The SaaS Podcast

How a SaaS User Experience Can Help Grow Your Business – with Suresh Sambandam [224]

224_ Suresh Sambandam

How a SaaS User Experience Can Help Grow Your Business

Suresh Sambandam is the CEO of Kissflow, the first unified digital workplace for organizations to manage all of their work on a single, unified platform.

Kissflow is used by over 10,000 customers across 160 countries, including more than fifty Fortune 500 companies.

Suresh was working as an engineer for a startup when he spotted an opportunity for a business idea. He eventually quit his job to launch his startup in 2003.

Things looked promising at the start. Before he knew it, he had a team of 40 people. But the product just didn't get the traction he'd hoped for and he eventually had to pivot.

With his new idea, he raised $1M from angel investors. But he was too early to market. And by the following year, he was running out of money and had to layoff most of his employees.

And then in 2013, a customer helped him see the potential of his product…

A UK based design company bought his product for $50K but then spent another $90K on building a great user interface for it. That was when Suresh had his aha moment.

He realized that as an engineer, he'd been focusing too much on features and technology. Instead, he had to get his company building great user experiences.

And that's when things started to click with his third pivot (which became KiSSFLOW). The more the team focused on creating a great user experience, the more their product resonated with customers.

Today his company is doing close to $10M in ARR and has over 200 employees.

We talk about his multiple pivots, the 10 years it took to find product/market fit, his strategic approach to search engine optimization and how that now drives over 50% of leads. And we talk about what Suresh calls “Desk Marketing & Selling” which his team based in Chennai, India is using to land B2B customers around the world.

I hope you enjoy it.

Transcript

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Omer Khan [0:09]
Welcome to another episode of the SaaS podcast. I'm your host Omer Khan and this is the show where I interview proven founders and industry experts who share their stories, strategies and insights to help you build, launch and grow your SaaS business. In this episode, I talked to Suresh Sambandam, the founder and CEO of OrangeScape, a leading B2B Indian tech company focused on SaaS solutions for workflow automation. The company's flagship SaaS product Kissflow is a business process management or BPM, and workflow automation tool. With over 10,000 customers, including 50 Fortune 500 companies. Suresh was working as an engineer for a startup when he spotted an opportunity for a business idea. He eventually quit his job to launch startup in 2003. And things look promising at the start. Before he knew it, he had a team of 40 people. But the product just didn't get the traction he'd hoped for. And eventually, he had to pivot. With his new idea. He raised a million dollars from angel investors. But his idea was too early to the market. And by the following year, he was running out of money and had to lay off most of his employees. And then in 2013, a customer helped him see the potential of his product, a UK based design company, bought his product for $50,000, and then spent another $90,000 on building a great user interface for it. That was when Suresh had his aha moment. He realized that, as a developer, he'd been focusing too much on features and technology. Instead, he had to get his company building great user experiences as well. That's when things started to click with his third pivot, which became Kissflow. Today, his company is doing close to $10 million in ARR, and has over 200 employees. The customers are global. But what's really impressive is that his entire company, including sales, is run from Chennai in India. We talked about his multiple pivots, the 10 years it took to find product-market fit his strategic approach to search engine optimization, and how that now drives over 50% of leads. So I hope you enjoy it. Real quick before we get started, firstly, don't forget to grab a free copy of the SaaS toolkit, which will tell you about the 21 essential tools that every SaaS business needs, you can download your copy by going to theSaaSpodcast.com. Secondly, enrollment for SaaS Club Plus is now open. Plus is our online membership and community for new and early-stage SaaS founders. As a member, you get access to our growing content library, video masterclasses, a private community forum, live group coaching calls every two weeks. And you also get one to one coaching with me through private messaging. So if you need help launching and growing your SaaS business, and you want to connect with other founders around the world, and build recurring revenue faster, then join me inside plus, just go to SaaSclubplus.com. To learn more. Okay, let's get on with the interview. Suresh, welcome to the show.

Suresh Sambandam [3:33]
Hey, glad meeting you.

Omer Khan [3:36]
So I always like to ask my guests what gets them out of bed? What inspires and motivates them? Do you have a quote that maybe you can share with us?

Suresh Sambandam [3:45]
So the one that I honestly don't have a board, but one that really comes to my mind, if at all is “Believe in yourself”. So the thing that really motivates me every single day is to believe that, you know, I can always do better and be better. And then what I did yesterday, can be a better version of myself today. So that's the one thing that really keeps me going.

Omer Khan [4:09]
Cool. Love that. Okay, so let's talk about OrangeScape the business and Kissflow. So for people who aren't familiar, tell us a little bit about the business and the product.

