in screenings.
  3. Leveling the Playing Field: There are organizations like the Girl Scouts that are helping to train girls into leaders and organizations like Springboard that are turning women into incredible CEOs.

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”?

Focus on your core competencies — when you win, why do you win? What do customers love about your product or service? Make sure that you are using your “super powers” to your full advantage and double down on that. This effort will make your future direction clearer, and will re-energize your team.

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

At Contentstack, we operate with a #oneteamonedream approach. We have one overriding KPI “Customer Willingness to Recommend” — that our sales, marketing and finance teams are aligned and focused on. This measurement is our definition of success, and helps motivate everyone toward one common goal.

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?

I’ve found the key to success all boils down to aligning with the success and happiness of your customers. We believe in fanatical customer centricity at Contentstack. Customers are our lifeblood and we do whatever we can to turn them into our biggest fans from the first interaction. Their success is our success.

It’s important to remember that customers can be nervous to adopt new technology — especially in an emerging market. We approach customer interactions from a services perspective, with a very consultative approach. We want customers to know that we are arm-in-arm; they have our support and we are ready to share our knowledge to ensure a seamless implementation.

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

The truth is, obtaining your first customer is hard. But once you seal the deal, it’s important that you treat them as your greatest asset. Customers want to be heard and feel valued, so frequent check ins and accessibility go a long way in making them feel like it’s a collaborative relationship. Companies that are successful don’t have to shout their achievements from the mountain tops, instead their customers do the talking. There is no greater sign that you’re doing things right than when a customer recognizes how invaluable you are to them.

  1. Always allow your customers the opportunity to provide feedback — hopefully good, but the bad is sometimes even more useful. I’ve always lauded the merits of having a customer advisory board that captures feedback on our product, team and even processes. This helps shape a roadmap of how likely customers are to stay with the company.
  2. Be sure to deliver on feedback. Nothing resonates more with an existing customer than having a direct impact on your product roadmap or process improvements.
  3. CEOs who understand that customer success needs to be a team effort will thrive. Consider establishing a dedicated customer success team. This ensures that customers remain the top priority. Be sure that the customer success team’s goals align with customer Key Performance Indicators to foster a longstanding business relationship.

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?

Remember that customers are your biggest asset and should be treated as such. Establish a customer advisory board to ensure you’re hearing your customers — and then be sure to do something about that feedback.

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.

  1. The people at your organization are the most important part of the business. Make sure that you are giving your employees a seat at the table. Invest in people who might not seem like an immediate fit, and then provide them with the opportunity to do the best work of their careers. For example, my team consists of engineers who excel in sales leadership positions and former lawyers in nonlegal roles. We even have an astrophysicist on the marketing team.
  2. Stay humble. Tech moves so fast, and while you may be ahead today, don’t get complacent. We launched Contentstack because we knew that we could solve a problem that marketers had been facing for decades. But we continue to iterate based on new opportunities — like VR adoption — to ensure that we continue to solve problems facing our customers today, and for years to come.
  3. Refocus on superpowers/core competencies. We are in a hyper-growth phase right now, but my team is about to revisit this exercise again. Why do our customers love our product? Why do we win? These core competencies are what make us successful and should be kept at the forefront of all continued innovation.
  4. Be obsessive about your customers. When you treat customers as your greatest asset, they deliver. Having customers willing to go to bat for you with new prospects, with industry analysts or as your champion for growth within your organization is priceless. This comes from building trust and a partnership with the people who rely on your product to do their best work.
  5. Make sure you’re still having fun. Maintaining a thriving culture is the cornerstone of any scaling business. This becomes more challenging in this particular climate because employees are no longer chatting deskside in between meetings or grabbing a quick coffee together in the afternoon. Several of our team members have organized weekly remote exercise classes to stay active and connected. I’ve started personalizing my Zoom backgrounds for one-on-one meetings to recreate favorite meeting spots, from a favorite local coffee shop or the wine bar down the street to a park I walk to during meetings with a team member.

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 🙂

Notorious R.B.G.! Ruth Bader Ginsburg dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights, LGBT and racial equality. Her role as a justice in the Supreme Court has shaped history and she will always be known as a woman who beat the odds to make her mark. Regardless of her health and personal struggles, she always showed up and remained to be a force to be reckoned with until her final days. In my opinion she is among the most admirable people of our lifetime.

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

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