B2B 28 | Customer Collaboration

 

B2B 28 | Customer Collaboration

Collaboration inside your team is expected in any thriving business. But what if you can extend that collaboration to your customers? When it comes to go-to-market sales, having a transparent collaboration with the buyer and the seller is a lifesaver. That is what Accord is doing. Vijay Damojipurapu talks about this with the CEO and co-founder of Accord, Ross Rich. Learn how Ross built a go-to-market playbook for his team and how he started Accord. Learn the challenges of building something new in the market and how to get market validation. Discover more about go-to-market sales and Accord today!

Listen to the podcast here:

Accord And The Power Of Customer Collaboration With Ross Rich

I have with me Ross Rich, who is the Founder and CEO of Accord, Y Combinator Alum and in the go-to-market, MarTech, sales tech, customer support, customer success tech, and tech stack, depending on which lens you want to put on. That’s one of my favorite areas, which is the whole GTM tech stack. I’m super excited about your story, Ross. I’m sure we’ll dive a lot more, first of all, a very warm welcome to the show.

B2B 28 | Customer Collaboration
Customer Collaboration: Combining the challenge of building a repeatable sales process and working with customers transparently birthed a customer-facing collaboration platform for sales and onboarding.

 

Thank you for having me. I’m excited to dive in.

Again, I always start off with the signature question with all my guests because I want to deliver value to my audience first, which is how do you define go-to-market?

I was thinking about this before and it’s a tough question because it’s so much of a company now, especially if you have the product by growth. I think there are two answers. If you have your sales and marketing team and they sell someone, then they go into the product. I’d define it as the sales and marketing side.

As soon as you bridge both of those in and you think about retention and NRR and all of those great things, it’s the whole company outside of the R&D side of things. It’s a startup. It’s your entire company. If you have part of your product, that’s driving growth, which almost is true with any company now. It has to do with your retention and customer success. That’s how I like to think about it.

Especially for the PLG-focused companies like yours, you think about the product first, but then very quickly and importantly, you need to pivot to the customer and the user. Even for PLG strategy-focused companies, it depends. You need to focus on how do you quickly deliver value to your user first up. It’s user-focused. Buyer focused as well and how do you deliver. Hopefully, you get to a vitality effect and I repeat usability. All of this, again, comes back to that buyer and the user, knowing that person, he or her very well.

That’s part of your go-to-market. It’s the product of building everything.

It’s a huge part of the go-to-market. That is one core component. Again, I’ve listened to quite a few podcasts. I was listening to another podcast where it was the Founder and CEO of I think the company was Intellimize. His focus was all balling down to customer focus. The go-to-market strategy is sales lead but in your case, it’s a product lead go-to-market strategy. Would you agree with that?

The process is a bit of a mix. For Accord, in particular, it’s not self-serve freemium in terms of like, “You can go on. You get to set up and we’ll ring you up if you get past a certain limit like a Loom, Figma or something like that.” You get a free trial. You can play around. You can use the product before you decide to buy, which feels about right.

In 2021, the new company was starting out but you’re guided, assisted by an expert in the space that’s like, hopefully, a consultant and giving you best practices and what we’ve been learning to make you even more successful. It’s a mix of salespeople. It’s super helpful but that’s not how buyers want to buy. They don’t want to be led by a salesperson alone. They want to be assisted. How do you bridge both the need for people to play around with the product and validate themselves but also get that expertise and advice from someone who knows what they’re talking about?

It’s almost like it’s a salesperson but with a very customer success mindset and customer success-oriented. I’m sure we’ll dive a lot more during this interview. Next step, can you tell our audience and share with all of us your personal, professional journey, your story and what led you to what you do now and who do you serve?

I’m originally from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I was born and raised in Canada. I went to school on the Westcoast on Vancouver Island and I studied business. My dream job after starting school there was to be in the music industry. I was managing artists. My brother and I started our first company together that was putting on events and bringing in artists that were touring across Canada in the US, hosting fundraisers. We’re very involved in the music and entertainment industry. Somehow got my dream job after school at Columbia Records. Working with artists like Calvin Harris, Snoop Dogg, Omi, Pharrell, etc., on album releases and songs and tours and all this stuff. That was the dream.

I quickly learned that wasn’t for me, long-term. I found the culture of the industry, but sadly, I didn’t see myself working in this industry for more years after the first year. It’s a lot of egos and the way of working. It was very bureaucratic. Surprisingly for such a creative industry. I ended up finding a job in San Francisco. I moved there before I had the job.

I did about 40 interviews with recruiters, screenings, looked up as the top early-stage companies and wanted to be at a company where I was going to be one of the first salespeople. I was like looking at sub 25-50 people companies exclusively and somehow, I ended up at Stripe. I don’t know how luck, etc. It was 2015 and they started to hire business and salespeople.

The first years were purely self-serve, selling to tiny startups, founders, SMBs, etc., adding on a sales team and luckily ended up being one of those first hires. That’s what drew me into tech sales and this whole idea of building repeatable go-to-market engines and the love of the deal. I did that for about five years then founded Accord with my brother a few years ago. That’s what brought me here. A secure, very random path from Canadian University and putting on events and concerts there to Columbia Records in LA and New York to Stripe, APIs, payments, and FinTech to a sales technology platform with Accord. That’s been my personal journey so far.

Find a group of smart people and learn and optimize from them. Money will follow. Click To Tweet

First of all, you’ve done a pretty good job summarizing your entire career in 2 or 3 minutes, so kudos to you on that but it’s amazing. You start off with something in the music industry, which is very creative. Of course, you can draw the lines and connect the dots from the music industry to sales. I get that part but then, what led you to sales in tech?

You don’t have many options when you’re a few years at a school and the only experience was music and you want to be in the professional space. I was like, “I’m good at working with people,” all that stuff even before the company that I had in university and at Columbia Records. I was like, “Maybe a junior sales role would be a good foot in the door.” For what I wanted, the opposite, I wanted a fast-moving company in the early stage to be able to be part of the strategy, which seemed to be the tech world. That’s what led me to focus on tech. The real reason I joined Stripe over the 39 other companies I had interviewed with was the team that I met there.

I was like, “This group of people seem insanely overqualified.” They’re incredible senior people and super talented folks from Google, Twitter, and all these other earliest stage companies. I was like, “You guys are joining this small startup that I never heard of before and all that stuff and selling APIs and FinTech?” It wasn’t proven out at that time yet. I was like, “I need to be around this group of people.

I’m going to learn so much and it seems like a great time and opportunity to do this.” Within a few weeks, a couple of months, I was hooked. I’m like, “This is what I’m going to do for the next X number of years.” That’s what led me to join Stripe. It wasn’t as thoughtful as you think, I looked at the market, what’s going to be growing and fitting in tech, whatever APIs and the decentralization of all this stuff, I was like, “This is the most amazing group of people that I’ve spoken with and met with. This is the right shift to be on.”

For all our audience, I think the key takeaway, don’t overthink. There are 1 or 2 points that Ross mentioned. One is the group of people, team, smart people, a top tier, and the cream. Look at the opportunity of working with them, being with them, and learning as a team.

Optimized for learning. That’s what I optimized for and led me in the right direction.

Once you optimize for these tools, money will follow and that’s what led you to study your own. Prior to that, I think you applied for the Y Combinator.

We got into YC then we started the Accord.

Tell me a story around what got you into thinking around the pain point? You’ve been doing sales. You’ve done fantastically well for yourself but what was the transition and shift from being an employee, nothing wrong with that, in sales to, “There is a bigger problem I want to solve. I want to start a company around this?”

Honestly, it’s pretty organic starting Accord from my time at Stripe. There are two main things that I had on the top of my mind that I was very passionate about at Stripe. One was, going from being one of the first sales and business hires to a massive 400 global sit person sales team and doing the deals myself. From the team perspective, the challenge was always we’d break into a new market, new product, etc., how do you get everyone else that we’re going to bring on to understand what that motion looks like? We went through all the repetitions, all the loss deals, the learnings, the million conversations. How do you get that in that process to the rest of the folks? That was a big challenge.

