Global Lean Sales – Selling your software online to global markets, without field-force #PlaybookRT

Last week I was going through the startup class videos and one particular statement by Sam Altman stuck with me. He said “All successful founders are fanatics”. And YCombinator has seen a whole bunch of them. The way he puts it is very awesome, let me reproduce the statement here:

“The word fanatical comes up again and again when you listen to successful founders talk about how they think about their product. Founders talk about being fanatical in how they care about the quality of the small details. Fanatical in getting the copy that they use to explain the product just right. and fanatical in the way that they think about customer support. In fact, one thing that correlates with success among the YC companies is the founders that hook up Pagerduty to their ticketing system, so that even if the user emails in the middle of the night when the founder’s asleep, they still get a response within an hour.Companies actually do this in the early days. Their founders feel physical pain when the product sucks and they want to wake up and fix it. They don’t ship crap, and if they do, they fix it very very quickly. And it definitely takes some level of fanaticism to build great products.”

Read the full talk here (later)

2014-10-18 15.23.57

This statement came alive for me yesterday when I met Pallav Nadhani, the founder of FusionCharts. As he walked us through how he built his company and sharing his experiences and wonderful insights in building his company, his fanaticism was apparent. I am sure everyone who was there, wanted some of it to rub on to them. Even though it was a “RoundTable”, I think Pallav had more experience than a lot of us and pretty much carried the group. He shared some very cool insights, with real life examples and actionable suggestions.

There were 11 of us, all selling business-to-business (B2B) products in the range of $1000 – $75,000, some online, some offline, most on a subscription model, some early stage, a few past the validation stage. Almost half of the founders depended on high touch sales and half had products that were Do-it-yourself. Here is a summary of the meetup:

Pallav’s Story

Pallav shared his story on how he started the company when he was 16, to get some pocket money. He made a charting widget for himself and then wrote an article about it, which became popular. Then one thing led to another and he now runs a company that publishes 90+ types of charts has 23,000 customers and 70 people. Some of the things that he focused from very early on was:

  1. Reduce all friction for the user who is evaluating the product.
  2. He promised his users that they would get their money back if they could not build the first chart in 15 minutes. That helped him simplify the on-boarding process and make it very easy for his users.
  3. He was a one person company for a long time and handled everything from developing the product, documenting it to doing customer support.


Pallav’s father is an author of 15 books on accounting and that gave him a strong foundation to document his product very well. This was particularly important since his target audience was developers who needed good documentation to use the product.

  1. Pallav himself wrote 3000 to 4000 pages of documentation and still reviews every word that is added by his team.
  2. Documenting the product gave him key insights as a user and helped him refine and debug the product.
  3. Every time someone asks a question. His team is forced to answer using a public document. This made sure that the same question did not get asked again and also created a good knowledge base for his product.
  4. He learned from his father on how to structure documentation (with headings, sub-headings etc) so that the reader can quickly find out the relevant sections to read.

There is another interesting anecdote. jQuery was a late entrant to javascript libraries and according to its creator John Resig, it was because it was the first one that was properly documented.

Marketing and First Impressions

Pallav’s hypothesis is that all sales / conversions are driven by “Fear” or “Greed” and products must highlight these in their marketing copy, specially the headling. He even asked all of us the rephrase the core message of our product to appeal to one of these emotions. I had strong reservations on whether this was correct and if this lead too to much focus on top of the sales funnel (new visitors). Either way, the group seemed convinced. While I thought it went went with Pallav’s aggressive and “switched-on” approach, I have my doubts if it works for all kinds of products. Products have the personalities of their founders embedded in them, and I feel its best to stick with the approach that goes best with the philosophy of the product and the creator.

Pallav also referred Kevin Hale’s analogy of building a customer relationship like a marriage and how the first visit of a customer on the website is like dating. For more on this, I would recommend Kevin Hale’s enlightening talks on the matter (later!).

