Our guest in this 20th interview with a unicorn start-up leader is Amperity CEO and co-founder Kabir Shahani.
Amperity was born out of a poor customer experience he had with Alaska Airlines. At the time, Shahani and the company’s other co-founder, Derek Slager, decided to create a platform to help consumer brands get a single, actionable view of their customers. Five years later, Amperity has become a unicorn with a $1 billion valuation.
In this episode, Shahani explains how that milestone has helped give them staying power credibility, attract talent and anchor on who they want to be and the kind of organisation they’re trying to build. According to him, data is imperfect and will get messier and harder to wrangle so getting a single, actionable view should be a commodity for enterprises. Furthermore, Shahani points out that the pandemic has accelerated two trends: the push to digital customer relationships and the recognition that if you don’t have a first party digital customer relationship with your consumer, then you will be obsolete as a brand, and the recognition that loyal customers move the needle.
Shahani confesses that during his career he has learned that the boldness of ambition and focusing on building a great team are the keys to success as an entrepreneur. According to him, it is impossible to have a point of view on everything, the hardest part of running a business is finding the balance between what to manage and what to delegate to the team and recruiting leaders who then have the autonomy to take charge of their roles and create the system so that everything runs smoothly.
Finally, here are Shahani’s three pieces of advice for those who want to succeed in business: be incredibly self-aware of your strengths and weaknesses, seek feedback and mentorship aggressively – or as his friend Seahawk’s QB Russell Wilson puts it ‘You don’t have to be sick to get better’ -, and putting in the work.
The interview, as usual, was co-hosted with Russell Goldsmith of the csuite podcast.
We have distilled the most valuable, actionable insights from our first 15 interviews with leaders of unicorn companies and bottled them in our book ‘Growing without borders: The unicorn CEO guide to communication and culture’. You can download it here.
Russ: [00:00:00] Thanks for downloading the 20th in our series of episodes of the csuite podcast that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto and their own Without Borders podcast, where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications. My name is Russell Goldsmith and my co-host for this series of interviews is Tyto’s founder, Brendon Craigie. And today we are thrilled to be joined online from Seattle by Kabir Shahani, CEO and co-founder of Amperity. Founded in 2016, Amperity provides a customer data platform to its clients. The company raised a $100m Series D round in July 2021, and that brought its total fundraising to $187m, reaching a $1 billion valuation. Welcome to the show, Kabir. Shall we start by you giving us a quick introduction to the business?
Kabir: [00:00:57] Thanks, Russell. Thanks, Brendon, great to be here with both of you. We’re in the business of helping consumer brands get a single, actionable view of their customer, which I’ll admit and I’m sure we’ll get into the origin story of the business. I was quite surprised that in, 2016 at the time, with all the advancement in technology, this continued to be a challenge. And our core business is really helping these brands ensure that they can get that single, actionable view. All the tooling around that to be able to unleash these incredible ideas that our customers have about how to best serve their customer. And, of course, the insights and analytics to be able to understand how they can be the most effective in that engagement.
Russ: [00:01:36] When you started the business with your co-founder, Derek Slager, if I’ve got that right?
Kabir: [00:01:43] That’s right.
Russ: [00:01:44] Yeah. What was the decision behind creating Amperity, and also what prompted you to set up the business?
Kabir: [00:01:49] Yeah, we were on quite the journey when we when we decided to jump in. Derek and I were fortunate to work together in building a marketing automation business prior to Amperity. And that gave us a lot of perspective on multichannel marketing specifically and how data was being used in all kinds of businesses around the world. And after selling that company and integrating it into our larger business, we took some time off. And of course, the thing that you end up thinking a lot about and wanting to go work on is probably the furthest away from what you’ve been spending time on. And so, we explored all these issues across a variety of different industries that were not related to customer data and found ourselves coming back to this core challenge, which was particularly in consumer businesses, there was not this single view across all the different data that we knew these brands had about us and that came to life for Derek and I and our own experiences as consumers with an airline headquartered here in Seattle called Alaska Airlines, an incredible company known for customer service around the United States and they route into Mexico and throughout North America. And for a company that was so well-regarded for customer service and being customer obsessed, we were pretty surprised by some of the communications that we were seeing, both from a marketing perspective and from a customer service perspective from the airline. Given how much data we knew they had about us as mileage plan members, as frequent travellers, as, I’ll give you one example, we got an email. This was at the end of 2015, and it said ‘The one thing you could do this holiday season’ in the subject line and you think this is my favourite airline, I travel every week. I got to see what they need for me, and you open it, and it says, download our mobile app. And our reaction was, wait a minute, I have the mobile app. I’ve used it four hundred times. I used it yesterday. Like, how do they possibly not know this? And so, we did, what I think most brazen entrepreneurs would do is we went and found the person at Alaska Airlines who actually had responsibility for this. The front end of the story is that person, her name is Jeanne Jones. She