Differentiating on Culture with Ajeet Singh, Co-founder and Executive Chairman, ThoughtSpot

Shani Ishigaki
48 minutes
Start-upsTechnology
Differentiating on Culture with Ajeet Singh, Co-founder and Executive Chairman, ThoughtSpot

About this episode

Today, Sam is talking to Ajeet Singh, Co-founder and Executive Chairman at ThoughtSpot. They discuss the importance of hiring people who will thrive at your company, what scaling culture looks like, and what it means to have an owner's mindset.

Ajeet Singh is the Co-founder and Executive Chairman of ThoughtSpot, a business intelligence analytics search company that some have dubbed 'The Google for Numbers'. Ajeet started his career as a management consultant, and he's successfully built two multi-billion-dollar companies from the ground up, including Nutanix and ThoughtSpot.

If you’d like to get in touch with us send us an email or contact our host, Sam Kothari, on LinkedIn.

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Full transcript

Sam Kothari: Welcome to the Launch Lessons podcast, where we have honest conversations with founders and investors of successful global scale apps to unpack key lessons along their growth journey. Today I'm talking to Ajeet Singh. Ajeet is the Co-founder and Executive Chairman of ThoughtSpot, a business intelligence analytics search company, which some have dubbed the 'Google for Numbers'. Ajeet started out his career as a management consultant. He's now successfully built two multi-billion dollar companies from the ground up, including Nutanix and ThoughtSpot. He's been really deliberate about building a great company culture which embodies the value of selfless excellence. Today, we'll talk about the importance of hiring people who will thrive at your company, what scaling culture looks like, and what it means for employees to have an owner's mindset. All of this, and more, right now on the Launch Lessons podcast.

Ajeet Singh: What I found in the year that I spent as a management consultant was I got to work with very smart, very driven people who were helping clients solve some very meaningful problems. But at the end of the day, we were only producing recommendations. My output would be a document or a presentation. And that felt a bit incomplete to me. I was more excited about building things, doing things. So I felt that I needed to actually be working in the technology industry, building products, working with teams to build products, as opposed to just advising clients on how they should fix their business. And I also felt that I was just a kid out of management school. I didn't have a lot of experience myself and prescribing what others should do to fix their business. I really felt that I didn't have enough substance to offer them at that stage of my career.

Sam Kothari: Yeah, understood. And you spent some time in product management in a bunch of different companies, but then the transition into starting your own company and founding that. Really interested to understand, when did you get that first itch? Like when did you know, "Hey, this is something that I want to do". I want to start my own company. I want to start building from scratch. What was that experience like? Was there an "aha" moment?

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. Yeah. I would say it was a series of things that happened over time. It was not pre-planned this way. In fact, nobody in my family had ever started any business. My grandparents were farmers. My dad was a scientist. He worked for the government in India. And first seven, eight years, I was mostly working in large companies, product management roles and working with, even in large companies, I always enjoyed working on new stuff. So if we had an opportunity to build something fundamentally new, I would jump at that. So I think an inflection point came for me when I came to the valley in 2007. I came here to work with Oracle. I had joined the database group as a product manager. I had done databases before. So a lot of good learning within a year that I spent at Oracle, but I realised that in The Valley, people were in the business of starting from scratch.

Ajeet Singh: You know, failure was not considered a taboo. People were willing to work with you. People were willing to invest in you. And I felt that I couldn't be in The Valley and not do startups. So I went to work at a company called ASTER Data, which was one of the early big data companies. And I ran product management there. And after a couple of years at ASTER Data, me and two other people from ASTER Data, we figured that we should just go start our own company. So it was a sequence of events over time, I would say a bit of self-discovery that kept happening as they went from one opportunity to the other.

Sam Kothari: You've shared in previous interviews that creation is hard. Like building something from scratches is really hard. You seem to have this self-confidence and belief that you can work through any problem as well. So in previous interviews, when people have probed you on, "tell me about a time when things were tough". You've often said that, "look, creation is hard, but I can work through anything. I can solve any problem." What's driving that optimism and sense of self-confidence.

Ajeet Singh: That's actually a good representation of how I think about problems or even success. So generally, nothing seems sort of a permanent success or a permanent failure to me. That's how I look at things. So when we succeed, I celebrate, but it's not over the top. And when we run into issues, I feel that we can work through it. I think the most important thing is to have the right people around you. If you have the right people around you, where there is psychological safety to talk through any problem. And there is also intellectual honesty to admit the mistakes we might have made in the past and apply those lessons and say, "this is how we should do this going forward". Then I think you can work through anything. The challenge happens when you have this sort of environment, which is somewhat political. People are concerned about looking bad in front of others and so on and so forth.