Some other interesting points that were discussed were:

  1. Classify your traffic into different personas. For Fusion Chart, it is the Developer, Product Manager and Designer.
  2. Deeply understand each persona. Appreciate that they are overloaded with information and identify openings in their daily routines where you can reach them.
  3. For security startups, a weekly roundup of major reported breaches worked well when sent at 8.30 in the morning.
  4. Online marketing has evolved from “carpet bombing” to “sniper”. Audience have to be segmented and messages have to be finely targeted.
  5. It is important to reach the users main Inbox and not the promotions box. So keep the mail personal and do not add an unsubscribe link.
  6. Pallav showed how he used WebEngage for conducting surveys on their visitors and how he tested his hypothesis. For example, his survey would ask if a visitor intends to pay for the product on offer or select an open source alternative. Based on the feedback, Pallav said he would change the marketing copy.
  7. He also used VWO for A/B testing and showed us an example on which one of “HTML5 Charting” or “Javascript Charting” resonated more for the user.
  8. Asking feedback from customers who had evaluated a product was also important. A simple email with the subject “5 minutes of your time for 5 questions” gives Pallav great customer insight.
  9. He said he tests all kinds of hypotheses and keeps experimenting on the message. Examples:
    1. Do users like a simple or complex layout
    2. How many fields should a form have
    3. What colour a button should have

The attendees at PlaybookRTContent Marketing

We spent a whole bunch of time discussing and sharing great insights on Content Marketing. Sahil Parikh of shared his experiences in content marketing. He has built a product for the marketing community and started a blog with the purpose of reaching out to this community. It took him six months of building the blog before he saw some returns. He has hired two content writers and produces 3 to 4 blog posts a week. He shared that aggressive content marketing teams target producing one post a day. He also reached out to Indian authors on popular blogs like ZDNet and TheNextWeb and pitched the Indian product angle that got him attention. Sandeep Todi of shared that he bumped into a content writer for SiteHR, a popular HR portal and is how working with her to build content for his product.

Content marketing seemed like a favorite of strategy of a Lean Sales team but again it boils down to execution. It is very hard to product high quality content and as more and more people start getting good at it, the bar keeps on increasing.

Some content ideas / anecdotes shared were:

  1. Interview / Talk Show Series: Publish interviews with customers and thought leaders in the domain
  2. Use big brands in your blog posts. Examples from Fusion Charts:
    1. How Unilever / Walmart / P&G uses data visualization
  3. Act on industry events:
    1. Security Breaches
    2. Flipkart Billion Day flop
    3. Home Depot breach
  4. “News Jacking” – Connect popular news items to your product.
    1. GangamStyle in numbers
    2. Infographics on FIFA World Cup
    3. 10 infographics on Fitness Apps
  5. Put customer logos on your site, content unless the customer objects. Don’t mention it in your contract or it will trigger a red flag.
  6. Allow your site content to be reproduced.
  7. Curate, collate good content from other site and credit the original author.
  8. Get quotes from industry influencers, the will also ReTweet your content.
  9. Speed is of essence. Create great content quicly (yeah right!).
  10. Publish whitepapers. They are popular with higher management.

Sales Funnel

Pallav walked us through the various parts of the sales funnel.

[From his slides]

  1. Awareness (ads, blog, event, word-of-mouth…)
  2. Initial Visit
    1. Different channels / different ROI
    2. Best channels = low cost, high ROI
  3. Engagement
    1. Trial, case study, whitepaper, anything that could give you email AND other information
  4. Nurturing
    1. Mix of product, marketing and sales
    2. Sales job: get the customer on the call and do aggressive follow up
  5. Closing
    1. Handover from sales to client success.
    2. Repeat business through subscriptions, up-sells or cross-sells.


There was a very heated discussion on pricing. Pallav was of the mainstream industry opinion that price is a reflection of value. The higher the price, the better the quality of customers and revenue. There was a discussion on discounts and how in high touch sales, discounts are a bane. Here Pallav shared that adding artificial constraints to negotiate. For example, you can extend the support by 3 months instead of giving a discount, or increase the number of servers etc.

Open Source

There was some resistance and suspicion from the group in discussing this and understandably so because of the nature of the software products business that depends on Intellectual Property Rights. We did touch upon this briefly and why based on our (ERPNext) experience we see open source as a great way to not only reach out a new generation of users but also believe in an alternative way of doing business.

2014-10-18 15.24.15Conclusion

It was great to learn from Pallav, and we thank him for sharing so many suggestions and learnings. Also a big thanks to him for openly sharing specific insights and walking us through an A/B test or testing an hypothesis. This is also a great initiative by Avinash Raghava and iSPIRT, the think-tank/lobby group for Software Products to bring together entrepreneurs so that they can share tips and build networks. It would have been a bit better if there was more unstructured time so that there would be better interaction between the group, to build deeper relationships between the founders. Also a big thank you to for hosting the event and providing lunch.

Finally what really matters is execution. For me the biggest takeaway was that the product is a reflection of the creator / founder and it was important that the founders are obsessed with each detail of the product and its quality and also work with the energy that is required to do so much work. For that it is important that they see success early on as Pallav did and the once they are on to something they make sure that they do not lose it.

