The go-to-market is not a one-off strategy with a single end-point. It is an ongoing journey. The best companies take this to heart and continually get guided by this strategy. In this episode, Vijay Damojipurapu interviews the founder and CEO of Nimbella, Anshu Agarwal, about applying the go-to-market to their business, sharing what their actionable plan looks like and how they use it to reach their targets. Anshu also takes us to her career journey and how it later evolved to starting Nimbella. She goes further into cloud computing and why companies are moving to serverless. Inspiring budding entrepreneurs out there, she then gives some wisdom on why you should start a company that is built to stand on its own legs.
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The Go-To-Market Goes Serverless With Anshu Agarwal
This time I have with me, Anshu Agarwal, who is the Founder and CEO of Nimbella. Anshu, you and I met a few years ago, back in the day when I was a product manager at Juniper, you are part of Ankeena and Juniper acquired Ankeena. It’s been a long time since we connected, then we spoke that I wanted to have you on the show, it was almost like we never lost contact and we never lost touch with each other. We knew and we just picked up. I’m super excited. Welcome to the show, Anshu.
Thank you, Vijay. It’s truly exciting to be here. With the help of social media whether it’s LinkedIn or Facebook, you stay so connected that it doesn’t feel like that you haven’t talked or met a person for many years. That’s how I felt when you had reached out.
I always start my show and the talk with my guest with my signature question which my audience always looks forward to as well is, how do you define go-to-market?
I’ve been in marketing for quite a long time now and my definition of go-to-market has evolved as my thinking has evolved. At the core, go-to-market is an actionable plan that tells me and my team how we will reach our target customers and how we will reach our targets. It helps me clarify why we are launching our product, understand what the Ideal Customer Profile, ICP is, and what is my buyer persona. I can create a plan to engage with the ICP and convince them to buy my product, try my product, or whatever I need them to do. That is my definition of go-to-market. It used to be different before but now, it evolved into this thinking.At the core, the go-to-market is an actionable plan that informs a company how they will reach their target customers. Click To Tweet
This is something that I shared with my other guests as well. Go-to-market and how you viewed it as an individual and how you bring that thinking and thought process to your company evolves with time and with wisdom. Back in the days when I was a product marketer, I used to think of the go-to-market as this one upcoming launch and that’s it, which is a very short-sighted view. I’m happy to admit that flaw and I’m glad that I admitted that flaw. After listening to a lot of the experts, reading books, and listening to podcasts, it’s very clear that go-to-market is an ongoing journey. It doesn’t stop. As you said, it starts with the ideal customer profile. It’s all about how you align your team internally to deliver on the promise on your products and features to that ideal customer profile. I have several other questions I can double-click on. The first one that comes to my mind is, how do you define an ideal customer profile, especially for a founding company on day zero? How do you define that and how does it evolve?
Let’s take an example because it’s easier to do with an example, an ideal customer profile for Nimbella. Nimbella is a serverless application development platform. You can imagine the user of Nimbella’s platform would be developers. The ideal customer profile is the developer. That’s the buyer persona. Where does this developer live in? This developer could be an indie developer or in a small, medium or large company. We figured out where our platform is most suited for. It is suited for the development of modern cloud-native applications. For those developers who are in these organizations that are developing cloud-native applications, our platform is ideal for them. That is my ideal customer profile. We took a step back from saying, “I’m going to define ICP first and then figure out who to sell to.” I define where the buyer persona is and then came to the ideal customer profile.
You had a vast amount of go-to-market experience in all your previous roles and that’s brought to fruition. It’s helping you in your role at your company now. Let’s talk a bit about your journey. How has your journey been like to date, your evolution of roles, and what has influenced you the way you’re sourcing companies? What brought you to where you are now?
