Sunil Thomas of CleverTap: “Have a complete vision of the future/strategy”

Have a complete vision of the future/strategy. While experiencing the emotional highs and lows of entrepreneurship, keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t lose sight of your grand vision, your goal for starting a company. By looking at things full picture and having a strong understanding of where you want to go and how to […]

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Have a complete vision of the future/strategy. While experiencing the emotional highs and lows of entrepreneurship, keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t lose sight of your grand vision, your goal for starting a company. By looking at things full picture and having a strong understanding of where you want to go and how to get there, you position yourself to weather adversity and find success.

Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Sunil Thomas.

A technologist and entrepreneur at heart, CleverTap Co-Founder and CEO Sunil Thomas brings a unique, multidimensional perspective on how to successfully ride the highs and lows of entrepreneurship. He has spearheaded growth at Infospace (now Blucora), Infomedia18, Microsoft, CNBC, Hewlett-Packard, and now CleverTap, a leading AI-powered customer lifecycle, and user retention platform. Sunil guides CleverTap’s unique, personalized, retention-based approach to mobile marketing by helping hundreds of enterprises grow responsibly through meeting their consumers where they are: their mobile devices.

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?

I was born in Mumbai, India and in my early years, I had a fascination with technology — so it was no surprise when my career led me into the digital world. After getting my Computer Science Engineering degree from Mumbai, I earned my first professional role as a software engineer. Over the next decade, I climbed the software engineering/ management ranks at companies like Hewlett-Packard, Tata Consultancy Services, and Microsoft. My career led me to C-suite leadership positions both in India and in the US. In 2013, I cofounded CleverTap, which is today a leading customer lifecycle and user retention platform, where I also serve as CEO.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that led to CleverTap’s inception — it was more of a series of revelations. I first discussed the idea of a retention-based marketing company with my business colleagues in 2012. At the time, I was working at Network18, a large consumer conglomerate with multiple digital brands where we identified the need to create a brand of marketing that did more than just generate leads and treat people like replaceable transactions. That is the concept behind CleverTap and it holds true to this day — personalized messaging and digital experiences build a strong brand reputation and keep consumers coming back for more.

To best understand this focus on personalized marketing and what inspired us to found CleverTap, let’s use one of the most recognizable fictional characters of all time as an example:

Agent 007, super-spy, James Bond arrives outside a dazzling casino in his debonair Aston Martin DB iii. He walks in, tuxedo perfectly pressed, diamond watch glinting and proceeds to win several rounds of Blackjack before sauntering over to the nearest bar. He opens his mouth to order the infamous Vesper Martini (shaken not stirred), but before he utters a word, the bartender places the finished drink in his hand, lemon twist and all.

The bartender knew who James Bond was and what drink he would prefer. This level of understanding context and intent and creating this moment of personalization is what marketers should aspire to. A good company will know potential customers so well that they can anticipate their needs before they even know it.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

I think a more apt way to describe myself is that I am a technologist first and an entrepreneur second. I love tech — it is at the heart of everything I do. Secondly, I love to use technology to solve business problems — even growing up as an engineer my satisfaction was writing code that solves business problems. These interests led me to become an entrepreneur. When the opportunity came up to start my own business and have the chance to lead my way in an industry that I love, I could not pass it up.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Of course, CleverTap would not exist without my business partners and co-founders Anand Jain and Suresh Kondamudi. However, what inspired CleverTap’s inception was an identified need — a problem that the marketing industry had not yet holistically solved: retention.

Previously, marketers were spending enormous amounts of money to vaguely and impersonally target leads. While this method may work for companies with massive budgets, it is tremendously more efficient to focus on personalized messaging that will engage and retain customers. I worked with multiple consumer brands that tried hard but still failed to solve the problem of retention. Do it yourself (DIY) hacks are difficult to sustain and don’t solve the problem.

I believed that there was a massive opportunity to build something sustainable by looking at the problem holistically and solving it with data, context, and user intent. The ultimate goal for us was figuring out how to crack the code of brand “relevancy” and find a way to create memorable, authentic customer experiences.

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

The obvious answer is CleverTap’s holistic focus on user retention, our success, and growth over the years is what makes it stand out. However, what I am most proud of and what I think makes our company stand out the most is our culture and commitment to employees.

I detest buzzwords, especially “employee satisfaction.” A company should be doing so much more than simply “satisfying” their staff. Businesses should strive to have employees who enjoy work, feel fulfilled, and look forward to coming into the (now virtual) office every day.

During the pandemic, we worked to take the transactional nature out of remote work by encouraging team members to take time to chat casually with each other, use their PTO, and even take an extra PTO day on one Friday every month. We have also always been keen to open up lines of communication from the most entry-level team members all the way up to the C-suite. In our eyes, no one is too high or low in the company hierarchy that they can’t freely speak their mind and share their ideas. CleverTap for two years in a row is listed among America’s Best Startup Employers.

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?