Suresh Sambandam [4:23]
Sure. So OrangeScape is the company name and Kissflow is a brand which is a product brand. We started OrangeScape in 2004 time. And then we pivoted three times. From that time, I was a very amateur entrepreneur. Of course, I was in India in in in Chennai, and there was literally no ecosystem so to speak. So I had to sort of learn everything from the scratch. So we pivoted three times and kiss flow is actually the third divide. First two products that we birthed from OrangeScape were moderately successful, but didn't become like a big success. But Kissflow is a super successful product, we have few thousands of customers, and we have these customers spread across 160 countries across the globe. That's the short version of our story.

Omer Khan [5:21]
Okay, so in a nutshell, tell us about Kissflow, like who's it for? what problem are you trying to solve?

Suresh Sambandam [5:28]
So Kissflow is actually a business process management workflow, workflow management software, which helps non-technical users, especially the line of business owners, or line of business managers to be able to automate their business process without having to go to IT. Right, that's really the problem. And we ended up creating Kissflow, because most of the business process management software, were for big enterprises, like the papers of the that easily cost quarter million to $1 million to get me or buy them. But most of the businesses, especially the mid-market, businesses aren't offered that. So we offered a self-service, do it yourself platform where someone can come in, sign up and get started on a cloud-based solution pretty quickly. And that's exactly how we got started with Kissflow.

Omer Khan [6:23]
Okay, so can you give me a simple example of how a one of your customers might be using Kissflow.

Suresh Sambandam [6:29]
For example, in a finance function, for example, they could be a process for getting approvals for capital purchases is called capital approval, right? This is a very common process in all the mid-market companies. But mid-market companies do not have an approval cycle built in for this. So when they come to Kissflow, they end up automating this, it hardly takes two hours, three hours to build this in. And there is a long tail of such processes, they are using our platform.

Omer Khan [7:02]
Okay, so someone who is non-technical, but wants to create some kind of process like that can come in and use Kissflow, use a visual interface, in a matter of few hours, implement that kind of process of workflow within their business.

Suresh Sambandam [7:21]
That's true. In fact, most of the non-technical users, if you ask them to draw a workflow, they'll be able to do a like a visual diagram. So this flow has a visual diagramming tool, which basically allows them to define like a flowchart. And automatically, that becomes an executable workflow without having to code for it. And anybody should be able to do a flowchart. So an entity easy to use Kissflow.

Omer Khan [7:50]
Got it. Okay. And in terms of I know, you don't talk about like specific revenue, but can you give us a ballpark number in terms of where you are with Kissflow?

Suresh Sambandam [7:58]
Oh, yeah, in done. So we do we are right now, like less than 10 million sub 10 million in revenue, and we are basically going up to global customers from India.

Omer Khan [8:10]
I don't know if you mentioned this earlier, you have over 10,000 customers using Kissflow,

Suresh Sambandam [8:15]
actually, the 10,000 came from a combination of free, we had a freemium version, which we have actually, we stopped few years ago. So we have only free trial option now. So the 10,000 is a combination of the free users and the paying users. So roughly, we have our own 15% of 15 to 20% of our customer base is paying customers

Omer Khan [8:40]
got it. Okay. So I want to go back to 2003. And when you launched, OrangeScape the the business was self-funded. And you mentioned earlier that you pivoted three times before you landed with Kissflow and found some traction. So tell me a little bit about like, how did you go about like, why did you start OrangeScape what was a need or the opportunity that you saw?

Suresh Sambandam [9:08]
So before I started our escape, I used to work for a valley-based company called a Selectica, which is into rule-based computing. So there, we ended up working on rule engines. So what was surprising for me was the the idea of rule engine is supposed to help non-technical people write rules, and the rules are supposed to be executed without having to do programming. But unfortunately, it was very surprising to see the rule engines required the most sophisticated programmers to actually use them. And that was such a contradicting thing that I was able to see. So we said, you know, there should be a way to for non-technical people to just express rules in a simple fashion and get it executed. So we felt that people are familiar with spreadsheets. So we said, okay, we will provide a spreadsheet front end, where people will be able to define the data attributes, and the rules as spreadsheet formulas. And in a blink of a button will automatically translate that into a working business application. Right. So and that was the core idea, which motivated us, and a bunch of my folks all work together in Selectica, to spin-off and create a company out of this core idea. So the first version of the product, essentially, spreadsheet applications, that's really what we built. And it was a fascinating product, because the first time we demonstrated to anyone, it was mind-blowing for them, you know, because they have never seen anything as simple as that. But it was only appealing to a very nice set of users who are innovators, sort of early adopters. But it took a long time for us to understand what mainstream users would need. And excitement of innovators and early adopters are very different from the mainstream users. And that's where we had to pivot from there. So that's how we started and that's how we ended as well.

Omer Khan [11:11]
Okay, and so like, what was the second pivot?