I’m an engineer by background like most of us are here but I’ve been running the business side of the companies for many years. Only in tech companies because there’s a part of me that is so attached to tech. I did my business school in marketing and most of my friends from business school went to Pepsi-Cola, Sara Lee and all those brand companies. I came to the Bay Area and I said, “I only wanted to work for a tech company,” so here I am. In tech also, I particularly only worked with cloud infrastructure. I’ve not deviated in the domain, although cloud infrastructure has had an evolution. I’ve been in four startups, all acquired by large companies, Akamai, Juniper, HPE and Citrix was the last ones. The story was that I go an acquisition every five years. After the last one, I decided I need to do something different, which is starting my own company. I’m not getting any younger. I got together with two amazing entrepreneurs and started Nimbella. That’s where we are now.
That’s a great experience in itself, especially for those who are in Silicon Valley. There will come a time where you had the entrepreneurial itch that will force you to take action into starting something on your own. I congratulate you and I’m excited for you on that.
Having worked with startups, I always thought, “I know startups,” but starting your own is a completely different ball game.
How would your kids describe what you do at work?
As I mentioned, I’ve been through so many companies and my kids think that this is the norm. Everybody does that. When something doesn’t change in five years, they’re like, “What’s going on?” My kids think I’m still cool even though I’m outdated on a lot of things for them. Somehow, I am able to work on cool technology. That’s how they will describe. They both are technical kids but they still think I work on cool tech, which is impressive.
Talk to us about Nimbella. When we chatted, you shared a very profound insight into why you started your own company. I want you to share that with our audience.
First of all, when you meet the right team, you feel that it’s starting something up here on so the team came together. Let’s talk about why we picked what we are doing, which is serverless. I started working in content delivery for many years. Content delivery was the first cloud computing service if you define it. After thirteen years in CDN in various companies, all we were trying to do was take more content from the content owners and make it available easily to a wider audience with the lowest latency. What we were seeing was we were moving more compute to the edge. The edge is changing. It keeps on moving closer to the end-user.
When we were looking at what technologies we’re using, what we should be looking at and how cloud computing is evolving, serverless was a domain that was something nascent and proprietary. We looked at it from that angle and said, “We’ve been doing content delivery. We’ve been moving a little bit of compute, and now let’s take the full compute and see how you can offer that easily to serverless compute but in a non-proprietary fashion, where there are no operational challenges for the end-user to users to the developer.” That’s when we started a Nimbella where we looked at serverless technical challenges that only support stateless workloads and the state is still managed by the developer. There are other technical challenges of proprietary nature and lots of tools to put together. Operational challenges are how do you make it available on a scale to all developers. Not just developers who are experts, but also developers who are getting to start developing but are developing a cloud-native environment. That’s the reason of what we are doing now.
You get to see how cloud-native as well as how Nimbella takes off. This is nascent. I completely agree with you on that.
It is nascent but it is the number one initiative within enterprises. Many enterprises are moving towards a serverless computing paradigm and more applications are being written in this paradigm. There’s a lot of work to be done but that’s the beauty of it and the excitement that there’s so much growth possible.
What do you see as the drivers? Why are enterprise companies moving to serverless?
Enterprise companies are moving to serverless because it is rapid development and deployment. What is the biggest cost in a company? There are many serverless advantages and I can tell you one is you don’t have to manage any servers. You’re relieving a big headache which isn’t maintaining servers and several applications. There is no idle time. You pay as you go. Even if you are managing it yourself, you can grow financially within your infrastructure and it will grow as your user-base grows. You’re never allocating any kind of it. The biggest advantage is time to market. The reason it is the biggest advantage is because of the development cost, which is the biggest cost for a company. If you can reduce the development cost and go-to-market faster, you’re not only reducing the cost but you are accelerating your revenue. You’re hitting both sides of your net income. That’s why I feel that this is the space where if you adopt this paradigm, any enterprise has so many gains for the development organization that is incomparable.Companies are moving to serverless because it is rapid development and deployment. Click To Tweet
The parallels that I see and I would like to get your thoughts because you are the expert in this. Years ago when this whole CI/CD movement took off, that was a big thing. It was all about time to market. How do you make it easy for developers to release new features or bug fixes quicker?
This augments your CI/CD pipeline but what it does is it helps on the development side and the deployment side because you are able to develop in the cloud and deploy to the cloud very easily. You don’t need to be a cloud expert. That’s the beauty of it. You can be a cloud novice and still do it.
