Suresh Sambandam is the leader and founder of Kissflow, a Delaware incorporated, cloud-based workflow automation company that counts more than 10,000 customers around the world. From its home base in India, the company touts an impressive list of worldwide customers, including Pepsi, Comcast, and Reckitt Benckiser. Kissflow helps companies navigate process management, case management, project management, and collaboration with dexterity and simplicity. But Suresh was not always a likely candidate for such a success story.
Suresh, who lives in Chennai, India, is largely self-taught. Growing up in rural India, he didn’t have the opportunity to attend college after graduating with the equivalent of a 12th-grade education. Instead, Suresh, whose native language is Tamil, took several courses on computer programming, and became, as he says, “hooked.” He read computer programming books, and began specializing in “deep technology programs like C and C++, assembly language programming, and system programming,” he recalls. Eventually, he got work at several multinational companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Selectica. His professional background gave him the drive and confidence to become a technology entrepreneur. It also gave him credentials: Along the way, Suresh has picked up three patents for rule engine and encryption technology. “I probably learned the hard way,” he notes. “I built a very, very strong foundation and that became the sort of bedrock for me to build my career.”
It took Suresh 25 years before he saw the success of the multimillion-dollar company he helms today. The years spent learning, building new platforms, and searching for revenue streams have given him the opportunity to mentor other entrepreneurs, particularly in the SaaS space. He relishes his role as a guide for entrepreneurs who want to build a corporate enterprise from the ground up. His advice to other leaders landed him a spot in a 2019 guidebook published by Entrepreneur Media entitled “Entrepreneur Voices on Careers.” One of Suresh’s key convictions is the importance of taking the long view when setting growth goals and chasing a dream of leading a company.
It took Sambandam several iterations to build Kissflow’s underlying technology and its business model. He calls Kissflow the “third pivot” of their original idea, which had the goal of trying to democratize workflow applications. “We tried with the first product,” he says, and “it worked to some extent. We learned a bunch of things, and it took four years to understand what we needed to change.” Another version, another four years, “And then finally, we built Kissflow,” he says.
Suresh had to change course when technology bets they made with their first product were proved wrong. It is with their fourth product, Kissflow, that they got the technology, market category, UX and the product-market fit right, which led to its eventual success. Kissflow is today capitalizing on the burgeoning SaaS space. Suresh is part of a trend of India-based companies getting in on this lucrative market. The Indian IT trade association NASSCOM has called the Indian SaaS sector the “next big thing.” At this January’s SaasBoomi, a gathering for Indian SaaS entrepreneurs and international venture capital funds, both company leaders and investors touted the impressive growth and profit margins of the sector.
At the core of Kissflow is a digital workplace platform that allows organization to automate workflow, focusing on three pillars: collaboration, coordination, and control. The Kissflow Digital Workplace platform helps keep the work in context so that employees can have conversations and manage tasks from the same place they do the rest of their work.
One of Suresh’s key convictions is the importance of taking the long-term view when setting growth goals and chasing a dream of leading a company.
Like virtually all startup founders, Suresh has had to grapple with the key question of funding — whether to search for outside investors or to find reliable revenue streams to drive organic growth. Sambandam speaks with great pride of how the company has scaled with minimal investment from outside sources. One of his key accomplishments has been to build Kissflow through online digital advertising, SEO, and content creation, a strategy that has involved some upfront investment and deep training of employees but that does not require legions of sales representatives. Everything about Kissflow’s inbound sales and marketing strategy is digital, says Sambandam – which, of course, is on point for a company and an executive who has helped evolve a new breed of businesses.
Kissflow’s platform allows clients to automate workflow by focusing on three pillars: collaboration, coordination, and control. The aim is to enable customers to use ready-made apps to increase their own productivity.
Tell us a bit about Kissflow. For starters, how many employees do you have and where are you located?
Kissflow is a U.S. company, with two primary locations, in the U.S. and in India. We target a worldwide customer base — we have customers in around 160 countries. All our customers belong to our U.S. operations and then we have our engineering and support teams in our Chennai office in India. We have over 200 employees working in the company altogether. In the U.S., we have employees who work remotely for the most part. Our primary headcounts are actually in India.
The phrase ‘digital workplace’ has become so prevalent in the modern business environment that we may not fully understand the actual idea. How did Kissflow come about, and how does it improve productivity?
Where we looked at digital workplaces, we found out that most companies have some sort of back-end system to track financial information, like an ERP system. If you’re a big company, you have SAP, and if you’re a small company you probably have something like QuickBooks. Similarly, you have a CRM to manage your front-end relationship with respect to your customers. If you’re a big company, you have something like Salesforce, and if you’re a small company you have something like Zoho.
