Interviews with Entrepreneurs: Vivek Sharma, CEO of Movable Ink
What does it take to revolutionize an industry? How about a little True Grit? This week we interview Movable Ink Founder, Vivek Sharma and learn the three qualities he looks for when hiring and building his team.
OF: Tell me a little about your background?
Vivek: I didn’t originally set out to be an entrepreneur. As a child, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut and loved tinkering with electronic kits and computers.
When I started college at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) I thought I was going to be an aerospace engineer, but that didn’t last too long. I quickly realized as a mechanical engineer I’d be buried in differential equations and worse yet – my work would be constrained by the laws of physics. That’s what I loved about computers and programming – anything you can imagine is possible and it’s a boundless universe.
My freshman year of college was 1993 just around when the Internet was gaining mainstream traction. It was that year I came across NCSA Mosaic, one of the first web browsers, and decided to switch my major to computer science. After graduation, I moved out to Silicon Valley where all the “action” seemed to be. A consulting firm placed me at a company called Cisco Systems, which I ended up hating and left nine months later.
I then landed at a little startup called Blue Martini Software, which was a pioneer in retail CRM. Blue Martini was only a 20-person company when I joined, and the bulk of engineers had come from building Netscape Commerce Server and the tops salespeople were from Oracle and Siebel. Three years later, Blue Martini was a $6 billion dollar public company with north of $100 million in annual revenue and 800 staff around the world. It was intense pressure but also intense learning. I got hooked after that and realized I could never work at a big company ever again.
After moving to Japan for a little while, I ended up in New York and started a mobile social network in 2004. We had a lot of interesting ideas using location and proximity networks to predict who people would likely hang out with – but these were bleeding edge ideas and we were a bit too far our over our skis especially with the mobile capabilities at the time (Nokia handsets, Palm Treos). Short story is that company failed and nine months later the iPhone came out…everything became a lot more possible then.
In 2010, Michael Nutt (Movable Ink’s co-founder and CTO) and I started exploring the potential of email. We went from being on the bleeding edge with mobile phones to a technology that was already mature and ubiquitous. The interesting thing about email was it had been around for so long there were firm assumptions about what could or couldn’t be done in the channel. ESPs were largely focused on email marketing infrastructure (list management, basic segmentation, delivery) but content was an afterthought.
So, Michael and I decided to focus on content and the customer experience and came up with the concept of email content that changed dynamically at the moment of open. Our twist was we developed a technology that could detect and adapt to a customer’s context: down to if they are on an iPhone in New York where it’s snowy, 20 degrees and 7:00pm. The technology could also capture dynamic content from a company’s website or social media and integrate that into an email. And so Movable Ink was born.
OF: Talk a little bit about sales and the importance of that for an entrepreneur to have under their belt.
Vivek: I think sales experience is invaluable for any entrepreneur, and it’s unfortunate that sales often doesn’t get the credit or respect of many other professions. While it’s easy to look down on sales people, people often forget that without sales, a company has no revenue. I’m actually the last person I thought would go into sales because I was such an introvert. I thought I’d just be an engineer quietly building new things.
At that mobile company I started, I had done some coding but was also in charge of building the business. When the company failed I kind of blamed myself for not being able to grow the company, attract customers, and build an audience. It was then I told myself: I’m going to go get a job doing the thing that scares me the most - doing sales. So I convinced the founders of a tech company to hire me. I wasn’t qualified, but it was a very early stage company, and I knew how to talk to technical people at the very least. They hired me on the spot as the company’s second sales person there.
The first month I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know what sales qualification or a sales pipeline was, and there was nobody to teach me any of this. So I just sort of figured it out on the job. Each month I thought I was going to get fired for sure. But eventually after several months of hard work, I figured it out and ended up closing more than $4 million dollars of business in two years. I look back now and realize I had no clue I could do that at the time. It was like throwing myself over the edge of a cliff.
If you want to be an entrepreneur, no matter what your major is: computer science, business, design, marketing…there is something special about picking up a bag and a phone and being able to secure a meeting with someone and to then talk to them, listen to them, and persuade them. Sales is truly central to building any business.
OF: Did you take funds for Movable Ink or did you bootstrap?
Vivek: It’s actually somewhere in between. For the first six months of the business, we bootstrapped. One lesson from my previous startup was that the biggest expenses would be hosting (which now has gotten a lot cheaper, but you used to have to purchase Rackspace servers), legal fees, and office space.