You also talked about something else that motivated you to start your own company. You were part of four acquisitions earlier. Did I get that right?
You saw both from the inside and outside. Both from the acquired as well as the acquirer on how you thought or data that the value is being created. Over time, the value is being almost mitigated or even destroyed in some cases. That led you to start or that was one of the motivating factors. I want you to hit on this because I want this message to be clear to all, either the current founders or the to-be founders on why it’s one of the motivations for why they should start a company.
As I mentioned, I was going through this startup large company exercise and having been acquired by four large companies. The company’s direction changes. When you are in a startup, you are so laser-focused on that little one product that you have to take to market and make it successful. You are dropped in this ocean where there are many products. Now, you’re trying to swim in that ocean saying, “Sales guy, please sell my product, this and that.” Now you’re like a tiny little portfolio product and you feel either you get attention or you don’t. You survive or you die. I am a product person. I have been in this domain for long enough and I’ve worked with products that I believe in.
Sometimes, those products are lost. You are in a $20 billion company and they acquired a product line of $30 million. What is $30 million when you compare it to billion-dollar product lines? It’s nothing. When the times are rough, what happens? You kill the little guy in there. That little product could have been the future of that company but that’s how large companies are. They go from quarter-to-quarter and they’re trying to find efficiencies when times are rough. When times are good, you can do a lot of things but when times are rough, that’s what happens. I being a product person at the core, it really kills me.
One of the reasons I started the company is we built a company that stands on its own legs. It’s not a component in any large company. It can be and it can run on its own. Acquisition can happen. If it is worthwhile, we should always consider it. A small product in a large company is lost. When you are trying to build something from scratch, it is going to be a small product initially. It’s going to grow over time. Grow that and build it so that you have a large vision. You can grow your product portfolio yourself. You don’t have to be part of somebody else’s product portfolio. You can become a part of somebody’s portfolio but it’s an important part of the portfolio and that’s what I’m focused on.
Back in the days when I was doing my MBA, this used to be one of my case studies. It’s a classical thing. When you are at this school, you always talk about acquisitions, M&As. There’s research out there. More often than not, the post-acquisition value dilutes and hurts both the acquired and the acquirer because there are many factors here. There’s technology, teams, processes and the cultural aspect. To get it right, it’s not easy. One company that’s done well is Cisco in terms of acquisition and making it work. Otherwise, it is a pain. It’s not easy.
Most acquisitions do okay for 2 to 3 years but then it’s a cyclical business. Times are rough. They are looking at all angles. It’s not just your product. I may be married to my product but there are many other products that get impacted. Either the product should be a very critical part of the portfolio or you lost into large companies.
You did mention and talk about who your ideal customer profile is for Nimbella. You talk about the developers, both indie as well as someone who is within a mid or large size company. What is Nimbella’s go-to-market strategy? How are you thinking about it? How did it evolve from day one?
Nimbella’s go-to-market strategy is quite different from what I have done with other B2B companies in my past. We are serving the B2B space. The space is the same but the user of our product is developer and developers are a different breed of buyers. The reason is you can’t sell to them by direct marketing effort. More show, don’t tell. If I was to sum up our GTM strategy in one phrase, it is the bottom of evangelization with some top-down commercialization because in the end, we have to generate revenue to sustain. What we do is we are in a product-led business. It’s not a sales-led business. Therefore, we have to be focused on evangelization first.
We started our effort on top-down because the buyer is typically an enterprise leader who is not necessarily going to swipe the credit card and buy the product without knowing more about it. They are a developer also but they are a developer leader, CTO, cloud architect, you name it. Those people are making a decision for an organization and not just for themselves. We do evangelization through developer advocates either from the open-source community or they are considered experts in their domain of expertise. What developers do is follow them and their advice. No matter how many marketing material you throw at them, it doesn’t matter. It’s what they consume on their own. They have to find things on their own. The content has to be educational and not sales-oriented or marketing-oriented because that content should be influencing the developer users without crossing that boundary between education and selling.