Suresh Sambandam [11:14]
So the second time, we basically said, you know, what, people is not really the spreadsheet applications, but they should be, did not have the spreadsheet front end. But they need be a way to build applications in a visual way, but not necessarily the detailed spreadsheet plan. And so we ended up building what is called as a Visual Pass, right? It's a platform as a service. It's like a Visual Basic, on the cloud. That's the pivot, we went from spreadsheet publications to something like building Visual Basic kind of platform on the cloud. And that is the time when the platform as a service was taking off, we will launch to App Engine. And we launched Visual Pass on top Google App Engine. And then that went for some time until the platform as a service market itself, sort of crashed, right? And Google itself had to reinvent, and they have to launch compute engines, because the platform, did not take them very far. And the platform market, in many ways sort of evaporated. So we were also positioning ourselves in the platform as a service base. And along with that market going away, we got affected and we had to pivot out of that as well.

Omer Khan [12:36]
Okay. So do you think the product was right, but it was just the external factors that can sort of

Suresh Sambandam [12:45]
Yeah, that is true. Yeah, actually, first time, we didn't get the product, right. The second time we didn't. I think the timing was not right up, the product was pretty much there. Except that if I had to redo that part, I would probably say, I would concentrate a lot more on the user experience and the UI and all of that, right, we were focusing a lot more on the functionality, but not on the user experience in the UI. But other than that, the timing was the one that killed us at the time. But I can see we are meeting I'll probably talk about it a little bit later. But the reason I'm saying the timing was wrong at the time is some of the functionalities, which were part of the platform as a service we are now including part of our Kissflow product, because now the market is mature and people are able to take it at the time was a little ahead of the market, I guess. Right?

Omer Khan [13:40]
So is it true that I read somewhere that by around 2013? You were kind of almost out of money?

Suresh Sambandam [13:47]
Yeah. Great. So So what happened is, so we had, because we were writing the platform as a service, I go, right. And around 2011, we raise 1 million, and then view we thought we will launch ourselves from an India centric company to a US-focused company, right? And then we went to US. And we spent two years, in a year or so I would say, actually, not two years, from whole of 2012. And one year, 1 million was so small, and it just evaporated, like so fast. So around 2013, pretty much we ran out of money, and we got closer to closing down the company. So that was a very critical moment for us.

Omer Khan [14:34]
Well, how big was the company at the time? How many? How many employees did you have?

Suresh Sambandam [14:38]
So we probably had 30 – 40 employees, we had to downsize and we became 15 or so to survive that critical situation. Yeah.

Omer Khan [14:49]
Okay and so tell me about how it's a difficult period to be in, there's more pressure, more stress, what was it that helped you come up with the third pivot and the idea of Kissflow.

Suresh Sambandam [15:00]
so meaning the third pivot happen in parallel, in some sense, because the idea that a two thing that was happening, we were selling, Visual Pass our platform as a service offering at the time, and there was one customer who bought it's a fortune by big customer in London, they bought a product, like I think it's 50 $50,000 or something like that. And then they spent close to $90,000, and was building a UX front end, which was only doing a specific use case, which is the workflow management part on top of our visual pass platform. And when you went and saw that, we were very surprised because they only use 20% of functionality of the platform. But they built beautiful front end using the US engaged design consulting company, and spend like $90,000, on top of it beat this whole front end, and they demonstrated what they've done with our platform. And it was, it was so clear to us that that should be the same thing that we should be doing as a product, rather than, you know, customers trying to build that each one one of them trying to get to that kind of quality on their own. And that essentially, was the trigger point for us to build Kissflow. And that's exactly how Kissflow got started.

Omer Khan [16:27]
Okay. Okay. So that that makes sense. In terms of what you said earlier, where you said, I was much more focused on the technology and the functionality, rather than the user experience. And so this was the kind of the wake up call.

Suresh Sambandam [16:43]
Yeah, exactly. So because we said, you know, we thought we gave a lot of value to them. And they only paid us $50,000. But they saw more value in the user experience, and they spend $90,000, or something like that on top of our product. And that means we certainly are, in real terms, what it really means to end customers, right? Where is the value? And we were always under prioritizing user experience and UI. But that's the time you said you know, what, we'll go over-invest in user experience and the user interface. Right. So and that actually completely changed, our what we call our fortunes, I should say,

Omer Khan [17:23]
and did you have to find that that skill set? Did you have to hire people to help you with that?

Suresh Sambandam [17:27]
We had to hire a little later. But it is most of having that clarity and priority, very clear in your mind. Right? Once you know, what is more important than a feature is the user experience, then automatically you gravitate around that? Sometimes you sort of build that skill, even if you don't have it, right. So one of our senior tech folks at the time was also had some good design skills, his name is Dinesh and he went on to become a VP of product management, the last seven years now, right in 2011, he took on his own to build the user experience simple, easy to use front end and UI for Kissflow. And that became the first version. And we actually hit a breakthrough with that, and continuously be built on top of that philosophy. Right? So internally, we used to call it simple things can be simple, but complex things should be possible. Right? This is the famous quote, Alan Kay file of famous quote if you if you know. So that's the underlying product design philosophy that we use when we are designing Kissflow.