now actually works at Amperity and runs our entire customer community. But at the time, Derek’s next-door neighbour actually worked in IT at Alaska Airlines, and just as they were taking out the trash, he said, “Hey, would you mind if we got together for a beer and we just ask you some questions that we have about some of what we’re seeing from your different communications, both in marketing and customer service?” And that led us to meet Jeanne, and we sat down with her, and we said, look, we know the spirit of the brand and we know the talent of the company and the people in this company. Help us understand why, and we had four or five examples like this where we said, we know you have this data and it was really a magical experience because not only were we able to see the real passion and the real creativity that Jeanne and her team had, we also were able to observe the frustration that really talented people have when they don’t have the tools to unleash their best ideas. And so not only did she describe to us the technical challenge of ‘we’ve got seven different places where this data lives and these different silos’, but also their ambition. She actually opened her laptop and showed us a spreadsheet that they called the wish list. And she said, you know, here’s forty-five use cases. We keep adding to this list of the things that we would do if we had this 360-degree view of our customer. And so that really prompted our journey and we said, my gosh, you know, in addition to that, we of course did 20 or 30 customer interviews to try to understand the real pain and between the fact that there was real customer pain, we were incredibly fortunate that the venture capital firm that backed us the last time was excited about backing us again, and we have the capital lined up to go pursue something. And of course, a number of folks that we had the opportunity to work with in the past started calling and saying, ‘Hey, if you’re thinking about doing something again, we’d love to take a look at it’. And so, a lot of it was, hey, we’ve got clear customer pain, we’ve got the capital to go execute it and the team is ready to roll. So, let’s take a crack at it. And you know, that gave us the opportunity to do something that I think is really special, which was really try to understand and focus on the real technical challenge that these companies have had for, frankly, two decades now, in trying to achieve their ambition for customer experience, and so that led us down a path of commercializing academic research out of the University of Washington here in Seattle, spending two years trying to actually create this invention, which I’m happy to describe in detail, which we now have six patents on that we own. And then ultimately, about three and a half years ago when we took the product to market, build a business around it.
Brendon: [00:06:27] Really exciting. This might take us into that description about the product and what you’ve built. It seems to me as if people have been talking about the idea of getting to the single customer view for a very long time. I remember working with some clients in the past connected with Tesco, one of our big retailers in the UK and Dunnhumby, and you’ll remember, I’m sure you’ll know all of those things. There was a similar challenge people were grappling with then. And I guess I’m just curious to know, what did you end up landing on in terms of your kind of vision for Amperity, which has allowed you to address some of those problems, which have kind of been perennial problems for a really long time?
Kabir: [00:07:05] The reality is that data is imperfect. And I think the challenge, whether it’s the Dunnhumbys or whether it’s the master data management products or business intelligence products over the past 20 years, is we’ve been trying to get to this golden record. We’ve been trying to get to this perfect view. And to Derek’s credit, he really championed this vision that the perfect view doesn’t exist. And so, let’s embrace the inherent messiness in the data and the inherent uncertainty in the data. And once we embrace that, then we can start to surface connections in that data in a way that lets users apply their own perspective on where and how to use that data. So, what I mean by that is, instead of trying to merge all this data into one place, we’ve been able to invent techniques that allow us to find patterns across that. And so, it’s in many ways, I often describe it as the perfect use case for machine learning. So, think about in your case, Brendon Craigie, if you take any of the brands that you love whether that’s at the grocery store where you shop, the airline that you travel, your favourite clothing stores, you name it, they’ve got a lot of different indicators of data about you. They’ve got where you’re transacting in-store store or digitally, what you’re browsing on a website, how you’re interacting with a mobile app, the things that you’re engaging in terms of different digital communications. And each one of those data sources runs off a different key. And so, email address might be the key in one data source. Phone number might be the key in another, first name and last name and physical address might be the key in a third. And it turns out that there’s a bunch of contextual information. And if you take, for example, we went in to pick your favourite brand and we went in there and we said, ‘Let’s just print out all the data across all the different sources for Brendon Craigie.’ Russell, you and I could sit here in a matter of maybe two or three hours, we could sort through all that data and be pretty accurate around who’s Brendon Craigie, the one that I’m speaking to right now versus who’s somebody else? And we can do that because we carry billions of pieces of context in our brain around where you live, the kinds of things that you like. We can sort of see your physical likeness and kind of make some guesses about the kinds of things you might be interested in from a fashion perspective or from a food perspective. And we basically train machines to do the same thing. And so, we’ve trained machines to exert that same human consciousness and judgment around these different data sources. And turns out, machines are way faster at sorting through that than you, Russell and I would be. And so, it’s a really cool way to help machines have human intelligence but leverage the speed at which they can complete tasks. And by doing that, what we’ve essentially done is invented a way to connect data where common key doesn’t exist. I often describe this as if you recall for the listeners that are a little bit older on the on the podcast today, like myself, where ¡ I was a power user of the internet back on their bulletin board services when I was a young kid and then when I was in high school using the web browser when it first came out. And if you recall, there were hundreds of search engines that were ways in which we use to figure out what web pages to browse and what was really interesting at that time on a 28.8 connection or a 56.6 connection, clicking a link took a long time. Like if I clicked a link to pull up some sports scores, that could be a minute or two minutes to load a page that had a lot of images. And so, I personally, like everybody, developed my own workflow for how I use the web. And so, I kept a piece of notebook paper in front of my desk, and I went to three different search engines. I went to Lycos, Dogpile and AltaVista, and inevitably the search results on the first page for each one of those would be really different. And so, I’d try to find the link that showed up, at least on the first page of two of those three. And that would give me enough of an indicator to say, ‘Hey, that’s probably what I’m looking for.’ And it was pretty correct and pretty accurate. And then this Google thing showed up, and I added it as a fourth search engine. And after about a day, it was pretty clear that I didn’t need the other three because every time I executed a query in Google, the search was right on the first page. And at the time, we all thought about it as this magic. We couldn’t believe it. How did they possibly do it? And it turns out what the founders of Google did was invented a really novel way to look at data across the web and to look at search engine results and how to service those. We’ve just done the same thing for customer data, and so we’ve come up with a novel way to look at that and over time to again, it’s a series of techniques that we’ve patented and over time, people will try to figure it out. So that’s our innovation. Push has been to constantly be disrupting ourselves and increasing our moat. But it’s a really fun time right now where we can go wipe this up for customers and show them their customer data in a way that they’ve never seen before.
Russ: [00:11:55] Amazing. Just to say I was there on Netscape one using AltaVista and Lycos. I do wonder what people using the web now that have never had to experience that, what they would think of it if they had to!
Kabir: [00:12:06] Totally.
Russ: [00:12:07] Just out of interest. How long did those patterns take to go through?
Kabir: [00:12:11] You know, it’s been a rolling process, so I think we probably got our first maybe about two years ago, two and a half years ago, and we are up to six now, soon seven. And so, we’ve taken that strategy very early on as we started to invent these techniques. We’ve really encouraged our team and to build a culture of innovation, really getting everyone across our team excited about putting their names on patents and owning that intellectual property using that as a way to build more and more capability. And as you know, here in the U.S., you know, it can take years to go through the process of permissioning a full patent. But I think we now have a machine moving on that.
Russ: [00:12:48] Kabir, I mentioned at the top of the show that you achieved unicorn status just a few months ago, actually. Have you seen that that has changed the perception of the business in any way?
Kabir: [00:13:00] Yeah, you know, it has in a couple of ways. Number one, I think that milestone sort of gives you the credibility of staying power, right? And saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t a start-up that hasn’t found product market fit yet. This isn’t a start-up that doesn’t have customers actively and aggressively using the product every day.’ And so just by reducing the risk, you know, particularly for something as important as customer data, it’s not lost on us the trust that our customers placed with us. And so, I think the size and scale of the business and by extension, the valuation of the business is a good indicator for customers to be able to get security around doing business with us. It also, of course, helps to attract talent. Not everybody has the same risk tolerance, and so certainly there is a big segment of potential team members that we can now recruit because they understand the staying power of the company. And I think third, it also helps us really anchor on who we want to be and the kind of organisation we’re trying to build, right? I often describe our ambition when we started the company. And I think when you cross that unicorn milestone, it helps you sort of reinforce that original vision and that original idea. And for us, really, that was how do you solve a really hard problem that creates value for customers with people you love? And for us, those three things have fuelled us and propelled us to be able to create a great organisation and a great culture. And I think when you kind of go through this transition, which frankly, we’re still in the middle of, you know, we just raised this round a few months ago, and the entrepreneurs listening will certainly, and I’m sure Brendon and Russell, you can relate to this, you’re constantly sort of rebuilding the company at every phase. And so, when you get to this milestone and you sort of now can see your runway much further than you might have previously, how you think about systems that you’re building, how you think about your organizational structure, how you think about the way in which the operational cadence of the business works, all sort of changes and you’ve got to go through that process. And so, it’s been a lot of that for us over the past couple of months.
Brendon: [00:15:08] And when you look outside the organisation, which I know you’re doing constantly, what do you see as the biggest trend that’s driving the space that you’re in at the moment? And how do you see your space evolving over the next couple of years?