That is truly important and it’s different from what I had done in the past. I’ve done outright blatant marketing. We also use gamification. As I mentioned, my buyer persona is developer. Whether they are developer leaders or not, but they are developers. They could be CTO, cloud architects, or whatever they may be. Gamification is of interest. The campaign that we are running, which is a three-month-long campaign is called FaaS Wars. It’s a play on Star Wars. It is themed after Star Wars and FaaS is Function as a Service which is another word for serverless.A small product in a large company is lost. Click To Tweet
You still have your marketing brains there.
I have a very good marketing person on the team, much better than I am. This is their creation. Every engineer I know is a fan of Star Wars. There may be few but every engineer. In this game, you go and create your starfighter using our platform and you battle. There are many things happening. You are learning about serverless. It teaches you serverless. You’re learning about a platform, you are playing a game, and you are winning a prize. That campaign is running. We have wonderful traction with that. We have many registrations for this and there are constantly building robots to fight. We declared our first winner on January 30th.
For your next campaign, you should think of something around the lines of Wonder Woman.
Thank you for that great idea. I would love to pass it down to my marketing person.
You hit all the right points there. Clearly, it’s a big shift for those who were doing the classical traditional B2B marketing, selling to the business buyers, or positioning their products against business buyers versus you’re not selling but educating the developers. It’s a whole different ball game. You cannot create fluffy marketing content stuff. That’s for sure. It’s all about them getting their hands dirty and experiencing SDK, API, documentation, sandbox environment, and all of those. It’s all about that. Once they do that, that’s when they get or build some affinity towards, “This is something cool and this is something that I should share with other developers.”
One thing I did forget, things have changed from the last time. There is a concept of free service, not just free time trial and freemium offering. That is very important in our line of business. You’ve got to give developers their time to play around with your product not just for hobby projects but real projects. That too, is free so they can adapt it for enterprise use cases.
I liked the way you phrased it which is bottom-up evangelization and top-down commercialization.
This is a very understanding of mine because I’m trying to figure out how do I influence and also sustain.
We talked about bottom-up evangelization which is educating or getting to the developers. How are you approaching your top-down because that’s always a component of your go-to-market?
Even the top-down approach has been different from traditional enterprises and companies I’ve worked for. The reason is we are a small company. I can’t afford a full-blown sales team, if you may. Also, my buyer persona is a little different. A B2B salesperson may not know how to sell to a developer buyer. We sell through developer advocacy. I do have a very strong developer advocate but I would say, he’s a hybrid developer advocate because he does wear a little bit of a salesy hat. His objective is to help the developers from the enterprises to use our platform but also figure out how to monetize the platform that we are offering. It’s a hybrid approach but it is through developer advocacy.
I have a great developer advocate in Italy and he is not only able to influence the indie developers but also the enterprise buyers. He’s able to speak their language and to the needs of the domestic market. This is important for us to make a top-down impact because you need to be able to understand their use cases, their needs, and position the product correctly for them to be able to try and buy. That’s the difference, I would say. As we grow, we’ll become more traditional B2B as every company evolves, but then you will see critical masses evolve. You would see 10 to 15 developers in a company are using it independently of each other. You approach the company and say, “Fifteen developers in your company are using one-to-one an enterprise license for this.” That’s the typical bottom-up evangelization leading to bottom-up commercialization. We will evolve to that. Until then, we have to take a hybrid approach. We are influencing both sides of the equation, the developer persona as well as the developer buyer persona.
One of the role models for who’s taking those approaches or who has taken this approach and being successful is Slack. Slack comes to mind, bottom-up and top-down. I’m waiting for that day when you and Nimbella are up there with those big names.
I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully, we can make it.
You have a plan for 2021. What are your big goals and challenges? Let’s start with the goals? What are the big things that you see from a go-to-market perspective for 2021?
Let’s talk about 2020 because it was an odd year. Everybody will go down in history as the odd year. It was difficult but it was not that difficult for tech. Tech did pretty okay but there were several months in 2020 that a lot of companies put brakes on new technology and new exploration, which impacts startups and new technology like us. Some of that effect was positive that you don’t have to travel. People are signing million-dollar deals on web conferences.