I was one of the leading reps there and we’d work on the new segment or the new product. I found it so challenging. There was never a great solution. Testing out Google Docs, Confluence sheets, bringing in trainers or the classic old-school laminates and bringing in all that stuff. It’s never been an effective way for other folks to understand what the process should look like, what meetings you should have, what resources you should share when, what stakeholders you should loop in at different parts of the team, and what expectations you should be setting. These details make a difference that every new rap has to learn. That was one side of it. These building of go-to-market playbooks and how to effectively work with customers throughout the buyer journey.

B2B 28 | Customer Collaboration
Customer Collaboration: Accord is a collaboration platform for B2B sales. It’s a shared plan of steps and milestones that make it really easy for everyone involved to understand what the deal is, in a very transparent setting.

 

The second one was the collaboration with customers. I’d hacked together this system that I built. This operating system of like shared slack channels and Google Docs and sheets and presentations and templates and emails. It was an effective way of being very transparent. I collaborated with my customers through all these shared workspaces, but it felt very like a one-off and across a lot of different things. It felt like there should be a solution, software for this, whether there is JIRA internally for a lot of the product teams.

There’s Figma for design and GitHub for engineering. Why is there something for such a collaborative organization which has sales? There’s nothing for that internally as well as externally with the customer. We’re combining both of those. The challenge of building this repeatable sales process as well as working with customers transparently birth the idea of Accord, which is a customer-facing collaboration platform for sales and onboarding.

There should be something that is templatized that everyone can use and customize from there. There should be something that is collaborative with customers. Again, it wasn’t like sitting in and how do I think it started ideas. I was like, “What am I doing? What are the challenges that I’ve run into? What do I think would be helpful for the next person in my position?”

I think the key point for all the audience is as much as you want to create your own company but that will not and should not be the driving force. You can have that in the back of your mind but unwind and let the problem percolate. Let that see thought grow into something bigger. That’s what I see in yours. It’s not that, “I’m at Stripe. I’m doing well.”

It’s not about arrogance that, “I’m the best in the world. I’m going to create a company.” It’s not that attitude at all versus there’s a playbook. There’s a bigger gap in the space, specifically around the sales organization and the buyers. Now, why is that more of a vendor buyer relationship versus a partner relationship?

That’s a good point. I think, similarly, I’d add like, what is your passion? That’s the thing you’re going to be most successful at. Say you do want to start a company and that’s the thing that you want to do next. It’s not going to be looking at the market. As an investor, I don’t think it’s going to be looking at it as a human and what you are most passionate about.

That’s the thing that you’re going to be most curious about and have a unique perspective on to solve problems for people than necessarily like, “This space is hot now. I could make a lot of money off this type of business model.” Everyone is thinking like that. That’s not going to be the unique next insight that you have as a person. It’s going to be from what you’re passionate about.

Look at your market not as an investor, but as a human. Your insight as a person is going to be from what you're passionate about. Click To Tweet

Let’s switch gears and more on the lighter side of things. You guys are unique in the sense. It’s you and your brother who started this company. It’s not that often and not that a common theme. How do your parents deal with that or tell others as to what you guys do?

I think my dad deeply understands this because he was an entrepreneur but a salesperson at heart. He made sales for fifteen years before starting his company. He works with clients every day and understands, although they didn’t have collaborative workspaces but the importance of building those relationships, collaboration, and transparency to create the best partnerships. How would they describe it? To most of their friends, they’d be like, “Our kids are doing some tech thing. A technology company that’s helping salespeople do stuff.”

I’m thinking of different ways we can go here. One is, how did you decide between you and your brother as to who will be the CEO and the CTO? Let’s go down that path. How did you guys figure that out?

It was pretty organic. When we were making music back in the day, I felt the natural roles. My brother is, I would say, much more creative than me. He was always doing the music production, the recording stuff, all those pieces and had more of a product and engineering mind than myself. I was more of the external marketing and all that stuff. When it came to starting Accord and we started working on it together, he naturally started to think about it like, “What is this thing going to look like?”

He’s designing it and thinking more about the product side. I feel like I was more of the like, “We have a hundred conversations with sales reps, CEOs, CROs, VPs of sales, etc., what their feedback is going to be?” It’s an organic partnership. He was starting to build out the wireframes, the mock-ups and prototypes. I was out there trying to understand the market. That developed pretty organically into I was the external Rich brother and he was the internal Rich brother in terms of working with the R&D team. I was out there talking to the first customers and recruiting. That’s how it pretty organically happened.

It is only you as the cofounders or did you have anyone else?

We have another cofounder. We wouldn’t be here without him, Wayne Pan. He’s our CTO. My brother is CPO. He is a multi-time founder, amazing engineer leader, led teams of up 30 to 40 engineer people. Also led product design engineering orgs. It’s like the whole R&D org, a very holistic perspective on that. Similar to what we were talking about, the go-to-market side on sales and marketing. He’s started a couple of other companies before. One that was invested in by Sequoia that sold to LinkedIn.

He’s been in a lot of ways the shepherd for us on our first founding journey, loves to build teams and the operating system of a company and that foundation, which I feel like a lot of times with younger, early first time CEOs like myself and my brother is some of the biggest complaints from employees and other stuff is like, “How do you do this? What is the foundation? What does the start of the week look like and the wrap-ups and the quarterly kickoffs and retros?” He’s super thoughtful about all of those pieces of the company, culture and team building, which has been super awesome to have.

I think that’s a core component, especially when you are building the team and doing fundraising early on. With one founder, it’s super tough. It’s not that it can’t be done. If you go onto the other extreme, which is 4, 5, cofounders, that’s a big no. Kudos to you and your brother for identifying someone who’s stronger on the product and the engineering side. Now, did you guys and Wayne work together earlier or how did you guys come to know each other?

It was crazy. It was an intro from one of our first pre-seed investors. He’s one of the first people that say, “Commit money to their crazy idea that was Accord.” Bob Ross was leading Stripe’s partnerships team when I met him. Both of their companies, at some point, were acquired by LinkedIn and happened to overlap there. When I asked Bob, “Whom do you know?” It was like, “I happened to catch up with Wayne. It was super random. We were having caught up in years and it was perfect timing.”

From the first conversation to decide to work together, it must have been single-digit business days for such a huge decision. It felt super right. I think personalities melded well and the vision of the culture and type of company we want to build. One of the first things that Wayne said when I was talking to him. I’m asking how he thought about the company building, etc. It was the quote from Steve Jobs around, “Hire smart people, get out of their way and empowering people.” It was like that. I feel like a few people live that and that’s the type of team we try to build.

Have you heard of this book or read this book, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill?

Of course.

I would be surprised if you said, “I don’t know that.” It’s almost like that but then something is strong. The universe conspires to make it happen. It’s exactly that. Enough of the loosey-goosey and gooey stuff.

We were talking about manifesting the company. It’s funny that you bring that up. We manifested it.

Let’s talk about Accord. Tell me about your product. Whom do you serve, how you build the business, where you guys are at now?

B2B 28 | Customer Collaboration
Customer Collaboration: When starting a startup, you can be an expert in this space for years. But if you’re launching a new type of product, you’re not going to know if you’re successful until it comes back from the market.

 

It’s super high-level to summarize. First, it was a customer-facing collaboration platform for B2B sales, onboarding and success. The core of it is if you’ve heard of mutual action plans before in sales, a shared plan of next steps, timelines, and milestones. We add in resources, team members, a summary of the deal to make it easy for everyone involved in both the buying and the selling side to understand what the deal is, very transparently setting the right expectations across the board. That’s the idea. We mainly work with high-growth startups.

We’re working with some seed and series a company all the way to the likes of Figma. We work with their enterprise sales team closely. Across the gamut, I would say that where we help companies most are in the high touch, multi-stakeholder, project management side of the deal when you have a lot of people coming in. Maybe it’s a product, engineering, design, and finance decision-makers. You need to keep everyone in the loop around pre-sales with maybe it’s risk or compliance or legal and all that stuff.

Post-sales is like, “What does it look like to roll this out across the company successfully? How do you build a repeatable motion around both of that pre-sales and onboarding?” Make sure there are smooth handoffs and setting the right expectation for your customer. That’s the area that we play in to start focusing on technology companies who are the early adopters of new tech like Accord.