Specifically, for me it reminded me that its time to go back to fixing the documentation!

Pallav Nadhani @FusionCharts on Bootstrapping your Startup the right way, all the way #BootUpINDIA

Success is often measured by how much limelight you managed to get. Real success however, belongs to those who dig in and chart the fabled hockey stick growth path. Companies like Fusioncharts, Rategain and Wingify are but a few examples of globe scale bootstrapped Startups from India. Does Bootstrapping happen out of accident or by choice? Is it a long term bet or a compulsion? What are the other myths behind Bootstrapped vs Funded startups?

Pallav shares the secret sauce of successful Bootstrapping in this heart-to-heart chat with Sandeep Todi, iSPIRT volunteer and himself a bootstrapped entrepreneur. Listen to him talk about the challenges he faced and how iSPIRT #BootUpINDIA will help you as a Bootstrapped startup. You can view the video and post a question to Pallav right here.

The ‘Desi’-fication of Indian startups

Desification is an invented acronym of course. It doesn’t exist in the dictionary. Or in lexicon. Nevertheless, it most aptly describes the phenomenon of a technology companies culturally adapting to the local mindset. In this case, local as in ‘Desi’, derived from the word ‘Desh’ which literally means Nation.

It’s not uncommon for successful Silicon Valley startup ideas to be replicated in India. They even meet a similar level of success in the local economy. And thus you had all the travel sites after the success of Expedia. You also got the payment gateways, the online ticket booking sites, the Classifieds, “Yet Another Craigslist” sites, feeble attempts at INdianized Webmail ( anyone?), and more. Everyone and his uncle just wanted to take a slice of American Pizza, add some Indian toppings, ‘rename’ it Indian Pizza and serve it hot and fresh!

For the technologically well heeled, they got sites to help manage and boost your Twitter followers, Whatsapp wannabes and many such.

The one thing they all used effectively is the artificial trade barriers that prevent a global business from setting foot in India. Travel is inherently local and the Indian travel trade makes it difficult for a foreign company with overseas offices, to sell tickets for domestic travel. Hence the emergence of strong Travel plays. Ditto for E-commerce, which requires you to have a local warehouse and local billing to avoid forex fees and customs duties. You think Classified are any different? Not really, because you need to soak in every inch of the local culture to really understand what kind of Classified categories work, and how people advertise and consume Classified ads.

Take Quikr. Their latest punchline is squarely aimed at the Desi speaking millions (… “No fikar, Bech Quikr”, loosely translated as No worries, Sell faster). Completely Hindi punchline, delivered with unfailing regularity over every TV and Radio.

Or take OLX. “Photo khench, Olx pe Bech” (approximates to Click a photo and sell on Olx instantly). It often takes a humorous dig at attempts to sell absurd things. The hint is that almost anything can be sold. These hints are very very Indian, and you wouldn’t understand if you didn’t dig the local culture.

These success aren’t born out of nowhere. They are the result of innumerable iterations. If you’re like me, you’d have seen many an avatar of online commerce in India and how their positioning has changed over time. If there is some startup that is trying to sell to an Indian audience without tickling the local funny bone, they probably aren’t selling that well. This has been true for B2C businesses so far. It’s a different world in B2B from where I come. However, I suspect this frontier won’t be a distant one for them for very long!

“For a product business the product roadmap, customer segmentation and a delightful user experience are extremely crucial.”

Started in 2011 with only three employees, Emportant has grown to serve thousands of users with their cloud based end-to-end HR and Payroll products. Co-Founder and CEO, Emportant, Sandeep Todi says his company is focused to appeal to firms that would identify with its motto, ’Employees are Important’.  In an interview with ProductNation, he says his biggest learning is you must always take good care of your customers even as you keep expanding.

How would you describe the shifting paradigm from Outsourcing software to Software as a Service?

Software as a Service (SaaS) allows you to try business class software with ease and without being tied down with painful and expensive procurement and deployment cycles. With no upfront investment, it’s easy to try and buy SaaS products. In that sense, a SaaS network of products mimic the behavior of a ‘technology grid’ that you can tap into. In contrast, building custom software is like installing a captive power generation unit at prohibitive cost that is hardly justified when the grid is at your doorstep.