Omer Khan [18:41]
Okay, great. So you've identified this opportunity, you've had this kind of aha moment that, hey, we need to be putting a lot more effort into the user experience. Marketing was also another area that, from what I understand, hadn't been a huge focus for you up until now.

Suresh Sambandam [19:00]
Yeah, so one of the things that I always believed, see, I actually come from a tech background, right. So I'm a technology person. I used to work on C, C++, Java, that kind of hardcore system side, and then came into business applications little later, and always being tech side. But I always thought we build tech and then have salespeople sell the product, right? So individually, sales came first. And marketing as a discipline did not appear in the priority list. So luckily, for me, I've also individually as an individual have grown from 2004 to 2013, right? during that period, I spent like 10 years as an entrepreneur, and I started understanding the importance of marketing. So a lot of things in many ways, I should say, a lot of things came together. One is we had the right product idea with Kissflow, which is just a workflow management and not just 20% of the entire platform, then we a beautiful UI in front of it. And then we invested in marketing, to take the product to the market, rather than simply believing, magically, some sales guy will sell and make numbers for us, right. So that this is sort of a mistake that even many entrepreneurs make today. Even today, right? Totally. So these three pieces coming together is really the central point for disclose success, or whatever goal achieved till now.

Omer Khan [20:27]
Yeah, and I think what I think is really interesting about what you've done is that you have managed to build this customer base across the world and land some very large companies and brands, yet the entire sales and marketing process is run from your offices in Chennai, in India. So you know, there are salespeople going out there and, and trying to get meetings and do demos with customers and face to face or anything like that. And I know that inbound marketing is a big part of how you get the word out and generate leads. So maybe we can start there. And tell me kind of a little bit more about what did your outbound marketing? How did it evolve? How did you get started and get to the point where you are today with inbound marketing? And what does that actually mean for your business?

Suresh Sambandam [21:22]
Yeah, so we actually call this desk marketing and selling, right? Which is just basically a combination of inbound marketing. And inside sense, right? So I wrote a guide, along with a bunch of friends, entrepreneurs in Chennai, and guide is published as Desk Marketing and Selling Guide, so so that other entrepreneurs and ecosystem can benefit from that methodology. Right?

Omer Khan [21:50]
Did you coin that term?

Suresh Sambandam [21:52]
Yeah, desk marketing and selling, yes.

Suresh Sambandam [21:55]
So because you just sit down to the desk and do it right, so that you don't how to get out anywhere. So you don't have to travel, you don't have to, you know, do anything else, the fundamental philosophy around this is you start with a great product. That's the central point, this model won't work. If it is not, the product is not great. And if people are not able to try and get hands-on with the product, and this model won't work, if you need to just walk through the presentation, until you sell your product or that way This won't work, then you need to have also a published price on your website for your product. So these are some of the fundamental essentials for this is desk marketing and selling to work, right. And on top of that fundamentals, I personally started heavily investing in building our organic search marketing, using SEO. Right. And I personally learned what is Seo myself, I didn't invest in simply sort of see most of the founders think that is you can outsource SEO to some agency because it's some low-level job. But personally, I feel SEO is such a strategic marketing tool, or a marketing weapon, that each SaaS company, especially the one that is trying to spend desk marketing selling need to invest heavily. And I did that, and I learned it and I built a strong team around SEO and we we actually generate 50% of our leads through SEO even today. And that is if a lead roughly cost me like, let's say $300 to generate a lead, just I'm saying I'm some number, that's really a lot of money for us 50% of our marketing cost is simply coming from a fixed deposit that will put over a long period of time by investing in SEO, and that's a lot of benefit for the company. So it's worth it. Sorry,

Omer Khan [23:55]
I was gonna say, tell me a little bit more about the SEO. So this sort of different components of this, like, you know, one is about making sure that the website that you build is optimized, you have some key pages, which are targeting some primary keywords that you think your potential customers are looking for. But there's also maybe a side of Okay, let's start investing more heavily in a blog, and then start creating more content regularly or, let's go out there and, and be very deliberate about link building and reaching out to people to try and generate backlinks for, for our site. So which kind of parts of the SEO work were you doing and not doing?

Suresh Sambandam [24:40]
Actually, I would say, all the things that you mentioned, we did all of that. But more importantly, SEO is, it's a much more of a higher order science than just the things that you mentioned about like on-page optimization, or off-page optimization for the to recall official names for what you said. And then link building, and writing blogs, all of that. These are tactics, right, but what is the strategic understanding about SEO is what most people miss. If you need to understand SEO really well, you need to understand how Google works. If you don't understand how Google works, then there is no point in you know, doing all these tactics. So for Google works fundamentally classifies a search query because it's just fundamentally about search engine optimization, right? So which means you need to understand how the search engine works certain inputs in four ways, right? So there is basically a concept called intent. So certain things, what is the intent of the user who's searching? Is he trying to make a transaction? Is he trying to collect an information? Is he trying to do some sort of comparison? Or is he trying to navigate, these are called four types of intense. Now, you understand things like that, then the way you would model your SEO strategy will be fundamentally different. And you also need to understand that concepts like domain authority are no longer relevant, you need to understand concepts like Google understand something called topic authority, like a website, like a slow, What is it topics in which good for his authority on Is it like workflow is a topic or a BPM, for example, business process management is a topic and then you need to build a cluster content around these topics, because then only will will think that Kissflow is a authority in this topic, right? Without having this kind of strategic clarity, simply buildings on-page optimization, off-page optimization, or link building or writing blogs is really not going to produce the results. And this was the fundamental learning that we got. And this is the foundation on which our organic strategy is actually built.