Ajeet Singh: And all of us, I'm sure, have experienced that in some way or the other. Those are the environments where failures can appear a lot more challenging. So self-confidence comes not because I have any special powers to overcome any problems, but I think I've been just very fortunate to work with good people. I have been very proactive in selecting who I work with, whether it is colleagues, investors, whoever it might be, even partners, customers. We want to make sure that we are working with people who are all in it to build something. If a customer is trying to solve a problem, they're trying to solve a problem. And we partner with them in a very open manner. We are transparent with them. And I think that creates the level of trust that can be the foundation on which you can solve any problem.

Sam Kothari: No, it's fascinating. And I'm interested to talk a little bit more about that. You've talked about in previous interviews avoiding falling in love with an idea and focusing on sort of market problem and sort of bend the idea as a framework. Do you mind sharing a little bit about that to our audience? And I'd also love to understand where that insight or that framework came from. Like at what point in your journey did you realise that's how you wanted to start approaching and building problems?

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. Yeah. So I'd say that it wasn't initially obvious to me that these are, this is how we were going about conducting our business. It was initially more driven by our own instincts and the view of the world, but having gone through this process, a couple of times, what I realised is that you can look at any startup opportunity and put all the risks into buckets, market risk and execution risk. And you have to be very deliberate about separating these two. So you really, really need to understand the market extremely well as it exists today. And whatever the forecasts might be on how it's going to evolve the forces that are acting currently in the market, which is not nothing to do with what you might want to build. It's the world as it exists right now. Right? And all of us are passionate about making a small dent in the universe, adding to society, solving problems.

Ajeet Singh: Obviously in the process, we also become more successful. We are trying to do something in the world, which otherwise a lot of people could actually be just working in large companies and have a fine job and have a fine life. But people that go on to start companies have this itch as you call it to do something. So it's important that we understand as much as possible. Obviously, there are certain assumptions we will make which may not come true. So you'll have to course-correct over time, but be very disciplined about understanding the world around us, what is the market, how much many people are spending, what are the channels that exist in the market? What is the competition? Who are the people running those companies? Where are they going? What are the customers feeling right now? How much people are paying, etcetera, etcetera, all of that, you really need to understand.

Ajeet Singh: So deep understanding of the market then focusing on the problem. I find it a common issue often people go through a very short period of discovering and defining the problem. And that I see both when they're looking to start a company, as well as when building products, when they're thinking about solutions or features, there is 5% time spent on defining the problem. And then 95% solving it. I think it should be a little bit more balanced because if you do a good job of understanding the problem and defining it, plus you have to make sure it's the problem worth solving it. You know, there are tons of problems in the world, but not all of them are worth solving. Secondly, you need to understand what specific pain it is causing for the customers. How are they solving it today? What are they doing? And then eventually have a point of view on how you can substantially improve the way that problem is getting solved today.

Ajeet Singh: If it is an incremental improvement, then it's not going to matter. So I think getting these two things right is so critical before you go too deep in defining the solution which is basically your idea because it's very hard to pivot out of a market. Once you're in a market, you're in a market. Of course, there are some examples here and there. Slack, I think, is a classic example. Very successful company. They pivot it out of a market completely, but it's very, very few like that.

Ajeet Singh: It's slightly easier, but even still harder than to change the problem you're solving in the same market. And the solution itself can evolve over time. You'll make a lot of assumptions. Some of them will be true. Some won't be true. But I think being disciplined in defining the market and the problem that you're doing after is so critical. It gives you a lot of flexibility down the road and it'll help you. I'm not saying that you need to have a low market risk all the time. Even if market risk is high, you just need to know the market risk is high. And then you need to validate that first, before you go too far on the execution side. So understanding the risk profile of what you're working on is very critical.

Sam Kothari: Do you find that I guess younger entrepreneurs or new entrepreneurs, they under-invest in like the market the problem space?

Ajeet Singh: I think so, by and large, I'm not, of course, there are extremely successful people who have a deep understanding of markets that they're solving for. But I see a lot of entrepreneurs, particularly first-time entrepreneurs fall in love with an idea very quickly. They identify with the idea, they love the idea, and that eventually you might even be able to raise some money. You can raise capital CD advance and so on, and so forth, because there has been so much inflow of capital in the tech space that it's become relatively easier to raise money, which means that you may not find out for a while, that you don't have a market for what you're building. So it's so critical because ultimately, when you are starting a company, you will recruit a lot of people, and you owe it to them and their families that you lead them to a certain level of success. Of course, nothing is guaranteed. Everybody knows they're taking a risk, but the risks that you can uncover upfront, you should uncover them upfront. And then you will over time, execute and learn and iterate.