Companies have also realized that SaaS is not just amortizing costs over several years, but a new way of thinking. You are not selling a box, rather a product that’s constantly on the move. SaaS products see anything around 4-12 releases a year, are built on rapid release cycles. Moreover, customer feedback is acknowledged and incorporated in these rapid release iterations, something which is impossible in outsourced software or licensed software. The customer is therefore always on the latest release and does not suffer from “version fatigue”. Businesses are realizing this by adopting SaaS products with very little risk, tasting success and then quickly going on to embrace this new pedagogy.

In what way does this new model benefit users in terms of effectiveness, cost and support?

This SaaS apps-grid or ecosystem of apps that can co-exist with each other, is becoming more powerful by the day. No outsourced software is able to deliver this as elegantly and as cost effectively as SaaS product delivered over the cloud.

SaaS software is able to deliver benefits rapidly through new releases and eliminates risk of obsolescence. FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) has been used by traditional software vendors, scaring users about impending obsolescence. Having left with little choice, customers had to regardless opt for expensive upgrades and consulting efforts. A transparent SaaS business always keeps users on the latest version and ensures that this version works 100% with all customer environments. This dramatically lowers the cost of maintaining the product because you are no longer dealing with different versions that must be supported for different customers.

Tell us the story about your recently launched web based HRMS and Payroll software, Emportant? How did it happen?

We are in the HR software business for nine years now. Having sold our product PowerApps to several mid-to-large enterprises, we delivered mission critical and high performance HR/Payroll software to customers like Bank of Baroda, Ford, TI Group, ITC, L&T, GTL etc. In 2009, we wanted to adopt cloud computing in a big way and struggled for two years. It was then that we decided to carve out a separate company and a separate product for the cloud – this was the genesis of the birth of Emportant in 2011.

In creating Emportant we initially feared it would cannibalize our own product PowerApps. Thankfully, that did not happen and now both products have a good market presence of their own in two different customer segments. drives every HR process with the Employee at the center. Every HR / Manager / Employee interaction can be initiated by the Employee and is available on a self-serve platform.

How easy or difficult is it to market a software product in India?

The going was pretty tough in 2011 as cloud was not very well accepted back then. Now it’s different, as CIOs are less wary about the cloud and more concerned about the stability of the vendor, maturity of the cloud product, etc.

Custom software is still viewed as a viable alternative primarily due to the inexpensive cost of hiring programmers. Moreover for a product sold to mid-market and large businesses, you have to traditionally sell one-to-one, engage in multiple meetings and convince customers about the solution fitment without landing into the trap of customization.

What are the factors that make a successful software product and the challenges faced in taking it to the market?

For a product business the product roadmap, customer segmentation and a delightful user experience are extremely crucial.

We have focused on how HR can be employee friendly and have a focus on achieving business results using software tools. The product’s benefits must be easily understood and should quickly demonstrate value. We have successfully kept bringing original thought and real customer feedback into our product, coming out with unique and uncomplicated ways of solving business problems.

Emportant drives HR administration in real time and moves away from the concept of HR software being only a system of record. This model of ours has led to a success rate of > 80% in converting prospects to customers.

We are now looking at stepping up our efforts on social media and on overseas customer acquisitions. Establishing credibility amongst large customers continues to pose interesting challenges and working with business partners means we have to convince them about long term value vs upfront margins.

What is the future of software products vis-a-vis services?

Software products and services will always have their own separate customer segments. I don’t think software products can solve every business problem out there and services have an important part to play. Customers are beginning to realize that service consumption burdens them with unreasonable costs of operation and in an increasingly competitive world they would rather adopt a product if one exists which can meet their requirements. The benefits of products to the customer in terms of cost, sustainability and continuous improvement are already well established.

Look at Dropbox’s recently announced Datastore API. They have just commoditized the offline storage market for independent app makers. In fact, storage is now being turned from a service into a product as will be any service which can be wrapped into a standardized and repeatable delivery.

What learning would you like to share with other product companies?

Every launch of a new version is a learning experience for us. We are faced with the challenge of what to build in the next version, how does it affect pricing and how does it affect our current customers. What we’ve learnt is that you must always take good care of your current customers even as you keep expanding. To ensure this, we reward existing customers with new features for free whenever we release new versions and keep them protected on price changes perpetually.

What role do you foresee ProductNation to play in nurturing the growth of software products?

The biggest obstacle to exponential growth of Indian products is the lack of access to experts in marketing, product growth and cutting edge technology. Too many companies face mortality because of an idea or execution gone wrong.

ProductNation will hopefully help overcome these hurdles quickly and open up the opportunity for Indian products to be recognized globally.

