CleverTap: A Data-First Approach to Customer Engagement
Episode 22Visit Moonshot Series Page
- “What if it works?”: Find a spark to get you started [1:38]
- Adapt your product to changing markets and channels [5:25]
- What “build for the world” actually means [9:36]
- Co-founder dynamics: Give each other space and establish extreme trust [12:32]
- Hire the right people and then let go [16:11]
- Having a good VC-founder relationship [23:02]
Dewi Fabbri: Content with their corporate jobs at a media company, engineers Anand Jain, Sunil Thomas, and Suresh Kondamudi had little reason to start their own business. This was until they faced a data problem that frustrated them. They struggled to find a solution that could converge various data points to give them meaningful insights to engage with customers. This frustration led them to launch CleverTap in 2013.
On this episode of Moonshot, Anand and Sunil speak with Peak XV’s Mohit Bhatnagar about how founders can build a product that adapts to changing markets and why it’s crucial for co-founders to trust each other if they want to scale their business.
Mohit Bhatnagar: Hi Anand, hi Sunil. You guys have completed 10 years at CleverTap, so congrats. [It’s] a good time to reflect, a good time to sit back and say, “You know, here’s where we came from, here’s where we’re going, here are a few things that we’ve learned along the way that surprised us, didn’t think it would play out [like this]”. Let me start at the very beginning – the original inspiration to actually do CleverTap in the first place. Let’s just have both of you respond to that. Why? Why did you guys start this company?
“What if it works?”: Find a spark to get you started
Anand Jain: So, I mean, we were colleagues at Network18. And, the one thing we realized was it was such a big challenge to send anything meaningful out [there] or talk to your users or customers, right? Most of the time the data was in multiple silos, you know, there were no products that kind of worked together. You were to extract data from one product and feed it into the other. And we are engineers, right? So, when an engineer says it was painful, it’s truly painful. So, we thought there had to be a better way. We started looking for products. And we couldn’t find anything. And I think something kind of clicked that [said], “Hey, this is a data problem. If we could get all of this data in one place…” And this is not a database problem. Of course, you can put everything in one database, but to make it actionable… So, if you can get all this data in one place, and keep on refining it for insights, for segmentation. Can you segment users based on their behavior? In plain speak, it means, what have they done? What have they not done? Like you would know your friend very well, right? So I think, bringing that data and technology out and saying, “Can we use this to personalize every communication, react to every user situation, and just give a better experience?” With better experiences, people will want to associate more [with you], they [would] want to come back, just hang around with your brand. Even if they’re not purchasing something, they might just go and browse. So I think that was the original idea. I think that was a starting point for us.
Mohit Bhatnagar: And you were also sort of working with somebody else at Network18. And, you guys… You had been at least at Burp before that as a founder. So also this element of, “I want to get back to becoming a founder versus working in [a company].” You could have carried on doing that quite happily.
Sunil Thomas: I think, to finish Anand’s point before we get here Mohit, I think we’ve always, at least internally, been driven by these offline examples. So this concept of, “If you know a person better, you can just have better conversations, you can anticipate needs, you can react”. Your favorite restaurant you go to; you get a certain experience. So it was some of these things that are just not present online. And you can argue that despite our 10 years they are still not present online. So it’s kind of this vision that keeps us going. And, almost like; that’s really what inspired us on day one. But to your question that there’s a corporate job, and then there is a founder’s entrepreneurial journey, I think Anand has the true spirit of entrepreneurship. So he brings that extra edge always to the dynamics between the three of us. I think it was Anand’s constant pestering, “Hey, you know, we can do better, bigger things in life,” that actually made us take the jump.
Anand Jain: I think there was no inherent need to start something. It’s not like, “Hey, it’s been four years. I’m feeling bored here.” We were actually having a terrific time, and no one was interested. And that was the thing. We believed in the idea so much that we said, “We have to do this.” And of course, Sunil said, “I’m the one with the bug.” I went to Sunil and said, “Hey, what if the cushy job goes away, and the company car? And then you don’t get the comfort. And if it does not work, we can always go back to a job. I’m sure I’ll be hired as a programmer somewhere. You know, it’s not so bad. But, what if it works?” So I think, “What if it works?” was the spark. We so strongly believe in the idea that we think we can shape it well.