I’m super excited about what you guys are doing. Think of it this way. You got collaborative platforms internally. Now, we are doing that for an external audience that’s specifically for sales and buyers.

Everyone knows how helpful Asana is and Monday.com and Click. All of these things have been wildly successful notions for years but there’s nothing that’s built to work externally with partners, customers, buyers, and all that stuff.

Talk to us about the go-to-market. You did mention high-growth scale-up startups. Are you looking at geographies? Are you looking at what tickles and what is the go-to-market motion like?

It’s been evolving. The thing that I was familiar with was more of a top-down, mid-market, and upper mid-market enterprise deal from my time at Stripe. I know at the end of it, I was working on 1 or 2 deals across months. I knew that motion and made sense for something like Stripe because you’re ripping out your entire revenue engine and you’re putting in Stripes.

For deals like that, it’s not like you’re going to do 5% of your payments. All the work gets done and you shift over, which is very different from something like Accord, where you could have a sales rep or a manager bring this in a small part of the organization and test out on one deal or one segment and all that stuff.

I’ve had to learn a lot about product-led growth and understanding how our buyers want to buy. It’s been super organic in terms of how we’ve thought about and matured our go-to-market motion. To start, it was me talking to anyone in my network about this idea and the curious conversations turn into your first users. That’s how it started with the first 5 to 10 users. It’s talking to people and asking for friends of friends who would be interested in this.

It is similar to fundraising. It’s the same thing with the customers, friends, and family first, then go wider.

It started there and when we started getting into the public and beyond that network was February 2020. It’s when we did our seed raise announcement, which went on TechCrunch and got a great reach there. It was interesting because we first moved from us going to certain people and our assumptions to what is going to come back from the market. You send it out into the world.

Who are the people that this is going to resonate with? It was interesting because it wasn’t only the people, sales leaders, VPs of sales, and CEOs. It was a lot of sales reps, managers, and even smaller seed series A-company mainly selling to a series of B2C above. It was like, “There is this interest from not necessarily would be a top-down sell,” but some people that want to click around more on the product.

What we did is we shifted in the next few months to a free trial motion and messaging more for these earlier stages like series A, high growth. When you’re going from your first 3 to 5 reps to 10, 20 to 50, how do you make sure you have the right motion to scale? That seemed to be a great point. Before you had all these systems in place, harder to rip out something than to start with something like Accord, that’s where we shifted to, had way more interest in terms of the click-through rate of the website from request to demo to starting with the free trial and giving someone the custom workspace.

The curious conversations turn into your first users. Click To Tweet

We’re even looking to double down on that thing about what’s an individual plan that people can start with. It’s been from the full top-down to the free trial sale to even looking at other ways of getting the product in people’s hands with less friction and thinking about how does this specific type of person in this market at the stage company in this role want to evaluate and thinking through that lens.

That is exciting. I think it goes back to when you got your earlier hypotheses or experiences you went to top-down and thanks to the seed round, the press coverage, and everything else. You’ve got good publicity, good coverage, and that led to outreach from the market to you guys.

When people ask my biggest learning, that’s been my biggest learning of starting a company. Startups are you can have your hypothesis. You can be an expert in this space for years. If it’s a new type of product and a new category, you’re not going to know until it comes back from the market to go to your assumptions. Having opportunities like that and for our GA launch and through product time, we got another set of that and refined it. You’re only going to be successful. If you think about it in terms of the market first, not product first or the sales process first, that’s the biggest learning from this experience so far.

It’s amazing. It’s all first principles and foundation, but unless you go through it, you won’t know how to apply it and you’ll make the early mistakes.

That is one thing. That’s why they say, “Launch quick.” It’s not like, “Get the product out there and start selling quickly.” It’s getting into the market and start to get those data points back to you as early as possible. You’re going to go down, building the wrong thing or a muscle around certain processes that aren’t going to be the things that get you to success.

You might get that initial traction but how do you know that this is your time? It is for the next 1 to 2 years.

You don’t know. I think that’s the answer to all this stuff and why it’s so challenging. It’s so much instinct. You need to be able to be wrong and be nimble. That’s also one of the biggest learnings. You went out and it was this growth. You were focused on these later-stage growth companies. You were getting this feedback back with a ton of interest.

They’re doing evaluations. These are the blockers and we do this a lot and go, “This seems a lot easier. Maybe it’s not right. Let’s test it out. We did both of them for a quarter.” It was like, “This is where we’re winning. This is we’re getting the most usage. We have to double down at some point. Let’s make another big bet on this.”

If in 3 to 6 months, that’s wrong, let’s make sure we’re thinking holistically but that’s the stop and start. You need to be doing things a lot and heads down but then you need to come in. That balance is the right way because we could have been wrong about the adjustment. It could have been like, “Only because it’s TechCrunch.” That was the readership you saw along from there. It could have been wrong and you should have continued going after this other market, but you don’t know.

Let’s double down. I’ll put you in a somewhat uncomfortable spot over here, which is, based on this initial data, you need to make hiring decisions. For example, let’s say you’re building out a marketing team. You say, “This is the segment I’m going to go after. This is a go-to-market and this is the 1 to 3-person marketing team. Now, are you going down that path? How are you thinking about building your marketing, which is a core component of go-to-market?

We took a different approach there. We spent so much time the first year plus building out the product. We’re working super closely with customers instead of going out there and building up the team and spending. We had my brother, who was our CPO shift to for the first X number of months to marketing because he was the expert and the salesperson. Of doing that, it was like, “Someone with more intuition on this to figure that out.” That was super key to us getting those data points back and being able to do it super quickly. It didn’t have to go out and put together a JD, interview all the candidates, and get them to ramp up on everything that we’ve done.

That would have been the time that it took us to run those experiments. It confirmed that market. You need to be sure about that before you start scaling. We took a very similar approach to the sales team. I wish we had one person but when we did the launch in February 2020 with the seed announcement, we were inundated with these conversations.

It was myself and my colleague, Danny, who was doing everything at the time, CS operations, sales, etc. Everyone needed to jump on calls. We had our engineers, Wayne and Ryan. Everyone is jumping on these calls. I’m glad that we could get those early learnings in first before we understood who’s the right marketing team and sales team to start building, then we doubled down.

We hired our first two folks that were more experienced generalists who could also help figure it out. We didn’t look at like, “Let’s bring on five people to do this.” It’s like, “Let’s bring on two other people to help us continue to figure this out, and then two other people can sell them, then you bring on the next 5 to 10 people.” That’s how we’ve approached the team-building side of go-to-market.

That makes total sense, especially in that high growth early stage where you guys are at. It’s all hands on deck. You need to shift across roles. You might be engineered formally but you need to jump in marketing, sales or even customer success. It doesn’t matter once you’ve seen that play out in 3 to 6 months. Now, “This is a time when we need to hire someone full-time for that role.”

B2B 28 | Customer Collaboration
Customer Collaboration: When it comes to budgeting, make sure you’re nailing your positioning and messaging. Experiment around that before accelerating the spend. Focus on the right things that matter first.

 

I think that’s the right way because people discount how much work it is to go out and hire properly. First, understand the role. That’s something that I’ve learned too. We probably spend the first month, 2 to 3 weeks at least to understanding the role. Having 10 to 20 conversations with people that are experts there like, “What level they should be? What background should they be? What’s the interview loop look like?”

You’re not going to get the best person in there unless you can speak their language or you understand what you’re looking for and what they would do then. It’s the hiring, the great loop, making sure you’re not cutting corners and it’s onboarding them. As you said, having someone do that for a few months and making sure you understand what you need to do next prevents you from making a lot of mistakes down the road.

How do you think about the budget? I don’t want you to reveal exact numbers but ballpark percentages, especially bare yard in terms of growth. We all know benchmarks. They typically say like 10% to 20%, especially for marketing. In sales, it’s more mostly headcount. How are you thinking around those for the marketing budget?