It’s easier to get the decision-maker because he or she is not complaining about the flight schedule or travel anymore. “Let’s jump on a call.”
There is an advantage of that but there are other disadvantages. You are not making a connection with your customer. If they are such a big customer and you want to land and expand there, it is hard because you haven’t formed that connection. You wouldn’t understand them as well as you would have understood if there was a team meeting with their team. You don’t have a captive audience, for instance. If you look at any conference and I have attended several online conferences because you can attend as many as you want. You’re not traveling anywhere. Everybody is doing ten different things. I’m getting a message in Slack. My phone is ringing. There’s absolutely no captive audience. You think that since it will be a recorded session, you’ll come back and listen to it. That is a challenge now.
These are the challenges that we are faced with because we are in the business of influencing developers and the buyer. That influence becomes harder when there is no captive audience anywhere. My challenges are the same. I want to make that impact. We are going to keep on trying those same things. It’s easier to get people in the meeting but it is harder to repeat those meetings because you have met them once and you’re going to show them a similar thing next time. There are no other venues to meet. For instance, you had a phone call, you met them at a conference, and you followed up from the conference. Those avenues are all gone. These are my challenges that I’m still working with. We have a line of sight to our 2021 goals but there’s a lot of work to be done. We are always limited by resources.
Something that I’ve seen other companies do well and something that I articulate in what I call the content-to-revenue manifesto which is the companies that get it right are those that are investing in content, almost creating a brand or a self PR machine. It is not PR in the negative sense. It’s about how do you drive awareness, how do you get people to know what you do, and have them see you as an expert.You can grow your product portfolio yourself. You don't have to be part of somebody else's. Click To Tweet
There’s so much material nowadays, many conferences you can attend, and many events you can attend because there’s no travel. There are a lot of podcasts and blogs. How do you stay top of mind in the midst of so much information and how do you produce the right content? Those are the challenges. Everybody is on one platform now. That is your virtual platform. You are competing for the mind space on that platform. That’s the challenge.
I’ll make a mental note. I’ll follow up with you and your head of marketing later, and we can run you and the team through that content-to-revenue manifesto. One of the paddlers and something that I’ve seen is how writing code is to developers. Content is the same thing. It’s the same currency for your marketing and sales. The better your code, the better your product. It’s the same thing for content. Unfortunately, for companies like us or what I do is we help people and companies to get better at developing content because that’s the currency for marketing and sales and even customer success. It’s about how do you create content where you are seen as delivering value first and the people are extracted towards your channels, your expertise and your mindshare.
You’ll have to stand out. I’ll say, “How do you look for your zebra in the field of ponies?”
Let’s dive more into the last couple of questions. For every leader and every go-to-market leader are every person staying on top of your game, staying in touch with what’s the reality out there, and staying in touch with the community is key. Learning is a big process. What are the big things that you’re curious about from a go-to-market perspective and how do you stay on top?
I’m looking for engaging my ICP all the time. How do I engage with my ICP in a way that I am not blatantly marketing to them? That’s the big thing. I find ways through hackathons, gamification and content. We publish blogs all the time. I personally read a lot but not books. There are many good books but I don’t have time to read books. I consume it in bite-size and curate it in medium blogs even corporate blogs. Some corporate blogs are so good. I also look at Hacker News and Reddit forums because these are the places where my buyer persona hangs out. They’re not comprehensive but they are the talk of the town. I need to know what’s going on there.
I listen to a lot of podcasts and they have been helpful during this pandemic. There’s a wealth of knowledge. There have been many events that I have liked. There are a lot of online events but majority of them are either I say put it off that I’ll watch it later or on-demand. Some of the live events from the VCs have been very helpful like the Foundation Capital and Redpoint. They’ve hosted wonderful events in the area that I am interested in like product-led growth and developer growth, all of these. I have learned a ton from them because they were leaders who have taken their company through motions and they have the battle scars but they overcame the challenges that they’ve faced. I’m not reinventing the wheel. I’m learning from their experiences.