Sam Kothari: That's really helpful. I'm keen to talk a little bit more about that sense of accountability and ownership that you feel to the team maybe later on. But before we get to that interested to understand you started Nutanix and ThoughtSpot, but I think with either former colleagues or friends from IIT Company, if I'm not mistaken. There's a little bit of a mafia of great talent coming out of some really prestigious universities in India. Like how did that relationship or those pre-existing relationships help or hinder your success in the early days?

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. It's not too different from many startups that you see where co-founders either went to school together, or they worked together somewhere because in the beginning, there is this infinite risk that you're taking. And at the time, the only thing you have going for you is your relationships with other people. So there has to be a certain level of trust to say, oh, let's do it together. You know, I think there is a scientific study where somebody measured, somebody asked people to estimate height of a hill when they were standing alone versus when they were standing with the team. And when they did it with the team, the hill estimates were lower, same hill. If you can find like-minded people that you know from before, it also can give you that initial self-confidence that you talked about to actually go do things, take this irrational level of risk on. And I think the prior relationships really help through that phase.

Sam Kothari: I love the study. I'll definitely look it up.

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. I've heard of that concept. I listened to a talk, and I don't know if it was qualitative or quantitative, but that was the general concept. And then that is stayed with me for sure.

Sam Kothari: You know, you started Nutanix with two other founders early days. I'm interested to understand what were those first few months like once you had validated the market, the problem that you were focused on and started coming up or identifying what that idea or solution was going to be? Describe, I guess, for us, what those early, early few months were like? What were some of the problems you were focused on and challenges you were tackling?

Ajeet Singh: So I'd say in the early days we were doing a lot of experiments to understand the technical risks and what solutions will work versus not. So there was a bunch of that happening. We were of course, very focused on recruiting as well in the early days. That's so important, the first 10 to 20 team members that you recruit, it's so important to get the right kind of people. We also, I would say, were pretty deliberate in recruiting, a handful of advisors who had been very successful in their career and could be good guides for us, at least even more so in the first startup. And lastly, even before we had a fully fleshed-out product, Nutanix was an infrastructure company, is an infrastructure company. And even ThoughtSpot, the actual solution built out, took a while because it was a deeply technical solution.

Ajeet Singh: But we, from the very early days, we were doing validation with potential customers, even if it was UI mock-ups while the backend was being built, we were continuously interacting with them, getting their feedback and ensuring that what we are building is actually going to be useful for them. We're very focused on the user experience that we were creating around our products. So these were some of the things that I feel that we did, which helped mitigate a lot of risks, build a strong core of people that we were able to surround ourselves with recruit a good early team and validate our solution. It took us almost 18 months, I would say to get to beta. But three to six months into the company, we would have markups that we were validating with our customers.

Sam Kothari: I'm interested to talk about how you think about finding and recruiting great talent, obviously, it's, I think, been a core part of your strategy over your career. But before we get into that, you got into beta 18 months in. What was that growth strategy like? Cause I believe you were running product and marketing at, at Nutanix. You know, it's a B2B environment it's often quite difficult to scale. I'm assuming you weren't spending money on Facebook ads necessarily as a core strategy. Right. So how were you thinking about scaling and starting to win some early customers?

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. Yeah. So at Nutanix it was a very partner-centric model. Our focus was from very early days in making sure that we sell through partners. And when this was a while ago, and for the infrastructure products, you would have a lot of resellers who were selling into different segments of the market. So we made it a point that we are working with partners because they have strong act, very powerful access in the distribution network. And while we were obviously interacting directly with customers to validate our solution, even finding those early leads, we had strategy to have inside sales people, sales development people who would be doing cold outreach because nobody knew about the brand. And growth was not a thing at the time. You know, this, we are talking in 2010, 2011 "growth hacking" was not a term that was still at the time was very common.

Ajeet Singh: So we did invest early in generating leads, validating solution, reaching out to customers, signing them up. But as we sold, we always sold through partners. And that was very, very helpful in accelerating growth of Nutanix as a solution. Maybe it's more relevant. We tried not to get friends and family as early customers. Because what we had seen was when you try to do that, you can get a lot of false positives and false negatives. What I mean is your friends might say great things about your solution because they're your friends, or they might say bad things, or they might say, because it's not relevant for them. They may not be the right profile of a customer. So we made sure that we are taking somewhat of a cold outreach approach to reach out to the right kind of customers who would have the problem that we are trying to solve and then validate and iterate on our approach based on that.