Our thoughts on early marketing have been very similar to all the same framework that we’ve used for every other piece of the business. It has been making sure we nail the positioning, messaging and experiment around that before accelerating the spend. That’s playing to a lot of the organic stuff. You can tell from what you post on LinkedIn, go to your newsletter or later test on persona. Even outbound is a great way to get the feedback back quickly. Make sure you’re focusing on the right stuff, so when you spend $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 a month, you’re sure that’s the approach that we’ve taken. We’re starting to ramp our first ad spend.

We spent a lot more time on thinking about what is exactly the problem we’re solving, how do they think about it now, what are the keywords, the percent, all of that stuff. Again, taking that approach to things, then hopefully we feel very comfortable putting in a ton of money and it’s efficient coming back. When are you ever going to catch up on that? You can see it as a business. As soon as you start hiring multiple people and have them spend and start getting those leads in, you’re never going to go back and foundationally fix things. You start growing too fast and there are more people and more processes. Taking that extra 20% to 30% time pays off in terms of building a very efficient go-to-market.

Again, it goes back to reinforcement, which is, first of all, you do things that won’t scale. It’s called counter-intuitive. You need to do things that won’t scale. First, you get your formula right, then you can pump in the money.

You’re never going to start doing things that scale to figure it out to experiment.

Another controversial topic in the industry, which is around SDRs. Whom do they report to and why? Is it marketing or sales?

Market first, not product first. Click To Tweet

Foundationally, I don’t know. I haven’t spent much time thinking about it because I didn’t have to. One of the first salespeople we brought in had been building out for many years, full-cycle sales, SDR teams from outbound to close. We brought in a demand generation marketing lead who has never run SDR teams. Maybe longer term at Accord that changes but for this small team that we have now, it’s very clear you gave that function to the person that’s done it successfully for many years and you figure it out later. If I had to say, honestly, philosophically, it feels closer to marketing than sales because it’s tough and stay. It depends on how you think about the SDR role.

If an SDR role is slowly generating demand, I think this has to do with a lot of the average contract value of the company. If it’s very big business, you’re trying to break into accounts. You’re maybe pairing them up with an account executive. That feels like more of marketing. You’re starting the conversation, whereas if it’s maybe a lower HCV and they can help close the deal or get it further because that’s the type of product and sales motion, it feels like more sales. It depends on the type of product and sale it is.

Again, I would say if they can contribute more to the deal and can have that conversation and it’s like less of an enterprise, like a twelve-month thing. I hate handoffs. I hate as a buyer. As a seller, I hate handed off, the missing context, all that stuff. I’d rather have them go full cycle but you can’t do that if you’re trying to get into a $500,000 to $1 million deal. You can’t afford to have SDRs make that motion. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that, though.

I think being pragmatic is one thing. It also depends on the personnel that you have on your team. In your case, you have the sales leader who’s run the SDR team. You give it to that person compared with imagining who has minimal experience. I get that practical, pragmatic piece. There is the other piece, which is more of a mindset starting with the leadership, which is how are you seeing SDRs or BDRs? Again, it all goes back to how are you serving your buyer the best way? Are SDRs or the BDRs? First of all, is it outbound or inbound? We start with that. That’s the first thing. Do they handle outbound?

I’m assuming this is all outbound SDR.

That’s one thing. The second is, are they more into an appointment setting mindset, which means, “I need to give so many meetings, many leads, SQLs even MQLs. It doesn’t matter.” That’s a whole different discussion but how many meetings do I need to give it to my account executive team? That’s very short-term thinking. Again, it’s more of. It’s me versus what’s right for the buyer.

I would say, of course, there are a lot of variables around contract and sales cycle. Honestly and sincerely for me, especially that I’ve run marketing teams, I believe that it should be within marketing where that handoff is happening and only then, it’s almost vetted out to a discovery phase, then you pass it to a context. Get us to take it forward through, is there a good fit for getting into a contract discussion then the close? That’s only me.

My only issue with that is I’m picturing myself as a customer. If it’s outbound, I have that conversation. I do discover then I’m talking to someone. It’s like, “What about that context?” It’s less efficient to have maybe a join and to jump in there or even to tag-team it. If I’m the customer, I want to make sure that the context is carried forward. Maybe you can solve that with a very smooth handoff somehow. I haven’t experienced that as a buyer ever, but that’s my personal perspective.

My philosophy and how I approach marketing are in absolute alignment with sales. Again, it goes back to the buyer experience. If we do have SDR supporting into marketing, SDR is responsible for the buyer experience. He or she has to work with the account executive. It’s not like, “I’m done now. It’s your job. Throw it across the wall.” That should not be the mindset at all.

I agree. I guess we haven’t worked together. Maybe if we had worked together, I’d feel differently.

Folks have worked great, let’s say the sales leaders. They all attest to the fact that I am someone who gets and who believes in the alignment piece versus typically marketing sales is at loggerheads.

That was one of the biggest things when we were hiring our first marketer. That was one of the biggest things we’re testing for and the first conversation with after my screen with our sales leader because it was so important to find someone. Especially so early on, it’s not like you’re building your thing. It’s like there’s nothing that exists. You can build it together. I’m proud of how I’m seeing. The closest partnership is between them now. I’m seeing on the go-to-market market team, which is great.

B2B 28 | Customer Collaboration
Customer Collaboration: One thing that’s really important from the sales go-to-market motion, is the efficiency of enabling individual reps and managers to start using your product before you sell to a team.

 

One final question within this whole 2021-2022, then we’ll go into the last section, which is, you want to create a category. Pretty much talk to any founder. They want to create a category but it’s not in our hands. Again, it goes back to what is the market saying? If you were to talk to your marketing and sales, what would you say? Tell them that, “This is working.”

What will be the 1, 2, 3 objectives for 2022? How will you approach your whole category creation playbook? By the way, I’ve seen the resources that you have put together. For me, I’ve done research around the winning CMOs. I think I mentioned this to you, which is around content. It’s around the community and experiences/events. It’s these three things. The winning good market leaders do this extremely well in sequence. Not that they’re spreading themselves thin. How will you apply or how are you thinking broadly? I gave you some pointers and some time to think about that answer.

One thing that’s important from the sales go-to-market motion, I think, is the efficiency around having both this way of enabling individual reps and managers and earlier stage founders to start using Accord. Before, we necessarily like to have a sale to a team combining that with efficiency and selling into those companies and making that bet super early on in 2022. As a company to pay off, not even maybe in 2022 but the following year and the year after, you’ve seen a number of companies do this super well. That’s a key part of the strategy. Moving forward is that big bet in terms of mixing that bottoms up and figuring out what the top-down is for larger companies.

Both how do we go even lower and have that motion, which is going to be more marketing product-led as well as build our muscle around that more larger growth deal and selling into those multi-stakeholders? It’s sales enablement, ops, managers, executive sponsors, the reps that are saying, “Okay.” Those are two big pieces.

The other piece is what you’re referring to, which is how we are seen as the thought leader when it comes to building repeatable sales and onboarding processes for early-stage companies? How is Accord the answer for when you think about other companies like Stripes, FinTech and API but they’re thought of as the best practices in terms of the engine is the most developer-friendly tool?

Again, Accord is a collaborative workspace between buyers and sellers, but how are we seen as the people that best understand how to solve this? That’s why the CEOs, VPs of Sales or other people come to us is like, “They’re going to help me solve this problem.” This is the solution but they’re thinking from the problem first. That core problem is ubiquitous across every B2B company. Those are some of the key things that I think about overall for 2022. How do we do that? Probably a variety of different ways.

Again, it goes back to there are things that you can measure and you cannot measure. This is one of those things. You want the market to perceive you in such a way. You can do surveys, brand recall experiments, statement, recall experiments or problem statement recall experiments and who do they associate, bet around those things. It’s a great area. That’s something that I’m trying to wrap my head around as well, which is category creation. Every founder wants that but how do you know that you’re creating a category?

It’s an interesting question. I love the book Play Bigger. That’s about category creation, if you’ve read that.

I’m reading that. That’s my nighttime reading book. We can go again multiple ways but I did tell you and mentioned that we’re going to close. You have been pretty patient over here and I’m also respectful of your time, Ross. The last couple of questions to you is, whom do you lean on or what resources do you lean on? Is it community? Is it maybe investors or PR founders? You’ve got the Y Combinator community, for sure. Is it podcasts? Is it books? What do you lean on to get ideas?

