“Talk to your users/customers”, With Douglas Brown and Anshu Agarwal

Talk to your users/customers: We all drink our kool-aid from time-to-time and we forget that our product may not be what we think. Talk to your users to get a better idea on how they use the product, what they feel is missing and what they would like to see. Make sure you are articulating […]

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Talk to your users/customers: We all drink our kool-aid from time-to-time and we forget that our product may not be what we think. Talk to your users to get a better idea on how they use the product, what they feel is missing and what they would like to see. Make sure you are articulating your roadmap with clarity and getting feedback where you are not only addressing their needs but also providing guidance on what new capabilities are coming next. In our business, the developer base is so diverse and all developers have their own style, the tools they use, the language they write their code in which makes it even more important to get their feedback because we can’t cover the entire spectrum from our own experiences.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anshu Agarwal.

Anshu is the CEO and co-founder of Nimbella, a serverless cloud provider. She has over 20 years of experience in the technology industry, building and evangelizing products that have solved real-world problems for organizations large and small across the globe. She served on the Board of Directors of the OpenDaylight Project, Linux. Prior to Nimbella, she successfully led product and marketing teams at four infrastructure startups: Cedexis (acquired by Citrix, 2018), ConteXtream (acquired by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, 2015), Ankeena Networks (acquired by Juniper Networks, 2010), and Speedera Networks (acquired by Akamai, 2005). Anshu holds a B.S. E.E. from IIT/Roorkee, India; M.S. E.E. from Rutgers; and an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

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 have gone through four startup journeys which ended in acquisition by large companies. Although each acquirer was a different company, one reality stood out in each transaction: the nimble, family-like startup culture that once was rapidly morphed into a slower, more methodical, less personal big corporate culture in no time.

Because of this reason, I have always found working at a startup way more fulfilling, but until now I have only delivered to someone else’s vision. This time I wanted to do something which was my vision — that is the main reason I co-founded Nimbella.

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

My co-founder and I had decided that we would start a company together so after I quit my job, we started thinking about the next best idea in our domain of expertise. We started looking into the serverless computing paradigm and both of us had prior experience in content delivery so it was a natural extension for us. Since the technology is fairly new, we wanted to work with advisors who have had a significant impact on this technology and we wanted to work with only open-source. That’s when we decided to reach out to the creator of Apache OpenWhisk (open-source serverless) to see if he would be an advisor in case we wanted to go with this project. To our surprise, he had left the previous employer and started his own startup journey in this domain. In the meeting we went from looking for an advisor to have found a co-founder. Perhaps it’s destiny that brought us together: we don’t just have complementary skill sets, but a shared vision of, and commitment to, building a company with the right culture, a place where the best and the brightest would like to come to work every day.

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?

We use Slack for messaging and it is our main communication channel. One time, I was messaging my co-founder on Slack from my phone and the conversation was about a video that had gone viral where someone was doing a quite difficult routine. My co-founder could not understand why it was difficult to do. Then accidentally because of message notification on the phone the channel got switched to a public channel and we continued our argument on the public channel. The conversation without the context stayed on the public channel for a good 12 hours before we realized it was there. No one said anything because to them it felt like a heated argument although it was a very funny argument to us. After we told the story, everyone had a great laugh and they still joke about it.

The lesson I learned was a very important one — be careful of where you post your messages because out of context, they can be easily misunderstood. Also, if such incidents happen and they are bound to happen, then take time to address them and be transparent about it. It not only clears the air, but also creates an environment of trust.

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?

When I started this journey, we decided that the first thing we would do is raise money. I have raised money before from the previous startups I was part of. However, this was different because I raised funds as a functional leader, not as the CEO. We met several VCs in the valley and it became apparent to me that the rules weren’t the same for men and women CEOs. The questions I was asked were all figuring out if I was as dedicated as other Silicon Valley CEOs who were men. I was asked about the ages of my children, which could be considered as a benign question, but it actually was not because they were trying to determine if I would be spending more time taking care of the family. I don’t think men are asked these questions so I was definitely taken aback. However, it only strengthened my resolve to continue this venture and make it even more successful. My co-founders were always supportive of me in this role so it bolstered my confidence even more, especially knowing that we are all in this journey together.

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?

The first startup I worked at was Speedera Networks and that is where most of my career growth happened. I learned the tools of the trade because prior to that I had only worked in large companies. This is where I got my taste of startups and I have never gone back. It often felt like Speedera went through every possible startup experience: running from Internet boom to bust; from having lots of cash on-hand to no cash; from scary litigation to fun times, like taking the entire company on trips to Hawaii (twice!); and, finally, being acquired. We weathered each challenge, enjoying the highs and lows, and came out as a coherent and resilient team. We loved the culture that we built at Speedera, loved working with each other, and held out hope we could do it again. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, I really can’t point to a single person who helped me grow because it is at Speedera where I found what I wanted to do. So it is not a surprise that when it was time to start a new company, I started it with Speedera’s co-founder.

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

“Never give up, because you never know if the next attempt will be the one that works.”