Sam Kothari: And did you have a marketing background? Had you spent some time there, like how did you come up with the strategy to sell through the channel work through that, given I think your history had been more in the product management space.

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. So a lot of this, of course, all founders come from a specific background. I think good entrepreneurs also learn a lot about other functions that they have not directly been involved in. They also would have a good set of advisors who can add to that knowledge. So I think it's all was a combination. Plus we had worked at a startup and the advantage of having worked at a startup before starting our own was that we could see all these functions very closely.

Ajeet Singh: When I was at ASTER Data, I would work very closely with the marketing team, with the sales team, with the board and so on. So that gave us a lot of perspective and confidence about what to do in these functions, but it all comes down to being able to learn and be open-minded about what others are saying at the same time. Also, having your own judgment, because you'll get a lot of advice and you have to have some intuition that helps you pass through that advice. There's a lot of people that are successful and they're very keen to give you advice, but for the right reasons. But ultimately it comes down to your ability to pass through what is relevant in your context and implement that.

Sam Kothari: Were you getting input from external sources outside of, I guess, advisors? Were you reading books, podcasts, were there any articles (I'm not actually even sure if podcasts were a thing when you first started, probably not as popular)? You've had a background in chemical engineering, you've done an MBA product management. So you've obviously got a curiosity and hunger to learn. How did that, was there something deliberate that you did in the marketing space while you were spinning up that function?

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. So I have enjoyed doing different things over my 15, 20 years of career. My undergrad was chemical engineering. I was going to come and do a PhD in the states, but I didn't do it. I ended up doing an MBA for family reasons. I stayed back in India, I started management consulting. Then I did supply chain software. Then I did aerospace software, then database. So it's bunch of different things. I think that intellectual diversity just working in different domains has kept my life very interesting. I enjoy that for learning about marketing. I think the thing that we did was we found companies that had done a really, really good job in the space that was not necessarily exactly the space we were in, but similar. And we did a lot of networking. We reached out to people who had built marketing functions there, who had built sales teams, other functions, and we signed many of them as advisors.

Ajeet Singh: And we also, you know, sometimes you'll find people signing up a lot of advisors, but not all advisors will have an equal impact because you don't spend the time to actually learn from them and talk to them. But we also spent time with these people and learned how they had gone about doing what they had done. So identifying sort of best-in-class companies for that particular function, which are relevant to you. Going, reaching out to people in those companies and learning from them. I found that would be an extremely effective way of understanding what best in class looks like.

Sam Kothari: That's helpful. I'm definitely noticing a theme. Like one of your superpowers is sort of people, right. And really understanding how to find, recruit and build a network of people around you. Let's talk a little bit about recruitment. Cause I think you have some really interesting views here that could be really helpful. Do you remember your early employees at Nutanix or ThoughtSpot like the first few that you were able to hire?

Ajeet Singh: Yeah, not only do I remember, I know them very well. A lot of them are good friends and in touch still. So recruiting particularly early stage startup recruiting is very interesting. And I personally enjoy recruiting a lot. The thing though, is that you have to invest time in it. It's not something, I think the notion of a superpower is maybe overstated. Because it's more about focus and investment that you make in something. As an example at ThoughtSpot, I think the first couple years, I might have done more than a hundred coffee meetings at a Starbucks near Google headquarters and that used to be on my way to work. So almost every day I would be meeting somebody or the other there. And I try, when I recruit, I try not to sell because I want to find people who would be a natural fit, and it has to be a mutual fit for what we are trying to do.

Ajeet Singh: And the first thing I want to make sure that it's the right thing for them, as opposed to thinking, what can they do for us? I want to see, we have an opportunity to offer them, will it make a material impact to whatever their life ambition at that time might be? It could be building great products from scratch. It could be growing in their career, more responsibility or moving from doing X to doing Y, whatever it might be. And it's so important to understand them very deeply before you try to recruit them, because if it is not the right thing for them, you have no business trying to recruit. So I spend a lot of time just learning about people, what drives them, what motivates them and not everybody's a fit for a startup because it comes with a certain risk, reward, commitment, etcetera.

Ajeet Singh: And I'm not saying that people in large companies don't work with as much passion, but a startup is a thing of its own. So you have to make sure that you are recruiting the right people who will thrive in that environment. And the other thing we try to do is to make sure they get a 360-degree view of the company. So have them meet a lot of people in the company so that we are learning more about them, but more importantly, they are learning enough about the company so that when they join 30 days in at least people that I recruit directly, I would ask them a question. "Would you still join the company?"