Kabir: [00:15:22] There’s been two things that have been really powerful in the business over the past couple of years and then, of course, have really accelerated in the pandemic. The first is the push to digital customer relationships and the recognition that if you don’t have a first party digital customer relationship with your consumer, then you’ll be obsolete as a brand. And I think there was awareness of that three or four or five years ago. I think the most strategic companies we’re thinking about, ‘Hey, I need to really own the first party relationship with my customer. There’s a lot of data about my customer living in places like Facebook or in different ad serving platforms, and I need to find a way to really have all the data about my customers.’ And of course, in the pandemic that was accelerated, and every brand woke up and said, if I don’t have this right now, I literally because I can’t have my physical locations open, I have to have that digital relationship. So, I think that’s a big one that we’ve been really excited about. And really, I want to be clear for us, we think about digital as really dynamic because in this new world, we’re all engaging with the brands we love in so many different ways. We might buy online and pick up in store. We might go to a store to see the product, but then go buy it online and want to ship to our house. And that’s just one example, in sort of the distribution piece, you can use that same example in customer service or in other parts of the business. I think the other one is really around loyalty and the recognition that loyal customers move the needle really meaningful. And there’s enough data now, and there’s been enough of a push around loyalty programming in general that we know that a loyal customer is worth on average five to seven times a non-loyal customer. And so, the investments that companies are making to drive loyalty, whether it’s creating a loyalty program or what we advocate for and work with our customers to do is really build the data infrastructure to be able to drive loyalty through understanding customers and customer analytics and being able to even use that data to drive product development and then think about how all that comes to life in that customer journey. Driving loyalty moves the needle in a really, really big way. And so, I think the recognition of those two things have been factors that we’ve been really fortunate have helped the business.
Brendon: [00:17:36] I really like your point about kind of embracing sort of chaos because I guess really by having an open mind to embracing chaos, you’re opening yourself up to identify all of the kind of clues around your customer, whereas if you just want to identify your customer within a very narrow box, then you’re limiting that potential. But with that in mind, I was just wondering, is that chaos going to continue to grow? Are customers becoming going to become more and more chaotic and therefore your technology will be even more important? Or do you think things will plateau?
Kabir: [00:18:08] Data will always get messier. If you think about the amount of data that we’re generating on a daily basis as a society, I mean, it is mind blowing the rate and scale at which data is growing and the new ways in which consumers are engaging. And so, there’s new channels. There are new ways in which consumers want to engage with the brands they love, and that is creating dramatically more data, messier data, harder to wrangle data. Two, what I found really interesting, and I didn’t quite expect candidly when we started deploying this product for customers, and we’ve done it over one hundred and fifty times, the messiest data is the data you have about your best customers. And so, the number of times that we find brands are treating their best customers, our highest value customers, as if they’re first-time customers because they have so much data about them that they’re unable to wrangle it and create it into that single view, it’s been staggering. And so, I absolutely think that we’re going to see this as a continued tailwind and the recognition that this is not core competency for any individual brand. Core competency is what you do with that data. It’s the strategy that you deploy and how you apply analytics to that data. But getting it into a single, actionable view should be a commodity, it should be something that you can just leverage to be able to then go build the real intellectual property in your brand, in your business, which is what we see our best customers doing.
Brendon: [00:19:39] Brilliant. And so, one of our key themes, Kabir, of this podcast is talking a lot about culture and communications and kind of interesting to get your perspective on how have you sought to raise awareness and differentiate Amperity from other companies in your space?
Kabir: [00:19:55] Yeah. You know, I’d say there’s an external part and internal part to this, and I’ll touch on both. On the external part, I’d say we have an excellent marketing team and that’s been a journey as it is building any part of an organization and to really hone in and invest. And I think we are big fans of investing in the brand, investing in marketing, making sure that the market understands what we stand for and what we stand for is helping these companies create exceptional customer relationships and being a partner in that journey. And we’ve been talking a lot about sort of where we are today as a company and where we’re headed. And something I’m really proud of is, we have best product. We have incredible intellectual property. We will put our product up against any other solution that the customer might be thinking of. Two, we bring expertise, and we bring expertise in two areas. Number one, we’re very candid about what our product does and does not do, and that’s uncommon in enterprise software. As you know, there’s this pressure to try to be everything to everyone. And we are incredibly clear and specific about where we’re best in the world and where we’re not and through that, number two, we work as real partners with our customers to help them make good decisions, that’s going to help them have success. And sometimes that means saying, don’t use our software yet, go do these three other things first, and we’ll talk in a year and exercising the patience and discipline to do that has not only helped us create great, long-lasting relationships with customers, but it also helps us over time as we then, of course, over time get those customers as part of our business. We work really closely with them to drive economic value out of these investments, both their investment with us and their investment with the adjacent capabilities that they have in their overall customer experience stack. And third is a really big investment in community and making sure that we can get thought leaders across different industries and different brands working together in this area. And so, by building both an independent entity, we call the CDPA, the Customer Data Professionals Alliance, theCDPA.org you can find some more information about it. You don’t have to be an Amperity customer to be part of the CDPA. And we’re investing millions of dollars every year in research and programming to help people that have real passion around this space like we do exchange ideas and learn more about how to apply customer data in their businesses. And, of course, our own Amplifier community, where we can go even deeper and more specific in terms of how you’re leveraging tools and technology to create these exceptional customer experiences and informing our own product roadmap.