And I firmly believe in this, you can’t do this part-time. You can’t say, “On the weekends I will work on my next idea.” You have to quit your corporate job. You have to quit whatever you’re doing, and then start the next thing. Don’t be unfair to your employer, and say, “In the evenings, I’m going to do something else”. And that’s the mantra we even carry today, 100% focused on CleverTap just by design.
Adapt your product to changing markets and channels
Mohit Bhatnagar: That’s awesome. Is it still about solving a problem nobody else has? Getting all the data to the same place, and building those insights? Is there something else now that’s driving you guys?
Anand Jain: I think the vision is so large that it will take maybe a couple of decades to solve it fully. So, have we solved it in 10 years? I mean, we are all impatient, but to be fair we have not really [solved it]. We have solved part of the problem. Not just getting data… I mean, you have to invent technologies that will make sure the data is in one place and you can purpose it for several things. But also in the real world, how do you make sure that you change customer behavior? The way they run their businesses. They’re used to buying products in silos, “Let me go buy an analytics product. Let me go find an email solution. Let me go find someone who can do WhatsApp for me.” To say, “Hold on. You actually don’t need these disparate siloed products. You can have one platform that can solve everything for you with the underlying power of data”. So I think that we have achieved success to an extent, but that lends itself to a much bigger product and a much bigger opportunity. So I think we’re focused on that. I think [in] the next 10 years, I’d probably be happy to say that we are somewhere close to achieving it, but it’s a multi-decade journey, I would say.
Mohit Bhatnagar: You know, one of the things that drew me to you guys in the first place was that it was very popular for everyone to just build products from India for the rest of the world. And you’re doing that as well today. But you guys were very focused on India, and the broader Asia opportunity. Mobile-first; massive volumes of whether the customer is Hotstar or Gojek; just crazy volumes of users and usage. In many ways, the next 10 years are also an opportunity for the India-first product, the Asia-first product, and the mobile-first product to actually dominate and win globally. So in many ways, if you succeed now, it won’t be about trying to cater to what the West wanted. It’ll be a little bit about, “Here’s what the future was, which was mobile-first and high volume, and I’m gonna bring it to the rest of the world”. So actually, I’m very excited about that part of us winning globally, which to be fair, we are still in the early days of, right?
Sunil Thomas: Yeah, early days. And I can take that Mohit. I mean, one thing is we’re living in the most innovative era that has ever come to mankind in some ways. And to your point, India, the East broadly, and India specifically, there’s so much exposure, in terms of scale. Like you said, the number of people coming on the Internet, the diversity of people – there is India 1, India 2, all of these things… Southeast Asia has hundreds of languages. So the diversity of the business we are in, to understand the user better, and to try and give that user the best experience, there is no better opportunity than this sort of market in many ways.
And in some ways, this is actually the harder problem to solve. So, in the agile development world they say, “Take the hardest problem first because that’s your longest pole in the tent, so to speak, and then everything else comes naturally.” So I think, we’ve, maybe not by great vision and design, but just because of where we were when we started the company with Network18, etc… It has given us a tremendous advantage. So, we are really looking forward to the ride.
Mohit Bhatnagar: Awesome.
Anand Jain: I just wanted to add, you know, the vision is not just mobile-first. But it transcends beyond mobile to every channel so to speak, I mean, this is tech speak but every channel that you access. So, even if you walk into a physical store. You should get the exact same experience. They should know who you are, and everything that you’ve done in the past. If you go online through a desktop browser, they should; the brand should know who you are, and what you’ve done. So I think from a vision perspective; and that’s what I said, it’s not just, you know, “We are on the SDKs (software development kits) in the app and we are good.” It actually goes much beyond, and I think we are now kind of skirting at the edges of, “Hey, can we take this to the next level? Provide a more complete solution across all channels.” People these days… I’ve seen my kids and I’m sure yours too, they chat [on mobile] all the time. No one’s on the desktop. No one is browsing through stores, they’re buying on Instagram. So, can we make that experience complete through some of these channels? Because these are the newer channels that [are] showing up, right?