Ajeet Singh: I do my best to make sure that people are not feeling that, oh, "I made a mistake". I want them to know the good, bad, ugly. I want to tell them about all the problems we have, because we have problems. And that's why we are recruiting direct people. If we didn't have problems, everything was great. You know, the engine is working itself, and that's almost a political statement because never the case, small company, a large company, there are always challenges to solve. And that is where a lot of valuation and enjoyment is. So I try to be very particular about that.

Sam Kothari: That's really helpful advice, I think, especially given the labour dynamics in a bunch of different countries at the moment where there's definitely, it feels like a shortage of talent and a shortage of great talent.

Sam Kothari: And one of the things that we talk about here in Australia is we used to fight for senior engineering talent and lead developers. Then we started fighting, all the tech companies are fighting for graduates, and then we're fighting for interns and slowly, we'll start fighting for secondary school kids and primary school kids saying sign up as early as possible. How have you made, and we'll talk a little bit about the culture that you've built at ThoughtSpot, because I think it's quite a fascinating case study of a series of very deliberate decisions. But before we talk about that has your recruitment strategy or hiring strategy changed over time, especially when you think about the stage of the business, let's use ThoughtSpot as an example. So early on doing those coffees, meeting those people, the traits that you were looking for in the early employees, is that different to what you look for today, given how large that the company is now.

Ajeet Singh: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we are a 700 people company and that's depending on how you see it, it's still a small company. And, and I hope we continue to have that startup mentality even when we are much, much larger. So how things have changed from the beginning, there are certain things that have not changed. And there are some that have, what has not changed is we want to find people who enjoy building. That's the constant. We want to have people that have a positive vibe around them. You know, people that might be very good at their craft, but they're going to have a negative influence on the team. We do everything we can to make sure they don't get through the doors of our recruiting process. So those things have not changed. What has changed in some areas you need people who have managed larger teams, are able to operate at a larger scale when you are just starting out.

Ajeet Singh: Many of those things are not relevant to a small team. And depending on whether you are remote or not, it can be a very high-fidelity communication that can happen. And you don't need a lot of process. You don't need a lot of things that you need as you scale. So over time, you do have to bring in people.

Ajeet Singh: Some people from our earliest days will continue to scale. And they will also go from being strong individual contributors to very strong people leaders, but some will not, some will not enjoy that transition. They will continue to thrive in what they do best, which is it could be selling. It could be building product. It could be marketing, but they may not thrive in managing a global team and setting goals and dealing with recruiting and retention and many other things that come with the running larger teams. So over time, you have to assess the talent that you have internally versus what you need to bring in from outside. And so some of those things have evolved, but at the very core, you talked about culture a little bit. That cultural fit has remained a very, very strong requirement for us.

Sam Kothari: You've talked a little bit about the preference to talk to references of candidates, rather than just focusing on the interview process itself. Interested in sort of why and how you came up with that approach. And also, I mean, what type of questions do you ask references? Because you know, I think even internally in companies I've worked at often, it's just, you send an email with three bullet points. It says, would you work for this candidate or hire this candidate again? It sounds like you're investing a lot more time in that. So interested to understand why and how you do that.

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. Yeah. So certainly, so there is, I would say three categories that give you inputs about the candidate. One is their resume. Second will be the interview process. Third will be references and there are some references that candidates will give, but there's always going to be people that you can reach out to and get feedback about the candidate. And I think in the early stage of my career, particularly when I was recruiting execs, what I realised was that resume-wise, everybody looks very good. If you talk to them also, they're very good. You know, because they have so much experience, they have gone through the ups and downs. They've learned a lot. They know all the right answers to your questions and they sound very convincing. But what you might find sometimes is that over time they might lose the hunger that is required, the passion to build, to roll their sleeves and to build and be creative and have an open mind as opposed to a prescriptive process because every company is unique.

Ajeet Singh: The times in which companies are being built are unique. The way companies are being built now is different from just five years ago. Right? So you want to have people who have that right mix of experience and entrepreneurial abilities to think on their feet and adapt regularly. So over time, I have put in less and less resume in general. I was never too focused on because resume, I think it's all about the person behind the resume. But what I realised over time is that when you're doing exec hiring, and this is a question I get asked very frequently from first-time entrepreneurs. I was talking to an entrepreneur yesterday, and she's started a company early stage, doing well, and she needs to now start to build an exec team. And she had all these questions about how do I tell who's a good exec to recruit?