Omer Khan [27:00]
Got it. And that's, that's a really important point, I think you've you've made there. So if I kind of replay that, it's kind of identifying the topics that you want to be associated with when it comes to, you know, from Google's perspective, and then really making sure that all the content that you're creating, is going to help to kind of reinforce your authority around that particular topic. And then sort of the intent piece, I think, is really important as well, because it's kind of like really sort of thinking about, okay, how do I map this to sort of the buyers journey? Right, there are going to be some people who are, they don't even know they have a problem, they just trying to figure out just kind of how to do things better, there might be others who are there in the middle of a big problem right now. And they're looking for a solution, others might have got further along with the process, and they're trying to compare different products. And so if you think about it that way, then the type of content you create is also going to be a lot more strategic.

Suresh Sambandam [28:04]
Exactly. And and one thing that you missed out in this is, once you take a topic, you need to cluster your content around the topic, you don't want to mix it up. Like, for example, most of the websites have something like domain name.com slash blog, right? And they put all the content under saas/blog, right? Meaning, it's not like Google is not going to find it, it's going to find it for sure. But you're going to you're making it harder for Google to find it and classify it and try to somehow make meaning out of all the content that is there under /blog, and then see what is the topic that you are really good at, right? Why are you making it so complicated for Google to find you, right? If you can cluster all of the topic content around and cluster them together, it's going to be so much more easy for Google to determine the topic authority, right?

Omer Khan [28:55]
So give me an example of how you've done that. For Kissflow

Suresh Sambandam [28:59]
It's actually not rocket science. For example, if you go to castro.com, slash workflow, all our blogs and all our content is related to workflow topic authorities under that, right, we will write anything about workflow outside of /workflow cluster. So under the /workflow is our cluster of content, which really talks about the work your topic, and it's as simple as that.

Omer Khan [29:22]
Yeah. And I think it makes you more, more deliberate and strategic about the type of content you create as well, rather than Yes, let's just churn out a new blog post. And,

Suresh Sambandam [29:35]
Oh, that's a whole new topic altogether. Right. It's not just the volume of the content. So the more, the important things that we found out was Google is actually giving more credit to engagement of people inside a blog. So we designed a new type of blog, which we internally are deemed as visual blogs. Right? So most blogs are textual in nature. But because it's very textual in nature, people generally, the only engagement that they will have in the blog is just scroll through and read, right. But the visual blogs will have some sort of sections, where there is some UI element where they have to make a click, or, you know, one, make a click on a tab and then something else will change. And then maybe they'll have to answer a few questions, and then some chart will come. So be building a lot of interactivity individual blog, so that when somebody reads that blog, they tend to engage a lot more. And once they engage a lot more, you sort of send signals to Google saying that these guys are actually consuming more of this, and then it directly increases traffic authority for us.

Omer Khan [30:50]
That's interesting. Okay, so so you've got this sort of the SEO engine piece going, you said about 50% of your leads come from through Seo? What else are you doing outside of that for your inbound marketing efforts.

Suresh Sambandam [31:07]
So the next biggest thing that we do is actually search engine marketing, which is AdWords. So we spend a lot of money in fact, a ton of money in Google AdWords. Every month, the remaining 30% or so leads will come from Google AdWords, this is where paid marketing on Google and then there is a long tail of channels, the other channels from each the remaining 20% will come for example, Quora or refferal backlinks that gets posted we write PR articles that we do be published on listing sites, so on so that is a long list of marketing, go to marketing, go to market arteries, we do. All of them are digital in nature, though. So all of them produce the remaining 20%. But they also contribute indirectly to our organic story. For example, if you do a PR campaign like PR activity, then somebody is writing about us. And then they put a backlink to Kissflow, that actually increases our domain authority wanted to increase domain authority. And for a particular search keyword, if there are two competitors who are bidding for that, and the higher my domain authority or other topic authority on my page is going to rank higher. So sometimes some of these other go to market activities like PR may not directly result in signups. But it might actually be a huge influence in your organic strategy.