What “build for the world” actually means
Mohit Bhatnagar: Makes sense. I want to shift gears. When I started investing more than 10 years back, a lot of the opportunity was in the consumer businesses being built in India. Think the Zomatos, the OYOs, the OLAs and so on, so forth. But now more than 50% of what we invest, and what we think of as the best investments in this part of the world are companies that are building products in India, but really servicing customers all over the world. And you guys were very early to do that. Sunil, you’ve always been based in the Valley and Anand has been along with Suresh here, based in Bombay. And you’ve had this corridor. Talk a little bit [about this] because I think a lot of young founders are going through that journey right now, “Should we continue to have the center of gravity in India? Should we move it to the US? How do we sort of address the front end [along] with understanding the pulse of what goes on there and having the right kind of sales and marketing organization, but then how will it tie back to product and engineering?” Talk a little bit about things that have worked, and things that have not worked, as you guys sort of built this cross-border kind of business model and organization.
Anand Jain: So here’s what it is. I mean, you asked it in the question itself, “Build for the world”, and that does not mean build for the West or build for the more mature markets. When you’re building for the world, you start with the markets that are easier for your product. And let me explain what “easier” means. It means that you can go sell easily to that market, get into an early-stage company, and get closer feedback loops. So your customers are not halfway across the world from where your company is based and you’re not saying, “Well, I can only reach this person 12 and a half hours later. Can I go talk to my customer? Can I—in Mumbai speak— take an auto rickshaw and then head over to this person’s office, and get it straight?” So it’s not through multiple layers of customer success, then some escalation, then getting an email or a ticket.
Can I go talk to my customer? [In the] early stages specifically. So, I think that’s what helped us build and shape the product.
What we did was, in the early days… So, you know, we all have exposure, we have all lived and worked in the US and we happened to meet here in Mumbai, of all places. But we said, “Hey, can we sell it to India?” Most of this mindset, “Hey, I’ll build it here, in India, and sell it to the West,” comes from a time or an era when there was no domestic market. There was no market in India. And there was a big problem of, “Hey, I’m only going to buy more mature products.” I think we have a massively thriving ecosystem and that has opened up the market.
So to early-stage companies, I would say, “Find your right market.” It could be Southeast Asia, it could be India, it could be the US, or Europe or somewhere else. But make sure that you’re getting early feedback from customers because a lot of product shaping will depend on that—how you shape your product, and what it finally becomes. So you have a vision. Vision is always like a dream. You remember some parts of it, but not the complete part of it. I think your customers will help you make it concrete, and give it a good structure. So, that’s my thing.
Co-founder dynamics: Give each other space and establish extreme trust
Sunil Thomas: I think it’s hard if the founders are split apart. And I think, there are two things, at least for us, maybe that’s made it work. One is the trust that we have, and I don’t know how to do without it honestly. It’s something that we’ve built. It’s incredible the amount of trust and how much on the same human page we are on. The second thing I was going to say is, this sort of discipline of a) having separate roles, and b) we literally used to do a daily standup no matter what, 7:15 am in the morning every day, for eight years now. I mean, every day we don’t even talk about business, Mohit. But the fact that we are there for each other, and no matter what comes; in the middle of the day, you’re thinking of a problem, I’m sitting in the Bay Area and something’s in my mind, I know that at 7:30 am I’m going to be in front of these guys and I can bring it up. And I think it’s a little underrated, but this clarity of roles between founders, I think is very important.
Mohit Bhatnagar: Say more…
Sunil Thomas: So, I’ll tell you. In year one, before even our seed round of funding, [when] it was just the three of us coding. Our roles were very clear. I mean, I was the lamest engineer. So I was doing HTML and CSS. Anand was putting together the infrastructure, the AWS, the middleware, and all of that stuff. And Suresh was building our, you know, complicated database, Tesseract DB, all of that stuff. So, those were our coding roles, and we were never interfering in any way with each other; but we had to do that. And then as we grew… Suresh has always been running technology and that’s been a steady rock, and that’s been from day one, and it’s incredible that we have that.
And you know, Anand was then moved as our BizDev guy. So he was out there in the world taking planes, attending conferences, opening doors, and nobody else kind of competed with Anand. We never had these things where, you know, where the roles actually clashed or we sort of, you know, came into like, “Oh, that part is winning.” So we all three migrate, into that function or anything like that.