Ajeet Singh: And I told her that given where I am, if I had to choose between meeting people and talking to their references, which I will find myself, I would go with the references, and these are references I would find, I always do reference checks only after I have permission from the candidate to do so. So I will never go behind and call people without this person knowing, because that could compromise their current job, which I never want. So once you are quite far, far along in the interview process and ask their permission and do blind references. And when I talk to references, it's not very useful to ask, would you recruit this person or not? What are they going to say? You know, I think you have to go into a little bit more details. What are the things these people did, what challenges they faced, how they working those challenges? What kind of other very important thing that I look at is what sort of people they have recruited in their prior jobs.

Ajeet Singh: So I would ask the candidate to walk me through people. They recruited, walk me through their LinkedIn profiles. And I evaluate the quality of people. They are bringing to their teams because when you're hiring leaders. Ultimately leaders won't do a lot by themselves. It's the kind of team they can build and nurture and scale, and the people that are already there. The other thing that is very important when you're recruiting execs, particularly if you're mid-stage that they don't come with the mentality that I know everything and things are broken, people that are here are all bad, and I just need to replace everybody and bring everybody new. That can be very dense. Sometimes the situation might warrant that we understand, but they have to have an open mind, and they have to treat everybody as their people. People that might be new that they're recruiting and the ones that are already in the company.

Sam Kothari: No, it's really, really insightful. And I appreciate the calcarine and some of the specificity, right. I think that like, even I've struggled with how do I probe, what do I look for when I'm recruiting in these, in these roles? I think that's, that's going to be really, really valuable. I'd love to talk a little bit about culture now. I think it's such a... All the articles that I've read about what you've built at ThoughtSpot, it's fascinating to me. So I might read out a quote, and I'd love for you to help us understand and maybe provide some colour, and kind of, and what this quote represents. So in a blog, you said, "Since ThoughtSpot's inception, we've sent holiday gifts to the kids of all our team members across the globe every single year".

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. Yeah. We have, I think, culture, if you talk about culture that would take a full podcast. Like we could talk more than an hour on that. It's a fascinating topic. And it's a topic that has been discussed quite a lot, of course, in the startup world.

Ajeet Singh: So I think the reason we reach out to the families every holiday season is that I fundamentally believe that families of employees are an integral part of building thoughts about building the companies that we are trying to build, because when someone chooses to join you on a mission, their family is also committing to it. It would be much easier for the family to say, why are you going to work for this startup? Why don't you go work for a Google or a LinkedIn or Microsoft or whoever? We hire really good people and they can land all of these jobs and potentially make more money in the short term and have less work to do, because there is so much infrastructure. They could bike to work, eat from one of the 10 restaurants that Google campus have. It would really be good and do good work as well.

Ajeet Singh: You know, it's not like the work is not good. So if they're choosing to come and work with you, their families are saying, we want you to be proud of your work. We want you to have this experience of building. So we are going to support you in that mission. And I feel like I owe the families, we, as a company, owe the families something in return.

Ajeet Singh: So when we were small, we used to have actually spouses of our employees organise a bunch of events. Our holiday parties always included families, spouses, kids, friends, parents, whoever you want to bring. These are not just cocktail parties for employees and their spouse. And we send gifts to all the kids around the world every year. It's just a small token to recognise the faith the families put into ThoughtSpot. You know, the teams love it. We love it. And we get a lot of really good feedback and reactions. And it's so good to see the reactions that we get from the families when they, so many of them say ThoughtSpot is the best company my dad has worked for ever. And that means so much. That just means so much to us.

Sam Kothari: Was this deliberate from day one when you first started ThoughtSpot? Were you and your founders thinking about this or did it evolve over time?

Ajeet Singh: Yeah, I think we were pretty deliberate about it. So the way it played out is when I started Nutanix, my son was born the very same week. My second child. My son was born the very same week that I was starting Nutanix. And I couldn't even think about doing companies if it wasn't for the support that I got from my wife. Similarly, at ThoughtSpot, amid my co-founder, he had his daughter a few months after ThoughtSpot was started. So both of us had firsthand experience what it meant to have support from our spouse to be able to do what we wanted to do. And we developed that empathy through our own experience for the employees who were coming to work at ThoughtSpot. And even before starting Nutanix, when I worked at ASTER Data, I worked with a lot of sense of ownership and mission and purpose and worked really hard.

Ajeet Singh: So I could see, even when I was not a founder, I had that ownership mentality that drove me and my wife was very supportive. I could not have done that if it wasn't for her. So we want to make sure that we recognise that for our employees. And we built this amazing process that allows us to do that. And it's really appreciated the whole company. The culture, I would say is a much bigger topic than some of these things, which we do. Of course, one part of our culture is the owner's mindset. And we treat our team members as people that are owners in the company, and we do everything we can to make their life a little bit better. But the overall culture, we use two words to describe our culture, is the culture of selfless excellence. And by sometimes there's a little bit of tension between these two words.

