Sales Development Representative Dave Harrington met with ServiceMax co-founder Athani Krishna to get his thoughts on what it takes to start a business.
While not all great ideas and products deserve to be turned into their own start-up companies, the ones that do still face a labyrinth of challenges on the way to long-term success. When does somebody know that it’s time to take that leap into founding their own company? And how do founders cope with the inevitable obstacles, both anticipated and unforeseen, on the way to turning a concept or prototype into a viable business? ServiceMax co-founder Athani Krisha provides some insight into these topics and others including identifying a market, measuring early success and managing relationships in order to build a successful organization from the ground up.
Know the Industry
Athani and co-founder Hari Subramanian had a combined 30 years of experience in the Field Service industry prior to their development of the ServiceMax application, which paid off because they knew exactly what was available in the marketplace and the crucial flaws of each competitor. At the time, most products on the market were expensive, cumbersome and lacked a consistent innovation strategy. Empowered by a wealth of knowledge and experience, they were able to identify a stagnant market that was hungry for change. Being informed that an idea has value relative to what’s out there can give entrepreneurs the confidence they need to take those initial steps into the unknown.
“All in all, the industry situation was bleak, and the opportunity for disruptive innovation was ripe!”
Make the Right Friends
Around the time Athani co-founded ServiceMax, most Valley start-ups were still operating on a ground-up product development and go-to-market strategy. This meant directing internal resources toward marketing, sales, and customer management that can quickly drain an early-stage startup of time and money in order to gain traction. Athani and the team made key decisions to partner with an established software name, salesforce.com, and venture fund Emergence Capital. While Emergence was experienced in this “SaaS 2.0” model of leveraging an existing brand ecosystem to build great products and companies, Salesforce provided the name recognition to get things off the ground with new customers. Emergence then provided a proven set of resources in terms of mentorship and building a top-notch management team. It’s choosing strategic partnerships like these that can help start-ups avoid common pitfalls and provide useful guidance in these initial stages.
“This turned out to be a supremely successful strategy as we launched the product, built from scratch, in 3 months, and within 6 months of launch, had international customers and well known enterprise brands using our product! Would have taken 2-3 years to get to that stage, had we followed the traditional path.”
Be a Survivor
While building a great product, coming up with a business plan, and making a compelling pitch to investors are exciting challenges to tackle for startup founders, once the dust settles it’s mere survival in a ruthless marketplace that becomes the main obstacle. This is another area in which a successful partnerships can pay dividends. In this case, the Salesforce platform allowed Athani and his team to focus most of their energy on building a great product and innovating at a rapid pace rather than spending time and energy on back-office “plumbing”, since customers already had a recognizable touchpoint with Salesforce. Directing the majority of resources to what mattered most, which was making customers successful, contributed greatly to helping ServiceMax survive in the early stages. Focusing on these areas and having a strategy for consistent innovation is part of what Athani sees as a blueprint for start-up survival.
“We were able to innovate very fast, and the pace of innovation we brought to the market helped us to be super responsive to our customer needs, create a great brand name for ourselves, and successfully outcompete deep-pocketed, deeply-entrenched incumbents.”
Numbers that Matter
Start-ups are often challenged with measuring success early on, in terms of what key metrics to hone in on. While sales, profitability and aggregate users are good indicators, Athani and the team focused on three key areas: 1) Sales Pipeline & Bookings, 2) Customer Success and 3) Customer Retention and Expansion. It’s obvious that winning every deal isn’t humanly impossible, but just being considered can be a positive sign of brand recognition in the market. Making sure that new customers realize value in the shortest amount of time possible, and measuring the rate of return business are great indicators to start-ups that their business is gaining traction and has a chance to succeed long-term.
“We measured our ability to get ourselves involved in as many prospect evaluation cycles as we could handle, and ability to make a credible case as to why our product vision and our approach to solution is the right one.”
Words of Wisdom
While Athani’s experience is mainly in the Enterprise Software space, he has some great advice for anybody thinking about turning their product or idea into a business. Two of his key factors for success are Perseverance and Open-Mindedness. Start-Ups require a certain amount of Blind Faith, not just for founders and early employees, but also for customers and partners. Without the perseverance to fight through problems with limited resources, building a brand for investors and future customers is sure to be an uphill battle. Open-Mindedness is not just about being resourceful in considering any and all options, it also requires that while individuals can disagree, things shouldn’t grind to a halt on account of ideological conflicts. With all that being said, probably the most important words of wisdom Athani has for any entrepreneur are: Solve a problem that is worth solving!
“Here is the deal… problems worth solving are generally tough problems to solve, and it requires a higher level of maturity, patience, and perseverance to go after them! And there is something to be said about that because all the sexy stories you hear about Silicon Valley startups tend to be YouTubes, Instagrams, and WhatsApps. A ton of mission critical business areas are waiting for disruptive ideas and solutions, and it is an extremely attractive area of opportunity for entrepreneurs. Be ready to put in the hard work, and stay as long as it takes to solve these problems as the rewards that await in the end are huge, and because you are solving complex problems, you are building competitive barriers to entry along the way. Totally satisfying journey and totally worth it!“