Mohit Bhatnagar: Giving space is a big thing and allowing each person to really…
Sunil Thomas: I think giving space and knowing our responsibilities, whether it’s for the year, whether it’s for the next two years, whether it’s for like the next five minutes, is important.
Anand Jain: I have two more things to add. Number one is that you have to absolutely speak your mind. In the early days, if you don’t know your founders very well, sometimes you try to drop subtle hints like, “Hey, what if your idea is not so great, you know”. I think the fastest way to earn trust is to speak your mind. Don’t sugarcoat it because not only your startup’s happiness but your own personal happiness depends on you speaking up. So speak up to your own founders, be brutal, don’t sugarcoat, don’t beat around the bush. Say it straight and direct. There is no sugarcoating with me. And, I have strong opinions on certain things. So, I’ll speak my mind. However, the decision maker is clear for a particular role. So no matter how much I have an idea of how we should do certain things, if it is Sunil’s responsibility to do it, he decides how it is going to happen. Similar for technology—I can give an opinion to Suresh, [but] Suresh decides what stack we are using, or who we hire, and so on, so forth.
Anand can have an opinion, and that’s great, and they know that it’s going to come straight. But… So, that’s that. What it does is, it establishes extreme trust.
And, I was reading your blog on your climb to the Everest base camp. You have to trust people. You have to trust people that you’re going to go out [with]. So I think that’s very important. [The] rest will all mutate, change, adjust, and morph, but these are two indelible things.
Hire the right people and then let go
Mohit Bhatnagar: Let’s move the conversation forward. and I’m asking you to reflect on some of your best hires, some of the folks who have really moved the needle in the firm over the last five or 10 years. Have there been situations where you’ve been pleasantly surprised? You never really saw this in a particular person, but something pleasantly surprised you or vice versa, where you had this best pedigree person, but just didn’t fit in or didn’t work out. Reflect a little bit on some of the pragmatic advice you have for someone who’s building a team from scratch.
Sunil Thomas: So all of the above is the answer really, Mohit. So I feel, one of the biggest; at least what surprises me, or the unexpected sort of high in a way is when people can cross their own cap or their bar or whatever. Somebody has done $5 million of revenue or $10 million of revenue for sales because it’s easy to quantify. And you suddenly see the person really going at $25 million, at $40 million, that kind of upside. Be it in sales, be it in engineering, or be it… Globally we’ve expanded a lot, so somebody with only India or Asia experience, when you see them blossom globally into things that they’ve not done before, I think that has been, at least [some of] my biggest highs. You hire an India head, and you see the person taking over multiple regions, whether it’s on the marketing side, whether it’s on the sales side, these are really good.
You hire a backend engineer who only knows Java to do something specific, and now they are up into data science, and the AI models, and all of this stuff. So those have been the real pleasures of it. Because again, as founders, we have not crossed or conquered these barriers before, right? So, I feel we are also learning every day.
Mohit Bhatnagar: Is there a system to this madness called recruiting where you’d find all these candidates, [where] they put their best foot forward in a 30, 45-minute interview? Have you cracked it? Have you been able to find a better way to identify that talent?
Sunil Thomas: Both of us are nodding our heads in the negative.
Anand Jain: I wish there was a formula. There is no formula, right? And over the years, I’ve become wiser. I thought that I had cracked it. But as you… And some hires work out, some don’t. At all levels, not just at the junior levels, but even at the C-level, not everyone has worked out for us. And for different reasons. I think, like [for] software, they say, or [for a] startup, “Fail fast.” So, if you know something is not working out, you have to quickly react to it. The more the span the person is responsible for, the more it will get affected. So if you’re hiring a C-level [person] and that does not work out, everyone under that person, plus the leadership, plus investors, everyone will have questions around, “Hey, what did you do?”
So I think even for hiring, the startup is going through its own journey of finding the trail. Like, for example, for us, can we sell in India? Can we sell to the largest of the corporations in India? Which door do we knock? How do we collect payments? What to do if they don’t pay?