I would probably say that first and foremost is my intense routine. I’m a very routine-driven person and make sure I can sometimes get out of whack with that, but I think I’m functioning best when I’m getting up and going to bed at the same time. When I’m going to bed, I’m putting away my phone a couple of hours before, reading, journaling, getting up and doing a run with my dog and a workout and yoga and all that stuff. That’s the number one support system and routine that I built-in. Again sometimes, life and things get busy. It’s like, “This week is going to be a tough one and I have to put it down for a second,” but I always regret that.

You need to be able to be wrong and be nimble. Click To Tweet

Outside of that, I’ve tried to build a community of folks that have been in my shoes before. I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything but it’s a unique pressure more than I thought it would be to feel responsible for the success of a company, employees, investors and chatting. I have a handful of folks that have started companies and now advise or invest and all that stuff. I meet a lot of them on a bi-weekly basis to feel heard, feel supported and understood. It helps with that perspective of, “This is where you’ve been, this is where you’re going, and these are the things that are going well.” To bring that perspective when all you’re thinking about is this one thing and the most important thing that day or the week. That’s been hugely helpful, and my dog.

I love the fact that you call out routines and having that very strongly, again, to share my personal and what I do on a personal basis. That’s almost like me. I’m a very routine-driven person to the fact or to the extent that my family and my wife will say, “You’re very rigid, not being flexible.” There is a reason why I’m being rigid so that everything else can work. The same thing with running, again, as you said. It’s getting those things done first. Take care of yourself, so you can start taking care of the bigger things and take care of others. Do you listen to any podcasts during your run or is you and your dog?

I try not to bring the phone with me or anything. It’s the morning silence.

One final question to you is, if you were to turn back the clock, in your case, it would be day one at Stripe when you were in the GTM role, which is as a sales rep. What advice would you give the younger Ross?

I feel like I’m a very serious person and very focused. I think, enjoy it more with others and sometimes take that break. I had some good friends that helped me do that sometimes but doing that a bit more is probably the advice I’d give to myself.

On that note, thank you so much, Ross. It’s been a pleasure. I’m going to root it and I’m sure our community is going to root for your team. I call it a success and wish you the very best.

I appreciate that.

Thank you.

 Important Links:

 

About Ross Rich

B2B 28 | Customer CollaborationCurrently building inAccord.com to move B2B sales from Vendorship -> Partnership 🤗

SF based, Canada raised 🇨🇦

Outside of work, I love to:
– Ski Tahoe, hike Marin, & play/coach soccer
– Explore meditation, yoga & mindfulness
– Adventure through new countries & cultures

Inspiring Reads:
– The Alchemist
– The Book of Joy
– A Short History of Nearly Everything
– Abundance
– The Making of the Atomic Bomb
– Siddhartha
– Creativity Inc.
– Losing My Virginity
– Man’s Search for Meaning
– Napoleon (Andrew Roberts)

 

 

 

Maintaining customer focus should always be one of your top priorities in B2B. You must know the people you are serving to no matter what business you are in. In this episode, Vijay Damojipurapu is joined by Ravi Pendekanti, the SVP of Product Management and Marketing at Western Digital. Ravi shares how they achieved B2B success customer-centric tactics focused on listening to the needs of the market. He also breaks down how businesses should craft customer-focused strategies and the amazing benefits of doing so. Plus, Ravi shares the exciting projects they’re working on at Western Digital and the role of big data in the upcoming years. Tune in for an insightful and informative discussion about managing and improving your go-to-market strategies!

Listen to the podcast here:

Ravi Pendekanti On Why Customer Focus Is Vital In B2B Go-To-Markets

Welcome to yet another episode of the show. I’m excited to have Ravi Pendekanti, who is the SVP of Product Management and Marketing at Western Digital. Welcome to the show, Ravi. I’m excited to have you.

Thanks, Vijay. It’s great to be here.

I’m super excited. I’ve known you over the years, both on the professional side for a couple of years. Our careers overlapped at Juniper. More than that, I’ve known you as a person on a personal basis for many years. What stands out for me is as an educator on the professional side, you had a very awesome skyrocketing career, which I always look up to for inspiration, but at the same time, on the personal side, I enjoy your company, sense of humor, being yourself, and bringing everyone into the fold. I see based on what I’ve studied and researched on you, it’s the same qualities that you bring at work as well.

We do. You have to. Otherwise, you can’t enjoy your day-to-day life. The more we are who we are, the easier it becomes to go get our things done.

Let me start off with the signature question, which I always ask all my guests. How do you define go-to-market?

For me, go-to-market truly is four major pillars. You can’t do any go-to-market strategy, planning, or execution without addressing these four fundamental elements. 1) You have to understand the market. Understanding the market landscape is crucial, which means you need to know what’s going on in the market and who the competition is. 2) One has to do segmentation of the market. 3) You have to go out and get the right messaging. As a marketer myself, it’s never lost on me that without proper messaging, you probably are not going to reach your target audience.

Finally, you have to work on the right distribution strategy. How are you going to get your product to where it should be? Are you going to use the direct sales force or partner community to get there? Even if you look at the partner community, you are going to have resellers or go with their distribution staff. There’s a whole rhythm of other things that one has to work through, which becomes important. It’s those four elements that, for me, constitute a good go-to-market strategy/execution policy.

You covered the key aspects, which start from the first and foremost, which are the external deal and the market understanding. You talked about the segmentation and the classic STP, Targeting and Positioning, but you also added on the more important and critical piece. You’ve done the research, segmentation, positioning, and messaging. Now, how do you get that message out to the relevant audience and right segments at the right place? It’s end-to-end.

I completely agree. I’m obviously aligned on that, but let me put you and drill you into some more aspects. That’s an external view and then there’s an internal view within the company, which is top and foremost the alignment across product, marketing, and sales. Depending on the type of business, if you are SaaS, you’ll have support but customer success as well. How do you work on those elements? Once you’ve done the external study, how do you align internally?

The more we are who we are, the easier it becomes to go get our things done. Click To Tweet

You do them in parallel. You cannot afford to look at the external elements without working on things that you need to align with the various functional organizations within your own company. You’ve got to run a parallel effort. The other way I also look at this is to do all this as much as we might think we are in the technology space. First and foremost, we are in the P2P business, which is a people-to-people business. None of this gets done if you don’t get people excited internally as well to believe in what you’re trying to do.

What that might mean is you have to go ahead and build your bridges with the engineering team so that the product can build in time, making sure that you’ve got the right feature functionality. You probably have to work with making sure that you’ve got all the sales elements in motion and the training elements to be looked at. There’s a whole rhythm of other things that one has to do.

As you do this, the benefit is not just making sure that everything is well-oiled machinery or becomes one, but more importantly, as you do this, people are going to be more open to leaning in and giving you ideas and suggestions so that this can is in the game now, which will help you get to market better and faster maybe too. I would encourage everyone to do that both the external things we talked about, whether it’s gathering the market data and competitive data, but not forgetting to do all the things you got to do as you’ve been called out internally in a parallel fashion.

That perspective is lost on a lot of marketers. Not just marketers, even for a lot of folks within the go-to-market functions across the board. Especially in the B2B world, it’s business-to-business, but a lot of folks, not intentionally, but it’s just that this one that they have a narrower perspective out of various reasons.

The part that you mentioned is lost. At the end of the day, even if it’s business-to-business, it’s still person-to-person. It doesn’t matter. Something that I’m seeing, especially the leading B2B organizations and B2B marketing teams are doing very well, the names that come to my mind are Drift and Gong. There are quite a few others that are doing extremely well and they have had unicorn valuations a lot more.

What they’re doing is they’re bringing in the B2C, business-to-consumer go-to-market motions, which is a deep understanding of the consumer and then delivering those messages. It’s almost shifting their mindset into, “Look at us or understand us because of who we are and more importantly, less of us, but it’s more of what you are and who you are.” It’s bringing that element. B2C elements into the B2B world, I’m seeing a lot of that being done.

It’s important for us to go and make sure that we do that too because some of the attributes of B2B play out at B2C. As we’ve already accentuated the point, at the end of the day, we are a people-to-people business. That means that you’ve got to go take care of that as well. We should only help you go meet some of the other elements of your goals as an organization.