Brendon: [00:22:38] I love that, the customer data alliance, it’s brilliant. And then in thinking more, I guess, really more around culture, I’m guessing that your team has probably expanded quite a lot quite quickly. And that might have been challenging, particularly over the past 18 months with the pandemic. What’s been your kind of approach to sort of building the culture in that in that tricky environment?
Kabir: [00:22:57] For us, it’s really doubling down on our core values. And if I’m being honest, we have more to do in terms of how we think about that programmatically. And I’ll say where I think we’ve had a lot of success in our core values of play for each other, which is very real in our business. I love hearing this from new hires. I always say, I never, you know, the first few months I will always hear comments from people that say, I’ve never worked somewhere where I’m so encouraged to be vulnerable and be candid about what I know, what I don’t know. And when I have a problem or I say I don’t know something, the number of people that run to come help me is just extraordinary. So that that is a very big part of who we are. The idea of build for durability because as I’ve talked about a little bit already today, we really are trying to build a long term, sustainable, everlasting company and three, make something better today. Our nod to speed, like how do we actually make sure that we’re getting better incrementally every single day and building those values into everything from how we do performance reviews to how we provide awards and accolades every month in our monthly company meetings has been a really big part of emphasizing the culture. I think the next phase for us is a lot about the systems that we’re building, right? So, what’s the system for manager training? What’s the system for helping managers have the tools to go and then apply these values in their teams? And as we’re rapidly scaling up, that’s becoming the most important area for us to spend time with and for me to spend time and ensuring that those values are really clear and evident in how we do our jobs every day.
Russ: [00:24:40] Just on that actually, Kabir, because that leads a little bit into the thought around internal communications, because you’ve said about how much you invest in external marketing, but how are you as the leader of the business, communicating with individuals, with teams, especially I’m assuming that you’re quite widespread now as well.
Kabir: [00:25:00] Yeah, you know, that’s been as an entrepreneur and as a CEO, probably the most interesting part of my journey recently is recognizing that it moves away from any communication I will do to the system of communications that we establish as a team. What I mean by that is if I take 18 months ago or so when the pandemic started, I used a blunt instrument for internal communication, which was almost every day, every other day, I recorded a video much like this, and it was a two to three minutes. Here’s what’s on my mind. Here are some of the things we need to be thinking about, and it was a way to just keep connection. And then that move to that plus some version of frequent town hall meetings. And then that moved from some version to some frequency of email communication. While all of those things were creative, and I appreciated getting a lot of support from our team and they felt like that was super helpful, none of those things were a system, right? They were all about my communication to every person in the company. And there’s a chasm that we must cross, and we are we are crossing that that as we speak, which is it’s less about me and my communication, and it’s more about the system of communication that we build. And so really investing in building our internal communications function now, which for companies bigger than ours sounds silly that we don’t actually have that formalized and we’re now formalizing that. And those, I think, are the kinds of things that actually help because there’s so much happening in the business in any one day that I can’t possibly know everything. My co-founder can’t possibly know everything that’s happening in the business. And so how we’re investing in building those systems to report that end and then have a communications function to communicate those things out with the lens of the culture that we have, is frankly the most important thing we can be doing right now.
Russ: [00:26:50] And how did you guys cope in terms of internal comms through the pandemic? And also on that note, have you seen it impact on the business as a whole as well?
Kabir: [00:26:59] I’d say our approach has been relatively high touch, whether it be videos or email communication or whatever. And as it’s gotten safer, we’ve really been encouraging people to spend time and gather. And so, traditionally we do an annual summer event and an annual holiday event like many companies. And we did our summer event this year and we had 200 people outside. Some were masked, some were not. But we were outdoors. We required vaccination, of course, and it was so important, it was risky. And I’m thrilled that we had zero cases, zero issues come from that. But it was a big risk. But we did it because we’ve grown so much as many companies have in the past 18 months, and there are so many people that hadn’t even met their colleagues or hadn’t even been to headquarters. And I think that experience of realizing, ‘Hey, this is a real company with real people that I’m building,’ totally changes your relationship with your work and with the company. And I just can’t emphasize how important that is for us as a leadership team because none of us are here for a job. We’re here to build a company. We’re here to build something great and we want everybody that walks through our doors to get the gift of that experience. There’s something, as both of you know, very magical about creating something and building something and scaling something and seeing that create value for customers. And I feel bad when people only feel like it’s a job and they only feel like they’re just there to kind of complete a set of tasks. It’s not a fulfilling experience, and part of creating that fulfilling experience is driving that human connection.