A buddy of mine gave us some free virtual hosting, we got some free legal work, and another friend gave us a couple of desks at an agency. We were lucky, but that is how you bootstrap. You have to keep your cost structure low and give yourself at least two years of no salary. We got some early customers and were able to parlay that into a seed round, then an angel round and then we raised about a million dollars on top of that.
We went from $12,000 in revenue the first year to $860,000 our second year to $4,800,00 our third. As we scaled, we realized we would be constraining the business if we didn’t invest in the future, so we raised about another $8 million on top of the first million (Intel Capital led that round). This was four and half years ago. Many other enterprise software companies have raised anywhere from $60-100 million in capital, so we’ve been really capital efficient and super thoughtful on what investments have been working out. Doing so forces you to really understand the business: where the levers are and what’s working and what’s not.
OF: In a previous interview with John Thies, he said that he didn’t take investment because he was afraid of losing his nimbleness. Have you ever had any of those issues working with a board?
Vivek: If you had asked me six or seven years ago, I’d give you some different answers than what I would say now. First, if you don’t have to take funds, don’t take funds. It is a noble thing to have your customers pay you and finance the growth of the company that way. I give tons of credit to any company that has successfully done that.
I think early on, most SaaS companies takes a while to ramp up. I don’t totally agree with John about losing all nimbleness and agility if you take funds. As the CEO of a company, you are the manager of that company and need to make calls about moving the company forward. I do however think a good board is helpful. No matter how skilled and talented you are, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. As the company gets larger, your feedback loops get even more constrained. In the early days, I used to go out on every sales call, but now I have to rely on people to operate the business. I think the board helps CEOs to hone their own thinking. Everyone has his or her own blind spots – myself included. CEOs are still making the final call, but the board can help illuminate areas you can’t see. Other people might have other experiences. So using the Board as a sounding board and feedback loop is the way I like to operate.
OF: Tell me about building a team.
Vivek: We have about 200 people worldwide now. Before Movable Ink, I managed no more than four people so. I remember the small handful of people jumping on board and helping me to build Movable Ink from the ground up and putting their faith in me – even when I doubted myself. I thought: I can’t imagine managing 15 or 20 people. How does that even work? Then you get there and kind of figure it out. Then I thought: I need to bring in some good managers. I can’t manage every single person and task. There’s some benefit to trying to figure it out yourself. However, people too rarely go out and ask for advice and instead try to do it all themselves. I think that was my bias. I tried to do it all myself rather seek help and delegate to capable people.
As far as team building goes, I still remember what I disliked about working for a huge company like Cisco and what I loved about being in a startup. As we’ve built the Movable Ink team over the years (and continue to do so), I want to make sure every employee feels like he or she can have an impact on the business and play a role in the company’s success. Our goal is to enable each employee to multiply their skills exponentially. We have junior reps now running sales covering half the U.S. In order to build a successful team, you have to focus and invest in helping employees grow and realize their full potential early on.
OF: How would you describe your culture?
Vivek: When we started the company, I was so product focused. Culture seemed like such a soft and fuzzy term I couldn’t define it. When we got to 20 or 30 people, we realized that we needed to clearly define our company values and culture.
At Movable Ink, we’ve found great success in a bottom up, employee-driven approach to company culture. We decided that we didn’t want to mandate culture, but we did and continue to help craft it. A big part of defining our company culture came down to hiring the right people. Then early employees got involved and now everyone participates.
We have a self-selecting group that meets weekly to discuss the positive aspects of the company culture and ways to make it better. The committee rotates on a semiannual basis, and outgoing members nominate new members. Employees drive almost all of the initiatives and over time, we found that these employee-driven initiatives succeed because they give people a chance to make the culture their own.
This is in contrast to many companies where culture consists of management handing down a bunch of compulsory activities and events. We also noticed that some of our most successful employees exhibit certain traits that contribute to a positive culture. I observed who the superstars were within the company and the qualities/values they have in common.
- Curiosity: These people are relentless seekers of knowledge. They want to learn - just for knowledge’s sake. We’re solving some problems no one has solved before so that ends up being a huge asset.
- Empathy: This a bit more nuanced. When you have a large company, communication can easily break down. What I am saying turns into something else in someone else’s ears. So listening is a big part of communication. It’s about being able to understand the other person’s perspective and not get defensive.
- Grit: These people never give up. If something seems impossible, they are the ones who surprise themselves and others with what they can accomplish.
In tech companies, people often think of culture solely in terms of the “vibe” or employee perks. But culture is about more than table tennis tournaments and free lunches. Along with smart business decisions and innovation, culture plays a big role in a company’s success.