I would love to drill into more aspects as we go along in this conversation. Shifting onto the lighter side of things, how do your kids view, tell, or describe what you do at work?

B2B 27 | Customer Focus
Customer Focus: Some of the attributes of B2B play out at B2C. At the end of the day, we are a people-to-people business.

 

This is interesting because my dad, frankly, for a number of years, always thought I was a sales guy. In some ways, he still thinks I’m selling, though I keep telling him, “Dad, my job is not sales. My job is to try and understand where the market is headed and then try to come up with the right product ideas and then help create the right messaging and help our sales guys to do what they’re supposed to do, but not necessarily as a salesperson.” That’s always been a constant education to my own dad. He seems to understand, but then he falls back and says, “No, it’s more like a sales job,” but I’ll keep trying.

I’ll credit your dad, though. The main thing is he is right because we are in the business of selling. It doesn’t matter, but you are selling your ideas, your vision, and the direction that you want others to go to. You may not have the formal title of a salesman, but he is right.

It’s interesting you say that. In fact, his pet peeve is that each one of us is a salesperson and I would ask him, “Why do you say that?” He said, “Think about it.” I went, “Let’s say when my kids were young, they didn’t want to take their glass of milk in the morning or eat their veggies. I was selling to them and enticing them with something, whether it was an extra hour of TV time or getting them some candy.”

His no-hold emotion is, “You are a sales guy.” In fact, he would say, “All of us are selling. Whether it is trying to get your family to go out with you and they probably have other ideas, you’re selling.” He is a wise man. No wonder he was one of my mentors for sure and continues to be doing so, but in a way, we’re all selling every single day.

I can see your wife jumping up and down when you called out and told, “I incentive your kids with extra TV time and candies.” I’ve been impressed and inspired by your amazing career growth. Can you share with our readers and talk to us about your transition all the way from early days, but more importantly, the inflection points, how do you transition, who do you serve now, and what got you here now?

There are a couple of things. I still recall I started off my career as a hardcore engineer. As the saying goes, I had a choice given by my parents, “You could choose to be an engineer or a doctor. It’s fantastic set of choices.” Most people from the Indian subcontinent could relate to it and the choices would be those two typically. Of course, I would sign up and I said, “I’ll go be an engineer.”

I was a hardcore engineer for the first few years of my career, but then I realized that there was one situation that occurred wherein one of the companies I was working for happened to be Compuware. They had a customer who had an issue. At that point in time, the GM then decided to send me to go see if I could figure out what the issue was and fix it. That was my first interaction with a customer directly because I was in the back end all the time before that.

It turned out that I enjoyed the interaction with a customer because I was sitting down and trying to figure out what exactly transpired and what kind of data had been collected to try and understand what the issue was and then subsequently try and see how it can be fixed. During that process, I realized that I enjoyed what that interaction was. Due to the interaction, I also got to understand that there are some features that we didn’t have, which I took back to the engineering team and said, “Here are the things that need to be done and this is what I learned.”

If somebody else has learned and they can help propel your learning that much faster and further, why not leverage it? There's no reason to reinvent the wheel. Click To Tweet

At that point in time, I recall the engineering guys telling me, “This is great feedback, but it’s not us you should give the feedback to. You should send it to product management.” I still recall I said, “Product management, what the heck was that?” I never knew the existence of a team called product management until that point in time. I spoke to the product management folks. The more I talked to them, the more I felt interested in this whole notion of an organization or this specialized group, which was helping define products and laying out the roadmaps.

It was that particular attraction that gave a sense of excitement in me to go on and venture out and try product management. That’s how I moved from being a hardcore engineer into product management. Since we already talked about my wife, at that point in time, my wife was not too sure if it was a step forward or backward. She is a hardcore engineer. We still have the debate and she normally always wins. As the saying goes, “Happy wife, happy life.”

The whole notion of product management for me has been an exciting journey from that point on. It then set me on a path where I felt just understanding the hardware side was not important and that I also needed to understand the software side. I started making shifts in my career all through to move into the software side and then started off on the silver side.

I moved to the software side of the house with systems management. I moved into networking. That’s where you and I met, if you recall, in Juniper Networks and then moved into storage. My whole journey has been about trying to learn and move to the adjacencies to help me understand and also give me that excitement of getting up every day and doing something which I completely have not had my fingers in before but gives me a chance to learn and grow.

When I look at your LinkedIn profile and background, you’re talking about big brands like Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, Overland Storage, Juniper Networks, Oracle, Dell, and Western Digital. They’re all big brands and big names for sure. There’s always a playbook that has to be in play, which is, when folks are making their career transition, there is the technology side of things. You moved from hardware to expand your scope and moved on to the system side and the software side.

That’s more on the technology or technical side of things, but there are also the other aspects that are critical to one’s career growth, which are self-awareness, knowing the strengths and weaknesses, and bent to rely on others. There’s also the other element of looking up to mentors and the right folks who will “pull you at the right time.” These are all critical elements as well. Share with our readers the playbook along those lines as well.

For me, the inquisitiveness that one has to have has to be in the head. You got to go out and be inquisitive to learn and grow. That is something that each of us has to own, but then beyond that, it’s interesting you talk about mentors. It’s absolutely true. I have had some fantastic mentors in my life that I’ve always depended on to help me bounce ideas and give me thoughts and suggestions on what else I could do.

In fact, I’m scheduled to meet one of my mentors for many years, somebody by the name of John Shoemaker, who is the Chairman of Extreme Networks and who was a fantastic leader back in my days at Sun. He is somebody I still count on as a fantastic mentor who helps me bounce ideas and gives me the wisdom of all of his learnings too. As the saying goes, if somebody else has learned and they can help propel your learning that much faster and further, why not leverage it? There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.

The best part of talking to the mentors is also that when they share some of the lessons they’ve learned and the mistakes they’ve made, I don’t have to make the same set of mistakes. I’m bound to make new ones and I’m okay with that. We have to be aware that we’ll always make mistakes. You will inherently have to go back and probably will fall, but you’ll have to learn to get up and move on. That’s the power of the mentors.

There’s something else that is not typically well-articulated and talked about, but I also think it’s important to have sponsors in your life. Sponsors are people who will be ready to also pitch for you when you’re not allowed. Something else that I’ve learned that’s crucial is to also have some sponsors in life who will be big believers in you, not just to give you advice but also to talk on your behalf and position you for maybe the right opportunity or the right role. That’s something else I would encourage everyone to think about.

B2B 27 | Customer Focus
Customer Focus: You have to be data-driven. You can’t be emotionally attached to ideas and concepts.

 

I’m switching gears a bit. Talking about your role, you lead product management and product marketing with a fairly large-sized business. You mentioned it’s $9 billion-plus and then you also talked about the team size, which is 100-plus people in that organization of yours. Talk to us about who you serve. When I say who you serve, I’m talking about your customers, partners, teams, peers, and executives. More importantly, how do you prioritize and ensure that all the stakeholders are aligned?

There are multiple facets to your question. Let me try and unpack it one at a time. For the fundamental question of who do I serve, the answer always has to be for each of us is customers. There’s no other way of looking at it because, ultimately, whether you are a business that’s a few million dollars in the making to multi-billion dollars in the making, you are out there to go ahead and serve your customers and help solve some of their business problems, which is where you come in with a solution.

That’s never lost on me that it is our customers that we have to serve. All through across my journey for decades, that has been a fundamental building block for everything that I’ve aspired to do is to sit down and show that we address the customer issues and problems, wherein you have with your big ears, listening to what could be the challenges that the customers are going through. With that said, once you have that covered, then you have to go rework whatever needs to be done internally to address that.

I partner with our city organization, engineering organization, sales organization, and the support organization to ensure that we have what it takes to go out and provide the necessary product resolution for our customers. They become my partners in crime per se to enable us to get to where we should be. Those are the mechanics that I go through along with the team of my colleagues, who are all propelled by the same set of ideas and cause to make sure that we meet those objectives that we are setting out to.