Brendon: [00:28:40] Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I think you’re absolutely right, and I think it is a kind of difficult decision for leaders at the moment to go. But I think it’s definitely the right thing to do to try and get your people together as when you can. Just going a little bit back in time, you obviously had another business before you created Amperity, which was Aperture. You created that, I think, in 2007 and then sold it in 2013. Were there any big learnings you took from that experience that then went into your next venture?
Kabir: [00:29:09] I don’t know how long we have. We might need four- or five-hour podcasts just to get started. You know, I’ll try to summarize maybe a few of the key things. Number one is the boldness of ambition. I think we in our last business, we bootstrapped that company for the first three years. And in retrospect, that was a huge mistake. Not to say that bootstrapping isn’t a viable path, and there’s certainly plenty of examples of incredible companies. I think it was Mailchimp that just sold into it for some gargantuan amount of money that raised very little capital along the way, and so it’s certainly possible to do it. But there are types of businesses and categories of businesses where you’re well served to capitalize those businesses and think with ambition about the rate and pace at which you can grow. And I think that’s one thing we look forward is we said, ‘Gosh, had do we invested more aggressively sooner, had we pushed our vision to be bigger, we could have scaled that business to be larger and done so even faster.’ And two is, I think, the importance of focusing on building a great team. One of the hardest parts in the entrepreneurial journey is going from being the first or second or third or fourth person on the ground, doing all the work to making sure that you’re scaling up and getting great people. And I am so grateful and excited about our leadership team because we really from that experience and we had a great leadership team at Aperture certainly, and at Amperity we started with that lens, day one and we said, ‘How do we just recruit exceptional leaders in every part of the business and then give them the autonomy to go run their business and create the systems for that to happen?’ And that’s hard to do, particularly in the early stages, because you’re always as a founder going in and out of the detail. And it’s not always pleasant for everybody. And so, finding the right balance to where you press and where you don’t and how you recruit great leaders is a lot of what we’ve thought about from day one with Amperity and I think has allowed us to get scale much faster.
Russ: [00:31:09] Just listening to your story from Aperture and now your current company as well, how do you feel as your role as the external spokesperson, let’s say, you know, the representative of the business, because sometimes and we’ve discussed this on previous interviews that we’ve done on this series, you’ll have a leader. You know, someone will come up with a great idea for a start-up, but they don’t necessarily want to be the face of the business. How has that been for you in both those companies? And have you learned anything along that journey as well?
Kabir: [00:31:37] For me, I’d say I’ve learned to let go more faster and I’m still on that journey. To be clear, as you know, as a founder, it’s very difficult, but you can’t achieve scale if you’re not willing to let go. And I’ve always enjoyed the role of evangelizing the work, whether it’s been in either the two companies that I’ve been fortunate to be a founder or where I’ve built a career before that. To me, I get energy from sharing ideas, hearing ideas, collaborating, and iterating. And so being the external face of the company is something that’s always come natural to me because is where I get my energy. The difference is trying to not juggle every ball or spin every plate to be able to do that. And so being able to build the systems now with an exceptional leadership team, a great president of the company, the structure that we have, that’s going to allow us to do that. I think knowing who you are as a founder is probably job number one and then hiring around you. And to your point of talking to founders that maybe have a slightly different bias where they want to focus on the vision and the idea, but don’t necessarily want to be externally facing, I think that’s totally OK. You just need somebody to be externally facing and let them do that job. The trap, and I’ve seen situations like this in my past is you don’t want to be the one being externally facing, but you won’t let somebody else go do it either. And that’s a recipe for disaster.
Brendon: [00:33:07] And have you always been a natural communicator, or did you have to formulate a plan on how you were going to get good at that?
Kabir: [00:33:15] It’s sort of cheesy, but I have to give my parents a ton of credit for that. At a very young age for the parents listening, and I should probably take this advice and do it for my own kids who are who are small, five and three, you know, very early on and my parents really encouraged me to participate in and I was never a great actor but forcing me to do drama classes. I was never an orator and speechwriter but forcing me to do public speaking and really putting me in a situation from, I’m talking five, six, seven years old and on, where you’ve got to go participate in things that kind of build the muscle of external communication. And then even learning language. You know, the National Public Radio in the United States is really, really well done. And I remember, you know, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grade, young age, like, that’s what’s on in the car. Like, that’s what’s on the radio, in the kitchen. Like, you’ve got to listen to people’s language and how they speak and how they story tell. And I think that builds muscle. And so, I’m not sure that that’s natural for anybody. I do think that that’s a learned behavior that can either start when you’re four or five years old or when you’re twenty-five years old or forty-five years old. I don’t think it matters, but I do think it’s learned.
Brendon: [00:34:35] And I guess now you’ve reached this unicorn stage and you’ve obviously been through, this is your second major enterprise. When you think about other founders trying to follow in your footsteps, what things do you think that you really need to be brilliant at if you are to build a business that gets to that unicorn stage?