Persistence and grit are two very important characteristics of an entrepreneur. I believe that if a founder gives up, that is usually the end of that company. It is relevant to me more today than ever before. Starting a company is like raising a child where you never want to give up no matter how things are going. You have to try everything in your power to make it work whether it requires pivoting, hiring people with different skill sets or going to a different market. There are ups, and downs everywhere — in work and in life and we need to march through it. I witnessed it from the sidelines at the first startup I worked where we almost ran out of money, but the founders never gave up on fundraising, they knocked on every door they could and were able to raise money and the company did great. So I believe in it completely. However, I am cognizant of the fact that there are times when you have to cut your losses and move on.

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?

Cloud is inevitable and so is Serverless! Companies who thought they would never move to the cloud often end up fully operating in the cloud. Similarly, companies will adopt the serverless computing paradigm because it helps enterprises deliver value to their customers at the pace of innovation. What we are doing is commoditizing the cloud and democratizing the developer experience so this supercomputing power of the cloud is available to developers of all skill levels and not just cloud experts. The pain point that we are addressing is related to the complexity of cloud in developing stateful applications so that a developer is free from all infrastructure burdens and is only focused on developing application logic resulting in significantly faster time-to-market.

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

I believe developer experience is what makes my company stand out. We are still a young player in this space, but the developers that have used our Serverless Cloud have made comments like “everything works like a charm,” “I created an account, deployed my application and ran it in the cloud in 5 mins,” and “ I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to write a single line of code to manage infrastructure.” Some of them have even called their experience “magical” and I believe this is what makes my company stand out.

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

Everything is being disrupted by software and we are an enabler of helping developers of all skill levels to be able to develop their applications in the cloud without managing any infrastructure. We are currently running a contest on developing applications for social good and it is amazing to see these young developers develop full blown applications in less than two weeks. The contest is still happening, but we will have several stories to share after it is done. As a result of this contest, I think there will be several good applications that will address social causes.

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 am certainly not satisfied with the status quo. In tech, I see different standards being applied to men and women. Women are asked to justify more on why they choose to take a particular decision whereas men aren’t challenged as much. There is unconscious bias when it comes to women in certain fields and unfortunately, tech is one of them. Lot of progress has been made in trying to level the playing field, but more work needs to be done. I think we need to start from the top and hire more female leaders not just for diversity of opinion and action, but to create an environment where women feel welcome. Mentors are great, but women need sponsors.

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?

The biggest challenge faced by women in tech is the unconscious bias. There was an experiment conducted by Mindspace that discovered that both women and men have the same bias towards women in leadership roles. I actually ran that experiment on my children and they didn’t have that bias so there is definitely hope that with future generations this bias will go away. Until then we need to make a conscious effort to understand that the bias exists and we need to create checks and balances for ourselves to overcome it.

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”?

This can happen to any of us and the best way for me has been to “restart the engines.” If something is not working, you can’t expect a different outcome by doing the same thing. So try something new, rediscover your passion because the reason for the standstill could be that the interest is not there. It has happened to me and I have an interesting way of judging it. If I don’t feel like getting up from my bed and going to work, I know for sure I will not do well in that job/role/company and that is when I have looked for a change. It does depend on the financial and the market situation at that time, but start looking elsewhere if you are feeling that way.

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

I have not been a career sales leader so it is not a question that I can’t answer with authority, but I have certainly created high performance teams in marketing and engineering. I believe the same rules apply across all functions. The first step is to have common goals understood and internalized by everyone. Encourage each individual to own their piece and empower them to execute. Creating a timeline to meet the goal is as important as the goal itself. Finally, having clear KPIs (key performance indicators) for each member of the team is the final step because everyone needs to know how they are doing individually and as a team. In addition, specifically to sales, one thing I have realized having worked with good and bad sales teams that sales compensation clarity and metrics are the most important factors in the success of the team. So don’t compromise on it, set up the right compensation metrics and share the upside.

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?

In my industry, the most effective strategy to find the right customers is to not sell to them, but have them find you. This is done by thought leadership and great content. My customers are developers and they hate the idea of being sold because they want to find things themselves. If we try to sell by selling to engineering leadership, we can definitely get some customers through contacts and the trust we personally have built with them over the years, but it is not a scalable model. Some of the stories are of the developers reaching out on our Slack community channel and asking questions on how to build, challenging us if something can be done or not. Letting them try the free product is the best way because if someone is not going to use it for free then they are not the right customer and we are not offering the right solution to them.

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

  1. Instant gratification on signup. We realized early on that the attention span of our customers is very little. In SaaS business if the signup process is cumbersome and creates friction, you will lose the customer.
  2. Fully featured product for free tier. We are in the business of generating revenue, but if we don’t provide feature-rich freemium products to work, it is very easy to lose the customer forever.
  3. Great documentation. Documentation in our space is a big part of “The Product” because everything else is practically behind the scenes.
  4. A support channel. A lot of the products we see that are available for free have no support channel. I think that is a big mistake because someone who is trying out the product for free is spending their time which is probably the most expensive currency so provide them with the same service because if they like your product, they will come back and use it and become paying customers.