These are the back-end systems and the front end, and most companies have these systems in place. But between the front end and the back end is where real work gets done. We call that the big question mark or the messy middle.
The messy middle is where the company operates, right between the back end and the front end. The front end is the customer and the back end is your financial systems, but the meeting between is when the value creation happens. Whatever the company does is in between the customer and the money. But there is no platform for this, and for digital-native companies especially, where most of the work output is actually digital — not manufacturing a bottle of soda or soap.
In a digital workplace, the computer is where all your work gets produced, shared, discussed, and created. Value gets created. There is really no system in place to deal with it. All the work typically happens via email, charts, spreadsheets, and docs. But there is no platform to do that. We call this the operational system of record, and this is where the operation happens. Basically, our vision is to be just like ERP and CRM.
So what does it take to become a fully digital workplace? What do organizations have to do in order to become completely unified in their work processes?
To completely become a digital workplace, first, we need to have some clarity on the work spectrum. There are essentially three parts in the work spectrum. There are three parts, essentially. One, there are office applications like the Google Suite or Office 365, and then there are enterprise applications, which is your ERP, CRM, and SCM (or supply chain management systems). Then there is the digital workplace, which is social, adaptive, business process management, and chat. This is comprised of process management, case management, project management, and collaboration. All of these need to be brought together. That’s really what it takes to become a digital workplace.
Once you have dealt with the office applications and the enterprise applications, most of the stuff that gets done outside of those systems fall under managing your business processes, managing issues, cases, and service requests (which fall under case management), managing tasks, projects, and to-do lists (which fall under project management). Having discussions, chats, collaboration, conversations, blogs, posts, Wikis, all of that comes in the collaboration part. Such a digital workplace platform helps keep the work in context so that you can have conversations and manage tasks from the same place you do the rest of your work.
“Almost always, founders end up trying to raise money without having a clue about how their product is going to get adopted or how they’re going to get product-market fit. That’s really the biggest problem that I see today.”
How does Kissflow allow that to happen?
Kissflow gives you a unified platform, which does all of these things. We believe in what is called contextual collaboration. Today’s collaboration tools are nothing more than communication platforms. They use the word collaboration, but it’s always just exchanging messages, sharing charts, and having discussions. But really, they’re not collaborating. A true collaboration is contextual collaboration. Essentially what that means is that you request for, let’s say, a new laptop in your company and you would like to chat with a person about that particular item and see what happened and if it’s going to be delivered, and you don’t want to be going to a chat system like Slack or a Google Hangout. How we plan to change that with Kissflow is people will be able to go on that particular item that is pending in my queue and then be able to initiate a chat conversation and automatically the person who’s responsible for it receives that message. That’s really a paradigm changer.
Kissflow has captured the global business process management market, serving about 10,000 clients, including Airbus, Denon, Michelin, and Pepsi. You’ve credited this success to desk selling and marketing. How did you come to this method?
Kissflow believes in product-led growth, rather than in salespeople who go out in the market and magically pull a rabbit out of their hat and make a sale happen. That is really sales growing based on some individual’s skills. What we do at Kissflow is product-led sales, which means that we make a great product and we invest heavily in digital marketing. For this type of marketing, we don’t really need to get out from behind a desk. We get the word out to as many people as we can through the digital medium. We use social media, blogs, content, websites, paid advertisements on Google, writing on directory sites, listings, and podcasts.
Everything is digital, just being done at the desk and creating awareness for a product, bringing visitors to our website, and making sure there is a trial option for them to try the product and see if they like it. Our hope is we have built a great product and they will buy it. We actually have an inside process team, which reaches out to people who came through our website and signed up for our product. We don’t go meet customers or give them a hard pitch or anything like that. This complete process is done remotely, sitting offline, not meeting the customer face-to-face.
SaaS founders are often forced to think about scaling up long before they are ready. Could you talk about some of the elements that were crucial as you scaled your business?
The race to get funded, just because your neighbor got funded has become the curse of today’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Growth doesn’t come with funding, growth comes from product-market fit, and founders need to figure out how to get the product-market fit right for their product. Once they are able to solve that problem really well, then the customer starts coming in, and then money starts coming, and then the growth happens organically.
Almost always, founders end up trying to raise money without having a clue about how their product is going to get adopted or how they’re going to get product-market fit. That’s really the biggest problem that I see today.
What was Kissflow’s process in finding the right product-market fit?