1. Good listener

A successful business leader (and a successful person for that matter) needs to be a good listener. Those with strong listening/communication skills are likely to have the trust of their coworkers and employees, keeping their fingers on the pulse of company happenings, insights, and areas for growth. Leaders who can listen are often portrayed as more empathetic, caring, and even charismatic. This skill has been instrumental to my success because it’s helped me to understand my strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement. It’s taught me how to be a better boss and communicator.

2. Perceptive

As a company grows, it is essential to bring in new, dynamic talent at different positions and levels. In our company’s case, this involves hiring people around the globe who best support our goals and overarching mission. What has helped me find success at CleverTap is recognizing those areas of need and finding top talent to fill that need wherever they may be located. Being perceptive is a key trait of a good business leader and one that has been instrumental to my success.

3. Trusting

A good leader trusts their employees and doesn’t micromanage every step of the way. I have found success by knowing when to back off and let professionals do their jobs. It’s important that employees feel empowered and understand that they are an essential, capable part of a company so that they can succeed and help the company succeed.

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?

When starting a company, you will be overwhelmed by the barrage of advice you receive. Some of it was good, some wasn’t. The truth is that the entire process is a learning experience. The bad decisions helped me grow and eventually make the correct decisions. I am blessed to have worked at several companies before founding CleverTap, so I had some perspective on the necessary steps it takes to lead a successful company around the globe.

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?

Work culture was truly tested by the pandemic for many people this past year, as they lost their jobs, questioned their career paths and left a role, or struggled with the mental health aspect of isolation. At CleverTap, we tried our best to avoid these issues by digging deep and figuring out what issues our people were dealing with region-by-region and individual-by-individual.

For instance, some of our employees live in corners of the world with limited connectivity. They depended on the office for a solid internet connection and the move to remote work created a lot of anxiety. To help quiet these fears, we offered a monthly stipend to cover increased costs for Internet packages. We also made it abundantly clear that the line between home and work was more blurred than ever. We didn’t mind having kids running around in the background of video calls or other frequent homelife interruptions through the workday. We really tried our best to lead with empathy and will continue beyond the pandemic.

My advice to other executives making employee decisions at this time is to treat your employees like the valuable, important contributors they are and remember that over the last year, they weathered tremendous stress and anxiety. Encourage employees to take breaks, socialize, and take time off from work. They will come back recharged, refocused, and more appreciative of a company who actually cares about them. As a leader in retention, I would be remiss to not think critically about how to keep my own team intact.

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

Walk before you run. Figure out what you do best and hone it. As an emerging business leader, it’s easy to let your ambition get the best of you and forget your focus. It’s important to take a step back every now and again and be introspective. What’s important to you? What problems does your offering solve? It’s important to find your niche, or you will be a “jack of all trades and a master of none”.

The first step is to pay your dues within your industry at the ground level. Before you try to delegate and lead, do the hard work to understand industry pain points, building your brand, and establishing yourself as a proven and capable talent.

Be sure to showcase your company’s success through your most important advocates — your customers. Customer testimonials are not just a fantastic way to earn trust and credibility, they provide the world with a real-life example of how your product comes to life.

Additionally, don’t forget the power of community. It’s easy to get caught up in the “competition” of the market, but by joining panels and industry organizations you put yourself in good company and can forge mutually beneficial partnerships. Being a leader and exhibiting Authority doesn’t mean siloing yourself, it means immersing yourself in your industry and being a lifelong learner.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

In a highly digital, visible arena with reviews, social media, investigative journalism, etc., companies and leaders are (rightfully) held to a higher standard than ever before. Building a strong platform of trust and credibility is vital to perception. Leaders need to be transparent and straightforward to position themselves and their companies in a positive light. Leaders need to control their narrative before someone else does.

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 CEOs and founders make is when they assume the problem they are solving is applicable and relevant to the real world. It is essential that careful steps are taken to plan, research, and test to determine if there is a need for the product or service they plan to market.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about 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”?

Someone with a “regular job” typically wakes up at 7 am, goes to work (or stays at home), clocks in at 8 am, then leaves the office at 6 pm, and hopefully doesn’t think about work for the rest of the evening. For entrepreneurs and founders, this dynamic is drastically different because it can be so difficult to separate work from home. Founders are intimately tied to their company and experience the highs and lows more intensely than someone working for a business. In most cases, your company is your brainchild and much of your identity is caught up in it. You desperately want to succeed, so the successes and failures feel more intense when you are so closely attached.

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.

The moment that stands out to me is when we cleared our first million in revenue. It was validating to see that our product was needed and that it was working. We felt like we could breathe a little deeper, knowing we were on to something. I will never forget that day.

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.

Startups are like roller-coaster rides — there are highs and lows, bumpy spots, and smooth ones. Sometimes you get thrown for a loop, sometimes you just ride straight. The point is that every company is going to have lows. If you’re considering starting a company, understand that the name of the game is failure and iteration. It’s important to not let your highs be too high, or your lows are too. Setbacks are just setbacks — you grow and learn from them.