6th iSPIRT Playbook RoundTable: Challenges in building a global software product company from India

In the continuing series of Round Tables product veterans Samir Palnitkar, ShopSocially and Jatin Parekh, AirTight Networks took the participants through a journey of discovery about why they want to go global and taking a critical look at the challenges they must overcome.

It takes a guy like Samir to lay the foundation for such a Round Table, having stoked the discussion with his experience and adding fuel by way of eliciting ideas and experiences of others. There’s no quick formula but the session did throw up some easy mantras to achieve those Global ambitions…

Some interesting takeaways from this session :


–       Hiring for overseas is always a challenge and you can’t be careful enough

–       Get a co-founder with a sufficiently high stake in the game, and one who is ready to adapt to the call of the hour.

–       If you know the person from earlier, nothing like it

–       Stay away from expensive consultants and retainers. Find someone who will take less cash (and therefore has had a prior successful exit / financially secure)

–       Write down the issues, objectives, compensation, way things are done, who does what, 5 year vision, etc. These discussions need to happen 

Experiences of those present:

–       One of the RT participant founders even camped in the US for 3 months to find the right guy, interviewing over 15 persons identified through various contacts. They evaluated trust, skill and cultural fit before deciding.

–       Most people do not want to be the lone member of startup in the US because all decision making would happen in India. One of them had a member already selling remotely so were thinking of moving that person to US.

–       If there are 3-4 co founders, there is enough mental bandwidth to get one person to US for 6 months to set things up.

–       Get partners to sell for you, they front end and sift thru the leads. May be encourage one of the partners to join you, as did one entrepreneur who had a good partner in E&Y front ending and finally robbed E&Y to get his co-founder !

–       In a nutshell, don’t compromise on this first hire. 


–       Start selling globally only if you can fund the sales cost for at least a year

–       It’s ok to do some services revenue to generate some cash. But this is also the biggest pitfall, if you end up doing too much customization that cripples you later. 

Key considerations:

–       You have to learn how to sell if you don’t already. Thumb rule is – if you can’t sell your product, nobody can.

–       You should have a sufficient funnel and regular flow of enquiry / conversion / sales and cash flows. Ok that’s a lot to ask but then that’s what it needs !

–       Prepare the Sales play book. A new person cannot invent the playbook to sell in US for you. 


–       Do you want to keep Product Management close to the customer or close to the R&D team?

–       Typical challenges in this are the ability to be aligned. Clear internal communication is crucial in motivating the team for the higher purpose

–       Delivery teams are usually in India, however you need to deal with the challenges of motivating team from a distance and account for cultural differences

The practical Product Manager:

–       Understanding the higher purpose and communicating it again and again is very important. If engineers are in the same office as sales guys then its easy, motivation happens. But if teams are physically separated then you have to build the channel to keep that communication going.

–       Communicate back to sales what problems engineering is facing.

–       Product Manager must have a regular travel plan and must meet customers if working at a distance from the market. This is crucial to get the alignment early on.

–       The PM cannot be note taker, taking customer requirements and giving it back verbatim to engineering to build. He must understand, negotiate and make intelligent distinction between features and requirements.

–       Priorities should be clearly published in writing.

–       Engineers should have the freedom to think and push back on features, but within boundaries. That’s when they can understand the purpose vs just coding.

–       Engineers must have first hand communication with customers, go for customer meetings, handle support calls etc.

–       When hiring engineers, set the expectation upfront that you have to do everything, and even learn outside your core competence. A Startup cannot afford to have people rigid within their own area. 


–       The biggest conundrum is in expectation mismatch, US teams being very “look” orinted and India teams being “fact” oriented

–       Interpretation of specs is usually different for each team, and quality of collateral needs to be extremely high to appeal to a US audience

–       The simple approach is to keep everything that requires a “handshake”, in the US and to teach India teams to be perfectionists.

–       If you need to get copywriting, don’t even think of getting it done in India. The lingo, the flow has to be completely American – leave that to an American.

–       Use a professional UX design shop if you need to

–       Use professional agencies for PR, like PRWEB, etc. 


–       Necessarily should be close to the customer. If the product requires a handshake, then you definitely need a US team member.

–       At the very least you need someone to stay up at night and receive calls

–       Prospecting via Linkedin, using polls and doing cold calling from India are usually successful approaches 

Sales and Marketing in the US is a big discussion in itself. A lot was left to be discussed, perhaps deserving an entire session devoted to selling in the US market. Another day, another Round Table then. 

ProductNation is the Go-To destination for many a successful software product. There are several amongst us who have tasted success in the global market. Do share your experience right here.