That’s one piece of it, but then there are the adjacencies that I don’t want to forget. This is where you have to work with other partner organizations. This is where I look at organizations that probably provide our PCBs and SoCs. There are a whole plethora of things. We depend on the ecosystem of partners and that cannot be lost out as well. If you extend on the whole distribution stuff I talked about, you have your resellers and channel partners and others.

There are partners that you bring into the fold to help you build the right product/solution and then there’s the other piece. We talked about the fourth leg of the go-to-market, which is the whole channel to go help in the distribution of the end product. That’s something else too that needs to be done and who are part and parcel of the whole planning and execution process for the whole product introduction.

I completely and holistically agree with you because I’ve been fortunate enough to speak with founders, investors, and go-to-market leaders across the spectrum. Small, large, or mid-sized businesses, it doesn’t matter, but the common thread that connects all of them is the customer outcome focus, first and foremost.

If you talk about the early days of a company, if you speak with the founder, it’s the primary research, the customer discovery and the lean startup model, which is all about going and studying the problems and then coming back and testing out the different hypotheses around the solution, how you position and package the pricing, and then your go-to-market aspects as well.

The same applies even to a more mature and larger organization. It doesn’t matter if you’re a $50,000, $100,000, $100 million, $1 billion, or even $10 billion or $50 billion. It’s the same principle and mantra, which is customer outcome focus. That’s great to know. It’s good reinforcement. For all the readers, if you’re not spending your time on customer outcome focus, please do that. That’s the primary focus.

I get that part. You’re leading an organization. You’re clearly out there studying the market, but how do you reinforce to your team across product management and product marketing that whole customer outcome focus? Do you encourage or do you have any programs around, “Go out there. Do your primary research and secondary research?” How do you build those muscles in your organization?

Whoever said life is only about ups, they have plenty of downs to deal with. Click To Tweet

Across my times in various organizations, one of the things that’s something that I’ve learned quite a bit is I use the word big ears to keep listening. You listen to what is being said and then you bring that back into what it means. There’s a distinction between what is being said and what it means because they’re not probably all the same at the same time, not because of anything else but each of the customers, if you think about it, are looking through a different lens.

For example, if you talk to a financial organization, they’re looking at how do they make the financial transactions safe and secure. They’re not thinking about the various elements in the backend technology as to how that happens. That’s our job. They might be focused on one element and be speaking to something, but then it’s our job to build a bridge between how they’re trying to look at the issue and the challenge and bring it back home as to how we can build the resolution of the right product to help enable that.

With that, it’s important that we get those inputs from various forums. The reason I say that is you probably are well-off by sending a survey. It has a set of questions with choices to make or you get a very high-level of rudimentary view, but that is not sufficient, but it gets you started. We also do what we call blind studies wherein they don’t know who is asking for this study because, at times, who is asking for that study can also skew the responses.

We have done the practice of doing blind studies, so they don’t know which organization is asking for this and then they’re more apt at giving you some candid feedback. As much as we all ask for feedback, usually, human beings don’t like to give you negative feedback, but if it is masked with some level of not knowing who that is, they’re more open to giving feedback. That’s the nature of the beast and how we work through it. Those blind studies are something else we have used to go get some more double-click, getting people in the room and having them talk through it. You get a little more depth in that.

The other thing we have done very successfully is we spend hours and days with some of the customers to ensure that we can unpack a lot of things that can’t be done by a round table conversation or survey. My point being is that you have to use multiple tools in your tool bag to go ahead, try, and make sure that you truly understand what it is that you have to solve for. This becomes more important when the time-to-market is becoming crucial and needs are shrinking.

When I started, there would be a time when you need to get a new product or a feature, it could take you two years, but now, some of the product’s spins that we got to do is probably coming down into multiple quarters. When there’s time-to-market pressure, our TCO pressure is coming in because the customers do care about the total cost of ownership.

Let’s say, if I take a server, it’s just not about, “What kind of processing capability it has?” There are other things too that goes behind it, “What is the power consumption? Does it need more cooling? Are we able to do a better analysis from a remote location without having somebody go in there in case there are any issues?”

That’s how companies are beginning to have more finite and granular TCO measurement tools, which have evolved over the period of time. You got to think through all those different elements to make sure that we are not just asking the customers, but we are able to unpack what it is they’re saying and bring it back to our roadmap design.

You mentioned quite a few things over there. It comes down to using the different tools and mechanisms for understanding your customers for customer outcomes. That’s a key message. Let’s shift gears a bit. I do want to come back into how you’re looking into 2021 and 2022 goals, but before that, as you and I know, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Others can learn from someone else when they make mistakes, our success story. In that spirit, can you share a go-to-market success story either from your days at Western Digital or from a previous one?

In terms of a good success story, I would take the example of at least my time at Dell. One of the things I still recall at that point in time when I joined the company, the company was shipping servers for over two decades, but we were never number one. We had the task and we took the goal upon to go out and see how we could change that to become the number one server provider in the industry.

As a team, we bonded together. I was very proud of my team for how we came down to relooking at the roadmap, looking at where the market was headed, and listening to what the customers needed, whether it was about systems management or was it important for GPUs as the advent of AI machine learning became important?

B2B 27 | Customer Focus
Customer Focus: Make sure that you have an ear on the ground, always looking to and getting the polls from the market so that we can go ahead and do what is right for not just the customers but ourselves too.

 

The questions of whether it is 1 or 2 GPUs they need, working with the right partners to ensure that we have the right technology brought in, and working with the CPU vendors that were out there looking at, “Where could this market be trending? Do we expect this to move ahead and continue to grow? Were there going to be adjacent markets that were going to take growth? Was there edge computing coming into play?” Those were the kinds of things that we looked back and said, “Here is what makes sense.”

We try to lay all the data we had completely, and I deliberately use the word data because you have to be data-driven. You can’t be emotionally attached to ideas and concepts. I brought the whole concept of customer-centric innovation. We’re looking at it from the lens of the customer, making sure that we’re able to go back in and plan a portfolio, and looking at the various elements that I mentioned to have the most robust roadmap in the industry and with the highest quality. We’re working with our colleagues in engineering and making sure that we’re able to bring the right products to the partner ecosystem, as I talked about.

When that came through, it did make a difference because we weren’t listening to our customers as they said here into our ecosystem partners. It helped us go back and take the number one slot or should I say if we had the opportunity to go back, relook at this stuff, and build the right portfolio, get to number one. It does help when we as a team sit down and do what we need to do in terms of listening, collecting the data, making the right calls and the roadmap, and working with our partners because this is a team sport.

It comes back to the customer outcome focus, which you and I talked about. You built that muscle at Dell and you had big numbers. If I got the numbers right, during your time there, you were part of the success story where you grew the server and the related business from $11 billion to $19 billion. Those are big numbers. It’s a testament to building that muscle around customer outcome focus. On the flip side, can you share a go-to-market failure story? I’m sure there will be plenty. It’s about picking out the most relevant for now in our conversation.

Whoever said life is only about ups, they have plenty of downs to deal with. This is in a subtle way, but it means there are ups and downs. One of the examples I could talk about is during my days at Sun Microsystems. If you recall, this is a company that gave the world Java. It gave the world some of the best possible workstations based on Unix. It was a company that could never do wrong.

I’m very proud of my association with Sun, though talking about some of the lessons learned and things that we could have done better, there are a few things. Number one, this was when Linux was still in its infancy. We had an operating system called Solaris, which our customers loved, especially the financial industry and the telco space. When you think about it in this particular market, it was all about having the most trustworthy hardware that was based on SPARC, that was our processor, and the operating system in the form of Solaris.

What we did not do was to not lead the trends moving towards open source. We could have easily gone ahead of them and looked at an OpenSolaris model where Linux would have then taken off, or on the flip side, installed SPARC used, let’s say an x86 platform, or we could have done OpenSolaris. My point being is that we continued to believe in a proprietary stack rather than moving towards an OpenStack.

Why this is relevant even now is, if we look at the industry, look at the number of things that depend on an OpenStack portfolio. We were at the forefront. We should have and could have, but we did not. That’s at least one man’s opinion as to how I think we should have learned. Likewise, where we have Java, I don’t necessarily think we monetized this as much as we should.