Omer Khan [32:38]
You know, one thing I noticed I was just looking at the the Kissflow blog, or I picked pulled up a blog post, a lot of SaaS companies these days, they'll have a blog, and then the call to action at the bottom of the page will be to, you know, sign up for our newsletter get more content like this. And I couldn't see anything like that on your site, I just see to, to call to actions one near the top and one sort of next to the content. And both of them are about get started. So is that just generally the what the the intent here is that you're trying to get? use this as a way to get people to sign up? Try the product. And that is the way that is more effective than getting them onto an email list and marketing to them that way?

Suresh Sambandam [33:30]
Yeah, I think this is where I would say there is a fundamental difference between content marketing and marketing content, right. So we need to really understand that users like are very knowledgeable. And they do not sign up for newsletters, from product brands. Like meaning if you're if you're writing a blog, under a product brand, I would clearly not sign up for the newsletter. But that's not really content marketing. In our case, content marketing is something that people are writing about something neutral, nothing to do with the product. And they are continuously turning related content. Like for example, it's a SssS pricing, if there is a website, which only talks about how do we do SaaS pricing. And I would go and sign up in that website and for the newsletter, right. But if a company which is duplicated, doing billing, for example, talks about SaaS pricing, I would still go and read the content, but I won't really sign up for the newsletter. And we understood, this is how users behave. And we decided not to put that newsletter subscription as much because I don't think it's producing that much impact.

Omer Khan [34:47]
Okay, so tell me about the sales process. Once somebody has signed up, and they sort of got started with the product. There's obviously the self serve model with somebody might just go in, start using it, they love the product, they sign up, you know, mission accomplished. In other cases, you're using a sales team to help drive sales. So tell me about that part, like how do you do that? How do you qualify leads? How do you make the sales process work remotely from a desk in Chennai?

Suresh Sambandam [35:21]
Sure, we internally call this assisted by process, which means that people sign up and experience a product. But then our sales team is essentially assisting the customer, or the prospect in this case, right? who signed up into a product and helping them achieve their first goal for which they came into a product, for example, for finance person who signed up and came to automate a gap x workflow. So our sales team is technically qualified in most of the companies, the sales teams are not so very technically qualified to do a deep dive product engagement, right, they may be able to do a quick sleep demo, which is like a canned demo. But if it is very complex engagement, they're often engage a pre sales team. But in our case, our sales team was is technically qualified and deeply qualified to take a customer requirement and customize a workflow to build the workflow and get to the end outcome to them. And end of this, the customer will have a wall feeling and then I was sensing when simply ask them, okay, what's stopping you from putting the credit card? Right? And that's really how sales process works?

Omer Khan [36:36]
Do you think of them as like Customer Success people as well? Or a different role?

Suresh Sambandam [36:42]
Yeah, we call them technical product specialist, because the customer success, people do not have a number mindset, right? They still have a customer satisfaction mindset. But we need a combination of product knowledge, but also a sales mindset so that we don't have the shyness and asking the customer to say when are you going to buy? And that's where it's a little personality difference between a customer success person and a salesperson, although there is a skill overlap, right. So that's how we differentiate that we do have customer success after sales. But that's a video and expect people to be very salesy there.

Omer Khan [37:23]
Okay, got it. So you mentioned earlier about how you used to have a freemium plan. And then now you switch to a free trial. That's always an interesting topic to talk about, right, in terms of which is the right way, or the right solution for a different product or market? So I'm curious, like, how did the freemium kind of approach work for you? And why did you decide to move to a free trial?

Suresh Sambandam [37:55]
See, if you look back, we launched Kissflow in 2013, the paid version, right, so that we started building customers, although we launched a little bit earlier than 2013, but actually, serious product was only available in 2013. But at the time, everybody was doing freemium, right, the free trial freemium debate was not fully settled. And most of them were just having a freemium model. And we just simply followed that trend. And we also had a freemium model. And without seriously putting our thought into it. And you know, it took a year and a half for us to year and a half or two or other, maybe even three years. I think, if I remember. So we added for three years if I if I not. And then we realized, you know, what, there are certain products where freemium doesn't make sense, right, those products are typically ready to use applications, which doesn't require a lot of customization before you're starting to use, and it probably takes people to just 20 minutes to get started, or 10 minutes to get started. But Kissflow often takes a day or two for them to customize setup, sometimes even a week for them to get the first process right, and set up the complete workflow before they can go live. So this is a fairly involved product, and they need to commit themselves to it. This is not something like somebody's going to buy impulsively. Right? So once we got that understanding, we we said, You know what, freemium is not the right model for Kissflow. So we stopped freemium, and we went into a free trial after that,

Omer Khan [39:34]
What was the experience? Like? How did that change work? Did you see any significant increase in in sales?