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 are a fairly young player so churn is not an issue at this time, but from my experiences in my past life, we measured churn like we measured new customer acquisition. Everyone gets excited about new customers and new logos, but the most important customers are your existing ones because they were with you when you started and they were your early adopters. Some churn is inevitable but we need to limit it to the lowest possible percentage. Therefore my advice is to have A) customer success team rewarded in a similar way as the new sales team; B) provide similar incentives that you give to new customers so they don’t feel that they would have been better off if they were new customers; and C) have an executive sponsor for the existing customers.

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. Founding team: This is probably the most important ingredient for creating a successful company. Entrepreneurship is hard so having the right co-founder(s) who share the same passion and belief, have complementary skills, one who can challenge and support you will make your journey easier and successful. There were several ups and downs at the various companies I worked at and the ones that not only weathered the storms but thrived had one thing in common — a founding team that stuck together no matter what the situation was.
  2. Talk to your users/customers: We all drink our kool-aid from time-to-time and we forget that our product may not be what we think. Talk to your users to get a better idea on how they use the product, what they feel is missing and what they would like to see. Make sure you are articulating your roadmap with clarity and getting feedback where you are not only addressing their needs but also providing guidance on what new capabilities are coming next. In our business, the developer base is so diverse and all developers have their own style, the tools they use, the language they write their code in which makes it even more important to get their feedback because we can’t cover the entire spectrum from our own experiences.
  3. Know and empower your team: This journey is impossible without the people you hire. The beauty of a startup is that you can know each and every person in the early phases of your business. Don’t lose that opportunity, get to know everyone and empower them. People are way more productive when they feel they are valued and heard. Having worked in large companies and five startups (including Nimbella) I have seen the biggest difference is in how well you know your team. It is the primary reason why a startup can accomplish so much in such a short time. If the team members are empowered every single member feels they add value and the sense of responsibility and accountability is incredible, yielding great results. Companies may succeed or fail (depends on a lot of factors) but the biggest benefit you walk away from such an environment is the close connections you form.
  4. Cash:Cash is king, a saying that has been repeatedly taught in business school. Make sure you are watching your books, don’t overspend and always grow your team in a deliberate way. For startups money is always tight and this is what makes or breaks the company. You don’t want to be in a situation where you are running out of cash and not ready to raise a venture round or don’t have revenues to support. There are so many opportunities to spend money for example marketing events, direct sales campaigns, memberships and many others that you really have to pick and choose what you do. You have to have policies such as travel policy, expense policy because it is easy to just ignore these checks and balances. The technology stack that can help you manage the books and expenses is just amazing because they are not only easy to use but also quite inexpensive for small companies.
  5. Fail fast: Some campaigns work and some don’t. Make sure if something is not working, don’t keep on doing it to expect a different result. For example: if social media is not working out for your business, don’t keep on spending effort and money on it, find other channels to promote. If you need to pivot, don’t be shy of pivoting — some of the best companies were pivots. We are in developer-first business so we have to try many different ideas to reach our developer audience. Top-down selling strategy doesn’t work and we tried it with a few accounts but very quickly we realized that we have to win the hearts and minds of the developer and it can only be done by providing value to the developer directly and not selling to the top. So we stopped all top-down sales efforts within a few months of trying a pilot.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. 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. 🙂

Many working women take time off when their child is born. Women in different positions almost never come back to the level of the position they left. It is a struggle to find a job and even if they find one, several questions are raised around their commitment to work. Throughout my career I have seen promising careers wither away because they were never accepted at the level they were before and then it is almost a restart of career. For many it is disheartening and for others it doesn’t make sense financially to see their entire income go for paying daycare. Women are already paid less than their male counterparts so when the decision of who should stay at home comes, it is mostly the women who have to sacrifice their career. For women in tech it is even harder because the technology changes rapidly and they aren’t given a chance to refresh their skills instead it is assumed that they won’t be able to.

What we need to do is have a program where women are hired back and there is a training program so they can be brought back to the same level that they left. If all the companies had some provisions to make this happen, we will be able to see these women back on their feet in no time. And we don’t have to stop at women, many men also take time off for a few years and face the same challenges. They should be also eligible for such programs. I really hope we can start a movement around this so no person ever feels that having and raising a child although was very fulfilling but was a setback to their career.

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 🙂

I would love to have the opportunity to have breakfast or lunch with Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo. We have many things in common: we are Indian immigrants, have a similar family background, share the same culture and similar expectations from the family. She says that we can’t have it all, but she has actually done it. She is brutally honest and challenges the status quo. In one of her talks she made this comment: “Where have the women gone when 70 percent of high school valedictorians are women, 56 percent of the top grades in colleges are received by women. MIT graduates 47 percent of women in the engineering school.” I think all of us look at this as statistics, but we need to not just look at statistics, but do more so there are more women in positions like Indra Nooyi. As Elastigirl from The Incredibles would say, we can’t “leave the saving of the world to the men,” we need to play our part.

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

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