Similarly for the person that you hired in the leadership position, head of India sales, or C-level CXOs, CFOs, CROs or CHROs they’re also in an unknown world. They may have come from a much more established organization, processes, everything’s working, you know, a more stable company. Here, everything changes every 12 months or six months. You double the size of the company in terms of revenue, for example, in the early days, or you hire more people, you open a random new office in some place, like Bogota, and none of us know how to deal with that. Should we hire them on our… So [there are] a lot of unknowns and then there are people who adapt better to these unknowns, and there are people who say, “No, no. Hold on. I don’t want to deal with this.” So I think you have to figure it out.
Sunil Thomas: I think hiring the right people is the hardest. Like Anand said, the damage could be like two quarters, it could be like a year depending on the level, you know, where you hire. And for a mis-hire, and you don’t want to be impatient with people that you brought on board. So there’s always a little bit, you know, a quarter or two where it’s like, “Okay, this will get figured out” and you know, we’ll help, we’ll guide. And I think this, especially as we’ve grown from, you know, being nothing to like [reaching] 10 years, 600-plus employees. I think this is the hardest problem, really.
Mohit Bhatnagar: But I’ll give you guys credit on this one. I think your ability to not get emotional, don’t let egos come in the way, have a straight talk, and take a very rational approach; almost an engineering approach to say, who’s the best person to do this job… When you guys actually got Siddharth [Malik], and all of that, most founders would not find it that easy to be able to have a very rational data-driven, objective way of saying, “Hey, I want to go get someone else who’s world-class to actually assist me in areas that are my blind spots.” Let’s bring it back to you guys. Like, if I tapped you on the shoulder three years back versus today, and I’m asking you these kinds of questions, where has it been your own journey? Like where have you advanced the most? Where do you feel now that you’re more aware of your own blind spots?
Sunil Thomas: So for me, I think, personally, we got Siddharth [Malik] our new CEO, etc. on board, right? And to me personally, that sort of journey of letting go has been, I want to say, like the hardest journey in some ways, because… You know, as a very hands-on founder, I’m in the weeds and I’m very detail-oriented, and all of that stuff. And somehow to develop this patience of letting the organization build and [that] it’s actually better… And, last year because of that letting go, because I was not day-to-day operationally involved, we got two massive projects done. We did this acquisition of Leanplum which, if I was just in the operational rut daily of running the company, would just not have been possible. Our Series D funding, and thank you for the contributions, but we got CDPQ, we got IFL onto the investment team again. If I really grow into this, like being the founder that is outward-facing, that is really the face of the company outside, I think CleverTap will actually benefit a lot.
Mohit Bhatnagar: Your hardest day or hardest time at CleverTap.
Anand Jain: It’s very unlike him (Sunil). It’s very hard for me to let go, and I wish I could say I’ve mellowed down after 10 years. I’m not; I probably don’t plan to. But in all honesty, I think the hardest has been when the product does not work for customers. And, it’s not [that] every day is hunky-dory. Every day is a great day for us. There are times when there are bugs or the system is down, etc., and you’ve got to deal with it. It’s a little [bit of] restlessness, like, “Hey, how can I fix this? How can I make this work?” Someone paid us, someone trusted us with this software saying that, “Okay, this is going to solve my business’ X need, Y need”—how can we let them down? Can we make this work? So some of those days are the hardest, I’d say. Otherwise, I’m unperturbed. I don’t really care.
Having a good VC-founder relationship
Mohit Bhatnagar: Look, I’ve been asking all the questions. So thanks for just being straight up and candid. Your turn. What’s a good thing for a young investor, who’s investing in SaaS or global companies from India to know? The things that you feel that I could have done better. Things that you feel as an investor group; we could have been more helpful to someone like you guys on your journey. Just talk freely, openly around.
Anand Jain: I want to ask you a question. I’m not sure about young investors, but this actually could be helpful for people who are listening to this. What made you invest in a company where the product was just being made? We had obviously zero revenue. We were in a dingy little office. We’d never raised before, so it’s not like, “Hey, pedigreed or second, third-time founders in the sense where you have an exit, etc.” What did you see, or how did you think about this, rather?