There’s progress in going to open source, but then the monetization.

It’s a nice way of looking at the entire portfolio but also looking at the trends. Make sure that you have an ear on the ground, always looking to and getting the polls from the market so that we can go ahead and do what is right for not just the customers but for ourselves too. That’s probably some good lessons learned.

Coming back to the question where I put up, which is, how are you looking at your 2021? Now that we are in Q4 of 2021, let’s talk about the 2022 goals. Not to share any confidential information, but broadly, how are you looking at 2022 goals for you and your team in Western Digital? More importantly, how are you thinking about the execution pieces if you can share that?

Customer focus is making sure that we learn from what's going on in the industry. Click To Tweet

There are a couple of things when I look at where we’re headed. Customer focus is making sure that we learn from what’s going on in the industry. It’s not lost on us that the amount of data being stored continues to grow. It is said that each one of us is probably storing 2 to 2.5 times more data this year than last year and you’re going to do it next year. My point is, that’s happening in our personal lives, which is why you probably have smartphones now with more memory than you ever had in the past because it’s pictures, videos, and whatnot.

If you look at the fact that most organizations now want to do more analytics on how the customers are buying or interacting with them, that means they need more data to be collected and analyzed. People talk about AI machine learning. Machine learning or deep learning, what is it based on? It’s based on data. Deep learning means you’re going to go back and analyze a lot more data than what you would do as it gives you money.

My point is, if you look at any of these trends, IoT or edge computing where there’s more data, it’s said that 75% of the data approximately is going to be generated outside of the data center, which means that there’s more data being created. For us, it means we got to provide our customers with more ways and better technologies to store the data. The way I look at this in every way I see it, data is going to be created more in the next few years than the last couple of decades.

What that means is we, as Western Digital, have to provide the right mechanisms to store the data, which is where we have a unique proposition unlike anybody else in the industry where we have the best of both flash and hard drives, which gives us the unique opportunity to be the first choice for any of our customers looking at storing data for their own business purposes.

Having said that, we at Western Digital are focused on making sure that we provide the right set of choices for our customers. Look at the hard drives. We’ve got everything from 1-terabyte hard drives all the way to 20-terabyte drives. We’ll continue to grow it because, when more data is needed, you got to go provide better technologies that our customers can depend on and we’re going to focus.

It’s interesting you asked because we introduced something called OptiNAND. OptiNAND Technology focuses on three things. It’s helping grow the capacity, performance, and reliability of our drives. We do that by vertically integrating both our flash technology with our hard drives. That’s the best part of what we’re trying to do and we’ve got to continue to do that. You’ll see all are coming to traction of some of the cool products we’re going to introduce.

It’s an exciting time, especially if you’re in the world of compute, storage, or networking. For consumers and a lot of folks outside, they may not see it, but everything that’s driving and facilitating these experiences that they use both at the business side as well as on the personal side, we’re taking a photo and storing it, making those conversations, or using your favorite communication tool. It comes down to these three, compute, storage, and networking. You said it right. Storage is critical. You can have the compute and networking, but at the end of the day, it’s still storage. You got to start somewhere. I’m excited by what’s in store with the big picture and the vision. If you narrow down your focus to 2022, what do you see are the barriers for executing against that big picture vision?

Honestly, we are dealing with some of the component shortages. It’s not just in our industry. It’s across various industries. I’ve read an article about $230 billion worth of cars that have been affected the shipping issues that we have. They said they’re going to have the Los Angeles Port open 24/7. It’s those kinds of things that we didn’t foresee in the past that we have got to work through in ensuring that we have the right components and making sure that we’re able to move parts from Point A to Point B. Those are the things that are ways and challenges that we have to overcome.

As I said, it’s not unique to our own industry, but this is something that we across on a global scale see this for all kinds of organizations. That’s the thing that I pay attention to. There are some talented members that are working through these, making sure that we come up with unique and alternative ways of dealing with that. That’s something that I would be amiss if I didn’t say it’s something that we’re going to keep a close eye on because if I look at the opportunity to where the market is headed in terms of storage, it’s a huge opportunity. The regulatory needs in each of the countries that are asking for more data to be stored and stuff essentially drive more need for storage.

I was looking back and I still recall when I was starting off. I remember looking at a 75-megabyte hard drive and you got platters. It seems to be sitting in a washing machine with huge platters and you would plop them out. Now, on a 1-inch drive, you have the ability to store 10 to 20 terabytes. That’s fascinating by itself. The innovation and market need are there, but now, some of these other elements that I don’t think most industries saw earlier are upon us.

You could come up with the best messaging possible, but if you don't know where the market is headed, you may not come up with the right messaging for that particular situation. Click To Tweet

I was talking to somebody who has been in the whole supply chain management for the last few decades. The person was talking about the fact that they had never seen this kind of supply chain challenge in their entire career. That’s something that we would obviously get out of it, but there are going to be a lot of learnings for everyone.

Supply chain issues are hitting different and various industries across the board. Especially in the hardware industry and hardware manufacturing setup where you’re relying on supply chains on the chips, memory modules, and different pieces being produced outside of the US, those have to come in. Those are big challenges that are going to take maybe a year or two for things to settle down or come back to “normal.” Those are things that are technically speaking outside your control, but talking about things that are more in your control. Looking at 2022, if you were to invest a 5, 6, or 7-figure budget or team, where would you put that focus or energy to?

The most important place is always making sure that we know where the market is headed. The focus will always be to understand the market. In anything else you do, you could come up with the best messaging possible, but if you don’t know where the market is headed, you may not come up with the right messaging for that particular situation. That’s what I would do.

My focus is making sure that we focus on where the market is headed. In this case, if I think about it, as we talk about data, more people store data. People are also looking at archiving the data. How do we come up with the right archiving methodologies so that it’s not just cost-efficient for our customers but also faster to retrieve? That is an exciting place and we call it cold storage, for example. Those are some of the things that are going to become very crucial for us.

To reiterate, are you saying that you’re going to put more time, money, or people into those areas, specifically the customer advisory board, which I’m sure you must be doing already? In addition to that, it’s about going back to the primary research and secondary research tools. That’s how you stay close to the different market trends.

It’s about, “How do you store more data? How do you make sure it’s secure and reliable?” You get it at a faster pace because you would have the data, but if you don’t get it back in a timely fashion, it’s no value. We want to be sure that we’ll be able to go build the right tools and technologies and we’ll be able to retrieve the data quickly too. Those are the kinds of things we want to answer and that’s where we’re going to focus on. That’s where the excitement is and that’s where we at WD are excited.

If you were to turn back the clock and go back to day one of your go-to-market journey, going back to your computer days, but then you transitioned from being an engineer into product management, what advice would you give to your younger self?

You don’t know a lot. I honestly don’t think I knew as much as I thought I knew. My point is it becomes fascinating and interesting when you look back and think that you knew exactly what the product is and what feature functionality should be brought out. I was pretty naive thinking that I had the answers. As you grow and mature, you realize there are so many facets to how you build a successful product and how you sustain it because the question is, it can be a flash in the pan.

You’ve got to sustain it for a period of time. There are lessons that I’ve learned and I continue to be a student for life. I’m sure there will be a lot of lessons to be learned. Don’t ever underestimate the needs of the market and think and become comfortable believing that you know everything there is to it because you simply won’t.

That’s what I call and refer to as being intellectually honest. That’s the first step and then you complement that and add on the curiosity element to it.

This is where I would say continue to stay humble.

On that note, thank you so much, Ravi. It has been a fun, great, and insightful conversation. Good luck to you and your team. We’ll cheer you from the sidelines.

Thank you, Vijay. I much appreciate it.

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About Ravi Pendekanti

Ravi is a seasoned executive in product management/marketing, developing roadmap and driving GTM and sales enablement with a solutions view focused on customer outcomes while managing key partner relationships. Responsible to address a range of workloads including AI/ML, OLTP, HPC, Edge, IoT, Big Data and Analytics.

Areas of expertise include Servers, Storage, HCI, Networking, Systems Management, Virtualization and Cloud.

Focus is to win “Together” by building successful teams that work as a “Team” inside and across other functions in an organization and with applicable partners in the eco system.