Ajeet Singh: You know, when you're striving for excellence, it can feel like a solo sport and just going to be the best. I'm the best salesperson. I'm the best engineer. Look how beautiful, amazing my code is, or you know, how well I can sell. But we try to think about building the company in a way where we as individuals and team, we are pursuing excellence relentlessly, but we are always doing it by putting the company, the team ahead of ourselves.

Ajeet Singh: And in my mind, that's the best way to be selfish because if the company wins, everybody wins, the team doesn't win. Everybody fails. So if all of us can be selfless in the long run, that's the best way to be selfish. So we take that extremely, extremely seriously. We don't tolerate politics in the company. We're very deliberate about making sure that through the recruitment process. And even later we are reading that out actively, there is this slack channel internally that we have excellence and you'll see every day people recognising their colleagues, other people from the company who are going above and beyond to help them be successful in their job. And it is a joy to watch. It is a joy to work in this environment where everybody is trying to really help everybody else.

Sam Kothari: How have you scaled that? Because I've been in an organisation, Airwallex, I joined employee number 360. We're 1200 employees now. So I've had 900 colleagues join in the space of two years. How have you scaled and maintained that culture as the organisation has gone from zero to, I think obviously quite, quite a large company.

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. Yeah. It comes over two things. One is communication. Second is action. You know, by communication starts by, it starts with being able to communicate easily what our culture is. And that's why these two simple words coming together, selfless excellence do a very good job of capturing the kind of company we want to be. But we're very actively communicating that at every opportunity. And it has to be done by everybody, not just me as a co-founder, but everyone, the company should be communicating what our culture is when we are recruiting. When we are doing team meetings, see if I'm doing any sort of large company meeting. I always make it a point to remind people of what our culture is, what the values are and so forth internally. Also creating this environment where people are recognising selfless excellence when they see it without any sort of incentive for them to do it.

Ajeet Singh: So, that becomes a little bit of a snowball effect that you can create. And second is action. So action means when you see people doing good things, you recognise that and you make that part of the reward system, did they do well on selfless excellence? It's part of how we evaluate peoples' performance. Obviously they're on the job performance, that's a given, but this is an important aspect of the review as well. And if you know, once in a long while, if you see somebody who is sort of a bad fish in a pond, we have to give them feedback and hope they correct themselves. But if they don't, we have to make sure that we take action and we don't tolerate people that are going to be political, and that are going to be more self-serving than serving the team.

Sam Kothari: What advice would you give new founders when they're starting to think about culture? Because I think I've been privileged to start a company myself. It wasn't something top of mind for me. We were thinking about the problem and the solution, and really like trying to execute as opposed to taking a step back and thinking deliberately about culture. Like what kind of advice would you give to sort of new founders when it comes to culture?

Ajeet Singh: Yeah, I think it's so important to understand what culture means and not in an academic way, but in a practical way, because perhaps the biggest leadership tool you have, and people think of this as this soft thing. And sometimes they think that, oh, we do. We give nice food to people. We play music at our all hands, stuff like that. We dance and that's that's there. But I don't think that defines really in entirety, the culture. And to me, culture is how people act when nobody's telling them what to do in the company. If nobody's watching, nobody telling them what to do, what will they do? How will they make those choices? What actions? So if you can be deliberate, every company has a culture. I think every tribe has a culture. Every group of people, if they have lived together, worked together for a while, it will develop a culture.

Ajeet Singh: There are shared norms that people have to build so that they are all able to operate together. And it is up to you if you let that culture evolve as a series of accidents and people that come along, and it could become problematic over time. Or if you want to be deliberate about that from the beginning. So I think it is extremely important for founders to think about the culture, because that's, in some ways the real product they're building. If they can build the right culture, if they have identified the right market and the right problem. And the only thing they need to do is to recruit and have the right culture and create a platform where people feel they're doing the best work of their life and great things will happen.

Sam Kothari: I really appreciate, I think the detail that you're going into to make this practical for other founders, as they think about growing their own businesses. What's the best piece of advice you've received over, over the last 20 years.