Mohit Bhatnagar: I don’t know. I’ve always been quite drawn to people who can articulate a problem, and in a very nuanced way, can sort of almost know the three or four challenges that they’re likely to have in front of them, as they try to build a product in a particular market, and to go do it. And I felt you guys, having exactly what you talked about, your Network18 set of experiences, you guys came across exactly like that proverbial founder, who was pissed off at the world because nothing was existing out there to solve his own problem. And then when he or she solved his or her own problem, they found a massive amount of people who struggled with the same thing. And I think that appeals to me a lot as a personal investing style, to find people who can articulate the problem with the nuanced detail that explains why the existing solutions just aren’t going to cut it. So, just the quality of people that I work with. I would say, [I] get attracted to the problem statement, and to the founders that are sort of going after it. Those two at least were big checkboxes for me, from what I remember.
But come back to my question—do’s and don’ts for investment folks who are trying to build the next big CleverTap?
Anand Jain: For the longest time, we had absolutely zero idea what go-to-market meant. So… And we would discuss this, “This GTM thing that these guys keep bringing up and asking every time, why don’t they focus on the product?” But I think the help around that… You brought in some experts to help us out with that, I think that was very helpful to us. Being a sounding board for a lot of stupid ideas, “Hey, I thought of something, can I run it by you?” Just being patient around this. And, I think having time for us is also very important. You know, it’s not easy for either side, but having time to hear out [and] logically reason through things. I remember for the longest time we did not have any board meetings because there’s no revenue, there’s no MIS or whatever, so what are you going to talk about? So, I think that time helped us shape [CleverTap], it gave us some shape to the idea.
If we were in a rush to monetize, monetize, monetize, MVP, ship it, go find a sales guy, etc… A lot of the investors I see; again this is anecdotal—not that I’m on any board, or an investor or whatever—they are in a rush to monetize. They’re in a rush. And I keep saying this, “What’s the big rush to grow up?” So this phase where you have a smaller company, investors are patient… Take your time, and figure out what will work. Don’t be in a rush. Don’t say, “Oh, I’ve compiled my code. Let’s ship it. Hire the sales guy, expand and all that.” So I think that patience is very important, and we saw that with you, and that was very helpful for us.
Sunil Thomas: I think Mohit, I should add that there are a few things. One is that you keep us real. I mean, honestly, you’re very focused on what’s ahead. You have always had us thinking about the next step or the next two steps ahead. Whether we’ve thought about it all the time or not is debatable. But I think you’ve kept it a) forward-facing, and secondly, real. You’re like an Indian parent. You get 99 marks out of 100 and you ask about what happened to that one mark and how many other people in school got 100 out of 100. But you know, it’s good. It is motivational in many ways. I don’t know, it’s beyond my pay grade to give advice to investors, but I think just keep it real, and on both sides, right? Like appreciate, but also, you hit the knuckles when the governance is not quite right, or you need to grow up, or there is something that you guys are missing.
Anand Jain: I can give an example of that. So for the longest time, Mohit was unhappy about the gross margin. And we thought we’re sailing, we’re cruising through with the mid-fifties, it’s great. And he was unhappy, we had squeezed AWS out, we were running the servers to the maximum capacity, Suresh was pulling his hair out, and everything was great. But you were the one telling us, ”Guys, you can’t run like a company. You have to aspire for a better gross margin, etc.”
And then after a lot of thinking, I mean, thinking is not even the right word, like massive thinking, we came up with this thing that we need to innovate, we need to invent something that has not been done before, and all the data technology… So, our data technology then was in version two, but we needed to, not just think about the efficiency of the servers, we needed to fundamentally do something different. And I think that led to Tesseract DB which became the core of whatever we do now. So I think, thank you for that. That’s the positive side…
Mohit Bhatnagar: No, thank you. You guys did the hard work. We did the easy part. And, hopefully, [in] the next 10 years when we’re going through the motions and we’re going to be public someday, we’re going to be successful and whatever success means. But thank you so much for your friendship and the ability for us to partner. Thank you very much.
Sunil Thomas and Anand Jain: Thank you. Thank you, Mohit, for everything.
Dewi Fabbri: You’ve been listening to Sunil Thomas and Anand Jain of CleverTap, in conversation with Mohit Bhatnagar, Managing Director here at Peak XV. I’m Dewi Fabbri, and for more interesting startup stories, visit our website peakxv.com or follow us on your favorite podcast platform.