Vijay Sikka of Sikka Software: “Being honest and upfront”

Being honest and upfront. Remember our team is like a professional ball player team and they are adults and appreciate honesty and being upfront. Share business results and let them know where things stand. As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had […]

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Being honest and upfront. Remember our team is like a professional ball player team and they are adults and appreciate honesty and being upfront. Share business results and let them know where things stand.

As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vijay Sikka.

Vijay Sikka is the Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sikka Software Corporation. Under his leadership, Sikka Software has grown from a start-up to have over 35,000 practice installations and 120m patients on its platform for healthcare on the demand side and over 50 companies which have built applications on the supply side. Prior to Sikka Software, Vijay has worked in Artificial Intelligence and decision systems beginning with his Masters in Syracuse and neuroscience Ph.D. work at Stanford and added more than 25 years of experience with large scale projects at Intel Corporation, National Institutes of Health, Glaxo Smith Kline, Roche and UCSF affiliates. In 1996, Vijay founded IBrain Software, Inc. that used to compete with Informatica and Cognos and served as its CEO until its acquisition in 1998 by Entigen Corporation, a healthcare information company that later became part of Roche. Vijay holds an M.S. degree from Syracuse University New York, pursued graduate studies in neurosciences at Stanford University, and is a Registered Continuing Education Provider in California. He is a frequent speaker at big data, AI, healthcare, technology and quality meetings. Vijay’s book on Maximizing ROI on Software Development was published by Taylor and Francis International and earns him a proud royalty check every few months.

Vijay was invited keynote speaker at the Digital Health World Conference in 2019 and 2020 and Biohacking Congress in London in 2020. He has delivered webinars with American Dental Association He has published and presented in many artificial intelligence and neural network meetings and conferences including the International Joint Conference on Neural Networks (precursor to NeurIPS), SPIE, IEEE, AAAI and CHMT.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?

Back in 2002, I had run the process control team at Intel in Artificial Intelligence lab for 7 years and started two companies where both were acquired. I saw my dentist wife struggling with fee schedules and the business challenges in her newly acquired dental practice. I wanted to bring my business and entrepreneur background and help her out. She agreed with one condition, Vijay, you have to stay out of my way. I worked in her office for two years and didn’t get paid but laid out all the business process maps that led to the creation of this company.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Trying to do everything. I would be the sales person and also the support person. There is no comparison here but I was reminded of the early days when I used to order books from Amazon and have received response directly from Bezos who was the customer success agent. It was him or maybe someone signing as him.

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?

There are many. I have read biographies or autobiographies of many business leaders of modern times, from Branson, to Knight to Bezos, Musk, Jobs and Gates plus many others. I love to read. So many books, authors, and writers have been an inspiration.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Helping level the playing field for dentists. Other companies such as insurance companies, manufacturers and service providers in this space use specialized analytical models to understand profitability. Dentists on the other hand are so busy working on patients that they just don’t have the time to do so. We built business performance optimization and analytical models and business intelligence dashboards to help them level the playing field.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

I remember we came very close to running out of money and close shop. We were very open with the team. They knew. Many took voluntary days off with paycuts. We turned to our customers. That was the one group who stood by our side. They advanced us a year worth of payments, in the blink of an eye. I learnt the most important lesson of entrepreneurship. that if you are honest and good with your employees and customers, they will never let you fail.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Honestly I wake up every morning and go to work because I want to level the playing field.
Doctors and team members are the hardest working people as we have seen even during the covid crisis but they don’t get the same tools and assistance with technology that many other companies naturally have. Bringing the most modern tools and Technologies, applications and access to doctors is our mission.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Empathy and understanding that we are all humans first. We have to be emotionally supported to be great producers. We can succeed beyond our wildest imagination if the leader can present an inclusive vision and have the empathy to let people balance the work with their family lives and pandemic. And take breaks to rest and recharge.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

We asked all team members to post anything creative in a shared company folder, anything that they did, their children did or their significant others did. The response was overwhelming. The art and creativity was amazing. We made it into a movie and shared in our bimonthly all hands meetings. We share everyone’s success and we ask for their well being. Our team is distributed in three timezones in USA and 2 more centers 100s of miles apart in India. But we operate as one unit one team and one mission.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Honestly and upfront. I remember a book by Ben Horowitz of Andreseen Horowitz called the Hard thing about the hard things. The team is like a group of professional ball players. They appreciate if they are told upfront and honestly.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

One step at a time. Founders have a unique quality that the optimism drives them forward. They don’t look at things as glass half empty. They look at the world as glass overflowing, not just half full. This dark period will pass. We are seeing robust signs of dental and veterinary industry and other industries coming back.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Customer centric companies can survive any turbulent time. Being agile and keeping costs low. Adapting to and using innovation and surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Stretching or growth beyond means is the most common mistake. Unfortunately our environment encourages that but that is the number one mistake. Second one is not having the right team members at the right role. People is the number one enabler for success or failure of a company during good times or difficult times.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Keeping a customer success mindset is the key. Covid has created a catastrophic environment for small business healthcare and in particular dentists, veterinarians and others from revenue perspective. We adapted very quickly and created and started to share real time data ( into production and visits from over 15,000 opt-in practices so everyone in the industry had the latest status of what was going on. This created good will and allowed everyone in the retail healthcare industry to see what we do and how it can help. We had a fairly resilient business model that was customer focused and that helped us keep forging ahead.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Be customer focused. Helping our customer succeed and stay informed has always helped them stay on our side and come to our rescue in the past when we needed help.

Be team focused. Finding the best people for the appropriate positions is key to uncovering the full potential of product market fit.

Being honest and upfront. Remember our team is like a professional ball player team and they are adults and appreciate honesty and being upfront. Share business results and let them know where things stand.

Control costs. Spend when you can justify the spending and there is a clear ROI to what you spend on. If the runway ends before you can take off the plane, everyone loses.

Don’t forget to catch your breath. Most business building is a marathon and not a sprint. Taking time off and resting in between heavy work load is essential to great productivity.

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

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “ Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn (and read) as if you were to live forever”. Our life guides are all around us in the form of greats who have come before us and they have shared their life experiences in books and articles. We should learn the best practices from them and use them.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I frequently write on LinkedIn, Medium and Twitter

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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