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

Bouncing back from any adversity, especially as an entrepreneur, depends on your faith in your product/company. If you firmly believe that your product has value and is needed, you have nothing to worry about. It’s a matter of trusting the process and persevering through hardships. Good things come to those who don’t give up. Focus on what you can control. PERSEVERE!

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. Have a complete vision of the future/strategy.

While experiencing the emotional highs and lows of entrepreneurship, keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t lose sight of your grand vision, your goal for starting a company. By looking at things full picture and having a strong understanding of where you want to go and how to get there, you position yourself to weather adversity and find success.

2. Be truthful about what stage the company is in.

For most startups, success isn’t instant. In fact, the first three to five years of a new business can be tremendously challenging as entrepreneurs struggle to find customers, quality employees, business connections, etc. Understand where your company is and give yourself a little grace when encountering adversity. A startup is going to struggle so acknowledge this and do all you can to keep pushing for growth.

3. Stay humble and grounded.

Sometimes, in new business ventures, you will have a significant number of “highs.” Maybe you land a big client or get covered by a famous media outlet. When these moments occur, it’s important to appreciate them for their significance but continue to stay humble and constantly drive for improvement. Entrepreneurs who get complacent, or worse, bask in the glory of their own achievement, can become irrelevant or disliked in the blink of an eye. Stay humble, stay hungry.

4. Don’t lose your sense of humor.

I try to have a sense of humor at work through the ups and the downs. Times can be tough, but I’ve found that when you can inject a little humor into things, big problems don’t seem quite as bad. It can also be reassuring to staff when their leader can show stability and find humor in challenging situations.

5. Care about your employees.

Sometimes, especially in larger companies, leaders struggle to really connect with their employees beyond the C-suite. However, this is one of the most important ways to survive the emotional highs and lows of entrepreneurship and one of the main reasons I have found success. I find a way to show my employees that I care about them, and it inevitably comes full circle. Employees who feel cared for will have your back when you need them to. Whether it’s through a kind email, daily check-in, or shoutout in the Monday morning standup, I find a way to acknowledge my employees and check in on their wellbeing. This care trickles down and creates bonds in our teams, forging a dynamic that can ride the highs and lows of business effortlessly.

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?

Resilience is the ability to get knocked down or fail, and get right back up and keep trying. Resilience is Rocky Balboa in Rocky 1 — knocked down over and over, but still standing tall no matter how hard the punches land or how many times he hits the mat. Resilience is saying no matter how many times I fall, I will continue to stand tall, even in defeat.

The key defining traits of resilient people are confidence, the establishment of self-trust, and an inherent positive sensibility that things will work out for them. However, without work ethic, resilience is nothing. The most resilient people combine a deep drive to succeed and a total trust in their ability with a tenacious work ethic.

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

My lessons in resiliency came from my parents. I grew up in an ordinary middle-class family in Mumbai. To me, my parents represent the gold standard of resiliency. Growing up, they sheltered my brother and I from the pressure of finances and many of life’s hardships. Of course, I had no idea at the time but now realize how well their drive and work ethic positioned me and our family to succeed.

I use the skills that my parents silently demonstrated for me every day. By handling challenging situations calmly and logically, leaders are less likely to overreact and can manage difficulties with full clarity.

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

Life is too short to spend brooding over challenging situations or failures. Not only does positivity help you to personally address things, but it also inspires employees and prevents problems from becoming bigger than they are.

I stay upbeat by keeping a positive, talented team around me. The support I receive, both at work and at home, is what keeps me confident that things will always go well. I am blessed to work with a fantastic team of professionals that can make the best of every situation. How could you not be positive with a team like that?

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Have you ever heard of the term “energy vampire”? Energy vampires are people who leave you feeling emotionally drained after interacting with them. Maybe they ask you for too much, dominate conversations, constantly dump their problems on you, or offend you with their language. An effective leader should do the opposite — be an energy giver.

Positive people uplift those around them, whether it’s their customers or their team. Not only do positive leaders inspire faith and confidence in a company or brand, but they also help raise morale and provide an energy boost. In my opinion, real positivity is an essential part of a functioning business. It’s important to be sure to not stray into the toxic positivity realm where you refuse to acknowledge real problems.

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?

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” — Michael Jordan

Who better to motivate the pursuit of greatness than Michael Jordan? I love this quote because it motivates me to take risks, learn new things, and adopt a mindset of experimentation in my life and entrepreneurship. I hope to always be on the cutting edge of technology and industry advancements. A strong entrepreneur is always trying new things and taking risks. More so, they aren’t afraid to shift their vision to emerging market trends and, more importantly, customer needs. Stagnant people don’t move mountains.

P.S. — If you’re looking for lessons in resilience, look no further than his Airness himself in the ESPN documentary, The Last Dance.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Follow me on Twitter or connect with me on LinkedIn. If you’d like to read a few of my blog posts, click here. Cheers!

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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