Suresh Sambandam [39:42]
Yeah, of course, the free trial simply helped us tremendously. Because previously, a lot of people who were supposed to pay for the product would simply go for the freemium and then lurking there, and then not doing anything you know. So so many things will happen. Now. When we went to retrial, pretty much after 14 days, or 21 days, the trial expires, and they need to make a call, they are serious about that. It changed revenue dynamics for us completely. So. And in fact, we have even gone one step further from free trial, we used to just give free trial and allow anybody to sign into the product. Now, we're also experimenting, controlled exposure to the product rather than just allow anybody into the product. And this actually works even better. For example, we used to have an average ticket size of around $2000 to $3,000. Before using free trial in the controlled product experience, outage ticket size is more to $10,000. Well, yeah, so that is because this is the kind of the product is of a certain nature, where when we are able to showcase the product in a controlled experience, we are able to make a bigger impact. So I think we have more slowly moving towards that. For the workflow piece alone. Of course, we expanded his flow now, right took his flow started out as a workflow software. Now Kissflow is bloomed into what we call us a digital workplace, which consists of four different modules. It starts with collaboration, it has workflow, it has project management and case management, right. And of course, it is supporting modules like integration, for integrating with other products. And then I'm going to take some reporting to make sense out of all the data we are capturing. But the four models that we first talked about are the key. But here we are also marketing, project management, for example, and collaboration, for example, as independent modules are not just part of the digital workplace platform. But these products are ready to use products. And they don't need to follow the free trial model. People can sign up and start using the collaboration module, which looks very similar to Facebook workplace. So there we are reintroducing freemium again, because we feel that freemium is relevant in those categories.

Omer Khan [42:15]
Interesting. Okay, so how big is the team now?

Suresh Sambandam [42:18]
We have 200 employees, we started, we started on 35-40. And then we went to 16, after the 2013 crisis, and then now we are ramping up very, very fast. We're close to 200 now.

Omer Khan [42:32]
And earlier, when you we talked about revenue, you said you were doing less than 10 million. Are you close to 10 million?

Suresh Sambandam [42:38]
Yes.

Omer Khan [42:39]
Okay, so it's, it's on the radar.

Suresh Sambandam [42:42]
Yeah. Correct.

Omer Khan [42:44]
So I mean, you have a really interesting story Suresh. Because, you know, we sort of think about it, we play it back and say, Okay, well, OrangeScape, founded 2003, you raised a million dollars, things looked promising. But you had to pivot a couple of times along the way, got to a point where you've almost run out of money, you've got to let go of a number of people and significantly downsize the business. And then it was the third pivot, which was, like 10 years after you founded OrangeScape, which really clicked and you found traction. And you've been able to grow this into a multimillion-dollar business, you now have, you know, 200 plus employees. So, looking back at that, that journey and that experience, what did you learn? And what advice would you give to other founders who are maybe on that journey themselves right now?

Suresh Sambandam [43:40]
I think, I don't know, I have a very complex experience. I will actually say, one of the first thing. For example, I didn't know things like product market fit until 2012-2013. Right? So meaning, it looks so dumb. I mean, I look back,

Omer Khan [43:59]
Wait, wait, you didn't have product market fit? Or you didn't know what product market fit was?

Suresh Sambandam [44:03]
I didn't even know.

Omer Khan [44:05]
I love that. Thank you for being so honest.

Suresh Sambandam [44:08]
Yeah, I really didn't know we were building the product and trying to sell it. And we didn't even know that that much. One of the things I would say is, early on today, I would even I'm even advising a lot of founders to say, you know what, don't even build the product. You know, if you if you have a product idea, and if it is a discoverable product on search, or something like that, build a one page website, and put hundred dollars in a certain price means don't even invest in SEO, right now, because you don't have to do that and put $100 or $200 on AdWords and then see if people are willing to come and click on sign up for your product. Right? If you're able to see some traction, then there is a market. Of course, there are only certain products will fit into this category, which is the discoverable product to online search and SEM right. So if you're not seeing that, then what is the point in building the product. So everything I would completely take a different approach in building the product, if I have to start all over again, because I would always start with product markets, you know, building a product, which is very specific to the market and then worry about this other stuff, that that probably the number one thing that I will work on.

Omer Khan [45:25]
Yeah. And I think it's also a great lesson in in patience and persistence. Because it would be very easy for many of us just to, to just give up and just say, Okay, I'm just in the wrong space, or she couldn't find a job or something.

Suresh Sambandam [45:46]
I know, meaning. The reason I'm saying that is one lesson that I recommend, because I think it's hard to replicate the patients I had, and I continue to have. But the lessons would be somewhat doable by so that the lesson that I feel that people can replicate is like focusing on product market fit and not jumping. Most of the technical people who start companies, they jump and build the product because they know how to code and how to build the product, because that's easy and obvious thing. The non easy and non obvious thing is how do we market it? How do you get the first hundred customers? How do you price it? None of these things? They are they have absolutely any exposure to and they don't seem to work on that the first. Like there is a saying that they say right eat the dirty frog first. We do not do that. And those are the things that is something that people can take lessons and actually follow easily. But being patient for 15 years is something I don't think you can follow history.