Ajeet Singh: Yeah. I find it's hard for me to say one best piece of advice. I would say, I would say my, all my life, I remember my grandfather saying this, you should listen to everyone, but do what you think is right. Right. So when people come and ask me, can you give me some advice? I actually have no advice to offer. Only thing I suggest is I can share my experiences here is how I approach things. Here are the things that work here are the things that didn't work well. And here is what I learned. I'm not a huge believer in giving out advice. Like I was saying earlier, sometimes people, when they're successful, they get this mode of giving a lot of advice to people. This is exactly what you should do. And they become a little too prescriptive, I find, but I think they're hurting entrepreneurs more than they're helping. Because if you're so successful, people might over-index on everything you say.

Ajeet Singh: So, anytime I'm meeting founders, I'm starting with this, I'm reminding them, ultimately you have to do what is right. But here is how I experienced a similar situation. So if you're asking me, how should I recruit execs? How should I think about building an exec team? Here is how I went through the experience in early days, I made the mistake. This is how I corrected it. And this worked well for me now it's up to them, how to take it. So I would say the best advice I can give is to everyone is to listen to all advice, but do what you believe is right, because ultimately you are building the company. You have most context, you understand the market, the product, the problem better than anyone else. You understand, who's in the company, what they can do, what are their limitations, what resources you have, all of that is you have that in your head, so.

Sam Kothari: I think that ties back into that theme around people and kind of having that right culture and theme. So it's fascinating to see that I think in all of your responses, that's been coming through quite strongly that you know. That this belief that you have and getting the right people building on something valuable and working in the right market can be quite effective. Is there anything you wish you knew when you first started Nutanix? This is your second time, ThoughtSpot was your second startup. So, I know you don't like the term serial entrepreneur, but you've had some experience now building twice in two different businesses, two different markets. Is there anything you wish you knew when you first started Nutanix?

Ajeet Singh: No, actually, maybe I have a different perspective of life. I think the journey is a lot more fun if you don't know. If you knew, then you wouldn't go through the process of making mistakes and learning and growing. And I mean, of course, if I were to do things, I would do certain things maybe differently, but would I want to know all of that in your head and have a perfect journey now? I don't think so. It's a lot of fun. And I do not like the terms here at entrepreneur, because it basically means you know, and it's not a bad business strategy, but I want not be in the mode of building a company, selling it and moving to the next one, selling it and so on and so forth. I think different things excite different people. For me, if you can build a company that can outlast me, I think that's real success.

Sam Kothari: I think you've got a very unique take on sort of business building and culture as well. And we really appreciate you sharing that. Is there anything else you wanted to share with the audience any resources or further comments that you might have on some of the things we've discussed?

Ajeet Singh: No. I think if you are an entrepreneur, if you want to be an entrepreneur, go do it because it's a very, very special journey, and you don't want to look back later in your life and feel that you didn't try it. So go do it, be open to fail, and it can be very rewarding. But do it with the right people. If you do it with the right people, whether you succeed or fail, it's going to be, it's going to be, it will be painful. I'm not saying it is all just made of gold, but it'll be rewarding. It'll definitely be very rewarding.

Sam Kothari: I'm sure ThoughtSpot is recruiting a lot of talent. Is there somewhere, I guess the audience can find your recruitment page at or at least find out what you guys are up to.

Ajeet Singh: Yeah, just the usual stuff. Go to thoughtspot.com, open opportunities. We are recruiting across all engineering, marketing, sales, everywhere, globally. So yeah, we'd love to have folks listening to this podcast, go and check out what opportunities exist. If you are a potential customer who could use our product in your business, please consider us. We also give our product to software companies who could embed our analytics capabilities in their products. A lot of our customers do that. So we'd love to hear from you if you or if you just have any feedback for us.

Sam Kothari: Great. And where can people find and read more about, I guess the content.

Ajeet Singh: Just search, we are a search company, you know. So we're a search analytics company and search is this great tool that Google has shown can really work. So just search for whatever you want. And yeah, but if you want to reach out, you can reach out to us anytime. We are on Twitter, LinkedIn, everywhere.

Sam Kothari: Thanks for listening to another episode of the Launch Lessons podcast brought to you by the builders and makers of fintech unicorn, Airwallex. Airwallex's global financial infrastructure empowers businesses of all sizes to grow beyond borders. If you found the lessons in this episode helpful, please share the link with a friend or a colleague, or subscribe to the podcast and leave us a rating. If you've got any questions you'd like to ask our guests or topics you'd like us to cover, please reach out to us via the details in the show notes below.

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Shani Ishigaki
Content Marketing Manager

Writer, content strategist and storyteller. Shani is a digital marketer with a passion for brand storytelling and empathy-led copywriting. Responsible for Airwallex's content marketing efforts in Australia, and other parts of the world.

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