Kabir: [00:34:55] I’d say three things. I’d say, number one, making sure that you are incredibly self-aware of your strengths and your growth opportunities or your weaknesses. And this goes for founders, and it goes for executives, and I’m a big fan of this. You’ve got to be able to hire people smarter than you. And better than you at a bunch of stuff. And the trap I think we often fall into as founders is thinking we’re great at everything. And I think the minute you realize not only are you not great at everything, it’s actually impossible to be great at everything. And that recognition and self-awareness allows you the freedom to go build an exceptional team because now you know where you want to go invest and how you want to build around you. I’d say number two is seeking feedback and mentorship aggressively, and so in the areas even where I’m a I’m a big fan, my friend Russell Wilson, who plays with the Seahawks here in Seattle, always says you don’t have to be sick to get better. And I think it’s one of the best ways to think about growth in that you’ve got to be willing to, even in the areas where you’re strong, continually improve, and the areas where you are not being committed to getting as best as you can be. And one of the few ways to do that quickly is to seek out mentorship and guidance. And I’ve been so fortunate to have incredible mentors in my career and continue to have incredible mentors in my career, and I plan to have incredible mentors through the rest of my life. I think that’s a really important part of continued growth. And third, it’s putting in the work, and that’s the least popular part and the part, probably I feel like we talk about the least, which is it’s not about the idea, it’s not about solving some Rubik’s Cube. It’s about grinding it out. And if you’re willing to put in the work, you can go very, very far. And that work comes with a lot of sacrifice and it’s not popular and it’s very difficult to manage. But when done, you can achieve your objectives and your dreams.
Russ: [00:36:54] Kabir, we’ve just got a few more questions for you, but the fact that you just mentioned the Seahawks, I’ve got to ask who’s signed the ball behind you?
Kabir: [00:37:01] That’s a Russell ball, right there. Yes.
Russ: [00:37:05] Very good.
Kabir: [00:37:06] One of the best to play the game.
Russ: [00:37:06] Listen, we just got a few more questions that I wanted to ask. We’re going to shoot these ones quickly at you. In terms of listening again to both of the companies that you know your previous business and now Amperity. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your entrepreneurial journey and how did you fix it, if you did make one? You must have made one.
Kabir: [00:37:26] Oh, I’ve made hundreds. Again, this would be a multi hour podcast on the stakes. If I’m being really honest, the number one mistake has been not creating enough space for people to do their jobs as quickly as I need to. As founders and I’ll speak for myself, and I’m sure many of the founders listening feel the same way, every detail matters a ton to me in the company. And it’s impossible to have an opinion and comment on all of them. And the faster that you can create the framework and you can create the standard and you can create the system, the faster the business will scale. And I think I was really shitty at this for a long time, and I think I started doing a slightly better job maybe two years ago, and I got a lot faster at doing this when our president, Barry, joined our company and he’s really pushed me hard in this area. And I still have more to go and more to do. But the more that you, I’d say, for me, the mistake has been, needing to have a point of view and needing to have an opinion about everything versus picking the things that matter and setting the standard and then giving people the freedom to go execute.
Russ: [00:38:35] I don’t know if that links to the next one, because we want to know about in terms of communication challenges as well. But I was thinking more, you know, from the business point of view, what’s been that the biggest challenge that you faced there?
Kabir: [00:38:47] This is a really probably a boring answer, because I’m sure you hear this a lot from other entrepreneurs is really hiring at scale. I mean, we’ve got seventy-five, eighty up heads right now, something like that, which, you know, for a start-up company, you shouldn’t be that that high. And so, I’d say it’s been super challenging to think about repeatability and scalability in that function. Again, I think this is an area where over the past couple of months we’re now making dramatic progress in, and I’m very optimistic about where we’re headed and what things look like even in the next 90 days. But hiring and recruiting and telling our story and getting people to come at the pace at which we need has certainly been a challenge, especially recently.
Russ: [00:39:31] That’s not a boring answer at all. I mean, actually, in terms of the hiring side of things, one of the things that has come up in recent conversations is the fact that because we’ve switched to more remote working, people were being hired from all over. Have you seen a difference in that on the business at all?