Omer Khan [46:45]
Yeah, yeah. I mean, when you look back at it, that's a long time. And I guess when you're on the journey, it's it's often you don't see like that you just like okay, I had a tough day. I'm just going to think about I get up tomorrow and try one more time. It's just that one step. And then you like to say 10-15 years.

Suresh Sambandam [47:02]
Exactly. So that's the patience.

Omer Khan [47:07]
Yeah, all right, we should wrap up. Let's get on to the lightning round. So I'm going to ask you seven quickfire questions. Just try to answer them as quickly as you can.

Suresh Sambandam [47:18]
Sure.

Omer Khan [47:19]
What's the best piece of business advice you've ever received?

Suresh Sambandam [47:22]
Cash is king.

Omer Khan [47:24]
What book would you recommend to our audience and why?

Suresh Sambandam [47:27]
I would recommend “Crossing the Chasm“. That's actually the book that I read like five times maybe every time I read it, I get the meaning of how to do technology marketing, and how people buy technology products. So that's that's a book I would recommend.

Omer Khan [47:44]
I'm going to say that book must be 25-30 years old, it still amazes me how relevant that still is.

Suresh Sambandam [47:50]
Exactly.

Omer Khan [47:52]
What's one attribute or characteristic in your mind of a successful entrepreneur?

Suresh Sambandam [47:57]
Is empathy.

Omer Khan [47:59]
what's your face favorite personal productivity tool or habit?

Suresh Sambandam [48:02]
Of course, my favorite productivity tool is Kissflow.

Omer Khan [48:06]
Of course!

Suresh Sambandam [48:08]
Other than Kissflow is GSuite, I like GSuite a lot. And I use it very, very extensively.

Omer Khan [48:13]
What's a new crazy business idea you'd love to pursue if you had the time?

Suresh Sambandam [48:17]
I have an idea and starting a unique Airline, which I won't detail it in this. But

Omer Khan [48:28]
I have to keep a lookout for that. What's an interesting or fun fact about you that most people don't know?

Suresh Sambandam [48:34]
It's not like so many people listening to this podcast may not know, for them, it may be a surprising thing. I never went to college, I finished high school. And after that I didn't went to regular college at all.

Omer Khan [48:48]
I think there are a lot of role models out there. For a lot of people who did exactly that, or didn't do that. Like it.

Suresh Sambandam [48:57]
Yeah, I know.

Omer Khan [48:59]
You know, I'm just saying the suburbs of Seattle. And, you know, we have a very famous college dropout, called Bill Gates just a few miles down the road.

Suresh Sambandam [49:09]
Yeah, meaning, meaning I didn't have a chance to go to the college. At least he went there and dropped out.

Omer Khan [49:18]
And finally, what's one of your most important passions outside of your work?

Suresh Sambandam [49:22]
I have this dream. Actually, I'm from a small state within India, or other I should say reasonably big state called Tamilnadu. This is like, you know, like California, within the United States, in India, we have many states. And my passion is to see how to take my estate to the next level in terms of economic growth. And I'm working on educating and students and entrepreneurs on it. So there is something called a Trillion Dollar Vision for Tamilnadu. This is building Tamilnadu's economy to a trillion dollar economy. And I spend most of my time doing that outside of my work.

Omer Khan [50:00]
Love it. Love it. That's a really worthwhile thing. To find, you know, if you're I'm sure you'll be a busy guy and to find time to, to get involved in something like that is a is a very worthwhile thing. Yeah. All right.

Suresh Sambandam [50:16]
Thank you, I think, Oh, I hope you liked it.

Omer Khan [50:21]
It was great. No, thank you for sharing your experiences, your stories, and some really valuable insights. So along the way, I think a lot of people are going to find this really, really valuable. Now, just to kind of wrap up if people want to find out more about kids flow, they can go to kissflow.com or, orangescape.com as well. And if people want to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to do that?

Suresh Sambandam [50:47]
They can email me at Suresh s-u-r-e-sh[at]kissflow.com.

Omer Khan [50:54]
Awesome, Suresh. Thank you. It's been an absolute pleasure.

Suresh Sambandam [50:57]
Thank you. It was great talking to you loved it. Thank you.

Omer Khan [51:00]
Cheers.

Suresh Sambandam [51:00]
Cheers.

Omer Khan [51:02]
All right. Thanks for listening. I really hope you enjoyed the interview. You can get to the show notes as usual by going to theSaaSpodcast.com, where you'll find a summary of this episode, and a link to all the resources we discussed. If you enjoyed this episode, then please consider subscribing to the podcast. And if you're in a good mood to consider leaving a rating and review to show your support for the show. Thanks for listening. Have a great week. Until next time, take care.

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The Show Notes

Omer Khan

Hi, I'm Omer, the founder of SaaS Club and host of The SaaS Podcast. I help early stage founders and entrepreneurs to build, launch and grow successful SaaS businesses. Join me on this journey.