My knowledge is constantly being added on and it’s evolving. Some things work and some things don’t work, but the beauty of nowadays world is you can fail fast and move on. It is not very expensive and difficult to try both from the infrastructure perspective and also from a production perspective. Any content production can be done economically, whereas that wasn’t the case before. Those are the things that I keep on trying, learning and experimenting. Experiment is the game. Hopefully, there is a formula that clicks like repeatable. I found a couple of things, as I said, gamification, hackathons and content. Also, what kind of content is useful? That is always changing because there are new frameworks that have come up and then there are people who are trying different things. You’re all constantly in learning mode.
That’s a key. It’s about having that discipline and the mindset to figure it out bit specific content or resource that you can apply now. That’s the framework that I’ve applied and seen in myself. That’s a ton of content, be it books, communities, forums, their webinars, and their podcasts but one framework that I’ve seen play out well. I think that’s what you’re alluding to is, what is that one thing that is top of mind for me this week, this month, or this quarter and what resources can I lean into? One time question for you. If you were to turn back time and go back to day one of your go-to-market journey, the time when you’ve transitioned from a hardcore PR coding developer engineer to your product management job, what advice would you give her?
The advice that I would give her twenty years prior that whatever you learned in school, apply it right then because it’s not going to be the same. When I started my go-to-market journey, I was looking at 4Ps and 3Cs. You understand the business school jargon and it is helpful. We may not call it jargon now but it’s helpful because it frames and puts a structure and that evolves. I would advise myself at that time, “Apply it right now but keep an open mind that this is not going to be the norm. This is one single step that you’re taking in your go-to-market journey. Always be open to new ideas and keep on experimenting.” One other thing I would say is don’t wait too long. This is more of startup wisdom rather than large company wisdom.
If you haven’t even released the product and you want to test the market, go out and test the market. Talk to your prospective customers or prospective users. Not because you want to sell to them at that time but to understand more because as you are developing it, your thinking may evolve. I am not a believer of stealth. Go out and pitch. Don’t be shy to pitch unless you are doing super-secret stuff. That’s the first advice. Second, don’t wait too long to hire your best marketing person. Go for it right away.
I am in the same belief and mindset which is stealth unless you’re super secretive and hard-to-get IP. It’s a whole different ball game but I’m a believer and practitioner of this whole agile startup mindset. We apply agile developers to experience, go, test it out and get feedback. It’s the same thing for the go-to-market. Thanks to Eric Ries and Steve Blank. They have preached and promoted this whole Lean Startup and agile startup mindset. I think that is key, especially from getting feedback to even testing the content on your go-to-market messaging, that is key. It’s not for the product but even for product-led companies, it’s about getting that feedback as to what resonates, what sticks, and what doesn’t?
We all have to figure out either you are disrupting or you’re creating a new category. Once you figure that out, go full steam.
It’s great speaking with you, Anshu. I greatly appreciated the time that you’ve taken and all the nuggets that you shared. If the audience wants to learn more about you and Nimbella, how do they find you? How do they get to learn more about Nimbella and what you do?
Just go to Nimbella.com. You’ll find everything about Nimbella. A website is not always perfect. It’s always changing as I said but there is enough information there. I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter. Search for Anshu Agarwal and you will find me.
Thank you. I’m wishing you and the team the very best, Anshu.
Thank you, Vijay.
About Anshu Agarwal
Anshu is an experienced senior-level executive with extensive experience at startups and Fortune 500 companies in Marketing and Product Management. She has strong expertise in positioning, marketing communications, new product launches, business planning and go-to-market strategy and execution. Anshu has a reputation for successfully building and leading high-performance startup teams. She has experience with both hardware and software products including SaaS.
Specialties: Go-to-market strategy, Product strategy, Pre-revenue and Pre-IPO startup experience, Corporate experience, sales strategy, channel management, market share acquisition, B2B/Enterprise marketing – branding, campaign management, demand generation
Industry experience: Network Infrastructure and Management, Software Defined Networking, Content Delivery & Streaming, Application Delivery, Virtualization, Cloud Computing, Storage, Security, and Analytics.
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