Kabir: [00:39:49] It’s certainly helped a little bit. I think our bias is in a couple of areas. One, it’s just a little harder to build a company when you’re fully distributed versus operate a company when you’re fully distributed. And so, if we were at a scale where it was, the systems were built, we’re just plugging away. I think we would have a different view on how effective we can be in a remote environment. We’re still building a ton of ways in which we do our jobs, and that requires in-person collaboration and requires building trust. And so, the model we’re starting to think about is how we sort of organize by site. And so, think about the employee experience. And, you know, a lot of what’s been talked about, a lot of what’s being written about, as both of you know, well, is, well, the hybrid thing is weird because you’ve got some people in a room and some people on video and it sucks for the people on video and people in the room have to worry about that and all that. So, we’re starting to think about ways we say, ‘OK, how do we have a flexible work environment so people can work in their homes and work in the office in a way that’s going to help them be the most productive?’ And so that’s first certainly the first principle. And then how do you organize the teams to where now, imagine a world where you’re based in Seattle, you’re going to be able to see your colleagues and meet in the office when you need to and have that collaboration. But if you’re a remote employee, whether you choose to live in Seattle or live in Chicago or wherever you want to be, you’re mostly working with other people who are also remote. So, we’re thinking about it almost like sites. I’m actually at a Seattle site. We have a big office in New York, so we have a New York site and then you might have a remote site. And so that’ll take us some time to organize that way. But we think that could actually help us get the benefit of collaboration, but also the breadth of being able to hire wherever. And so, if you happen to join the company and you’re not in a location where we have a headquarters, you’ll actually have a first-class experience as a remote employee.
Brendon: [00:41:42] And thinking, as we come, this is our penultimate question, what’s the next frontier for Amperity?
Kabir: [00:41:47] You know, for us, it’s really building those systems of scale and ensuring that the systems we have, I’m sure at the next level they‘d break again, but they take us for at least the next two or three years. There’s a lot of value that we still have yet to create for customers with new products that we have in the pipeline, which has been a really fun part of 2021 for us is we crossed that moment where now we’re able to invest in products that the market won’t see for another two years, similar to when we started the company in 2016. And so, expect to see a lot of innovation from our company. A lot of new capability as we continue to grow in this market.
Russ: [00:42:29] Kabir, I know we’ve kept you possibly a little longer than we promised. We’ve got one final question for you. Just very quickly, which we’ve asked all our previous guests, if you were to go back in time and speak to your old self and bearing in mind a lot of the theme is on communications that we talk about here. So, what guidance would you give yourself about communications and what steps would you encourage yourself to take in order for you and your business to excel in comms?
Kabir: [00:42:54] I would give myself very strong feedback around carving out dedicated time to focus on communications and that communications is a job. And so, it’s not something you can do late at night, in between meetings, on the fly. It has to be a dedicated chunk of your time as a leader that you carve out to be able to focus on communications internally and externally.
Russ: [00:43:20] Tremendous, Kabir Shahani, thank you so much for taking the time to join us online today for this. It’s been absolutely brilliant.
Kabir: [00:43:26] Great to be with you both. Thank you so much.
Russ: [00:43:31] Brendon, that is 20 unicorns in the can.
Brendon: [00:43:32] Who would believe that you would be able to round up 20 unicorns?
Russ: [00:43:38] I know it’s been a hard slog, but it’s great. It’s been really good. But what did you think of what Kabir said?
Brendon: [00:43:46] Again, another really inspiring leader to spend 45 minutes or so with. And yeah, it’s great hearing his story, I think. I mean, so many things you could take away from that, but a couple of things that kind of really resonated with me were his point about, I think he, borrowed this from a sports professional that you don’t have to be sick to focus on trying to get better, which I think is a very powerful message. And then and then I think the other one, it was the point about as a founder looking to kind of really grow your business, it’s essential that you create enough space for the team around you to take responsibility and move forward and not try and have the final word on everything because otherwise it’s really difficult to scale your business. So, I think those are two things that, you know, I thought were, you know, really good messages for people.
Russ: [00:44:36] Yeah, good stuff. If you want to find out more about Amperity, then their website is simply amperity.com. But that’s actually it for this latest episode in the special series we’re doing with Tyto. We’d love to hear your comments on today’s chat. You can share them on our Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Twitter feeds or in the comments of the YouTube version of this podcast. Those are all linked from the top of the website at csuitepodcast.com where you’ll also find all our previous shows and supporting show notes, plus links to where you can follow us for automatic downloads of each episode via likes of Spotify and Apple. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, please do give us a positive rating and review. We’re, of course, available on all podcast apps. Just search for the csuite podcast and hit follow or subscribe. You can also subscribe to the Without Borders podcast from our partners at Tyto and all the details for that are on their website. Just head to TytoPR.com and click on the podcast link in the top nav bar. Plus, you can also download a copy of ‘Growing Without Borders: The Unicorn CEO Guide to Communications and Culture’ from the Tyto website, too, that’s a great overview of the first 15 unicorn interviews, and hopefully we’ll convince Brendon to do a second issue of that once we’ve got to maybe 30 of these interviews. If you are a unicorn leader yourself and you’d like to be part of this series, then please do get in touch via the contact form on the website at csuitepodcast.com. Plus, of course, anyone can get in touch too with any feedback you may have. And finally, you can also reach me via Twitter using @russgoldsmith, or you can find me on LinkedIn. But for now, thanks for listening and goodbye.
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