Kissflow’s product-market fit was not a difficult one. We had a previous product, which was a more generic platform, and we were selling to a lot of customers. One of the use cases that most customers ended up using that product for was workflow automation, although the product was not built for workflow automation. So we told ourselves, “if that’s what people are looking for, we should build a product that solves workflow automation.” It was a pretty organic way that we found the product-market fit.
Many times, founders do not have this kind of opportunity. I have mentored on a one-on-one basis about 200 to 300 SaaS founders in India in the last three or four years. One of the things I’ve found is that founders jump and build the product straight away because most of them are technical founders and they know how to build it. If you come up with an idea, one of the simplest things to do is go through a validation by building a simple landing page, just a one-page website, which communicates the value proposition of what your product or expected product is supposed to be. Then take $100 or $500 and put up Google AdWords and see for those keywords if people are landing on your website. If they are landing on your site and if they message that what you’ve put on the single-page website is appealing and they are willing to take a free trial signup, then you have pretty much validated there is an opportunity there.
To do this, it takes less than $1,000. This is an important technique that someone can follow, especially for discoverable products, to be able to see if there is a market for it.
“Most people think of scaling up as a function of money. And while I think money is important, more important is a repeatable, what I’ll call for lack of better words, sales engine.”
Scaling up has become associated with VC funding. What did your scaling activity look like when you reached a $1 million in revenue, and what did it look like in year one versus year four?
Again, I think most people think of scaling up as a function of money. And while I think money is important, more important is a repeatable, what I’ll call for lack of better words, sales engine. This means that there is a process by which you are able to market, the marketing results in a lead, the lead goes to sales, a portion of the lead will convert into customers, and then you’re able to take that money and deploy it back into marketing. Then the process starts again, and then you start generating money.
If you’re able to get this sales engine working and you are able to see a large market, for example, if you have a keyword that searches, let’s say, 10,000 impressions, but you are only able to service 500 impressions, that means you have an ability to grow from 500 to 10,000, which is 20 times. That means that if you had money now, you could scale this company 20 times because you have the growth engine working. To me, growth is a combination of figuring out this sales engine and then pumping money into the system. Almost always people do not have this engine working, but they somehow get the money, and then they try to see how to deploy that money and then fail in that process.
How did you get Kissflow to $1 million in revenue? Did you chase new market segments, new categories, new areas, or a combination of all these?
We probably took 18 months or so to get to $1 million, or maybe a little bit more than that. Our key marketing tactic was heavily investing in SEO. We didn’t have enough money at that time, so the number one thing we had was talent to build SEO. We invested very heavily in SEO without spending much on Google AdWords, and we were able to get to $1 million only through SEO, without any paid ads. Then we started investing in paid advertisements and so on. Even today, although we are scaling very heavily in marketing, we equally scale SEO activities — 40% to 45% of our inbound leads come from SEO. We have anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 keywords for any given product, and for those keywords, we have many of them ranking in the top third or fifth position.
Can you talk about the role of funding in building Kissflow?
If I had to start all over again, I probably wouldn’t raise funding. Because I think the economics of building a company to the first few million dollars is extremely favorable towards the entrepreneur’s side. It has become extremely capital efficient to build a company for a couple of million dollars without raising funding, provided that you have a good founding team that is willing to invest.
When you have thousands of customers prioritizing different product features, it can be tricky. Sales, customer success, and product management may all have competing priorities. How do you handle this challenge?
Product management is one of the key strong areas of Kissflow. Within product management, we have a number of best practices, and one of the things that we do is called the “WINES Framework.” We prioritize our features based on this framework. Each one of these letters actually belongs to a function and every time we draw a roadmap, each department owns a letter in this “WINES Framework.” For example, “W” stands for winners, “I” is for invisible, “N” is for needs, “E” is for experience, and “S” stands for sellers. We need features in these five buckets: winners, invisible, needs, experience, and sellers.
Winners is owned by the strategy team, which is the product team; they think through what the strategic winning proposition for the product is. “I” is owned by engineering. These are all invisible features, like optimization, performance, response times, efficiency, and encryption. Then “N” is needs, which is owned by the customer success team; these are all needed features for existing customers to make sure they are happy. Then “E” is experience, owned by the UX and the user experience engagement team. “S” stands for sellers, which is owned by the sales team, which will come back and tell us what features we should add in order to make more sales. When we do roadmap planning, we’ll make sure that we have a bunch of features in each one of these categories so that all department functions are accommodated.
“I started on this journey maybe two and a half, decades ago, where I decided this is what is going to be my passion. It took 25 years for me to see a huge success, but people do not understand that following their passion means investing that kind of time.”
You are also the founder of SaaSBoomi, the home for Asia’s SaaS community. What led you to create this conference?
As I mentioned, I’ve mentored hundreds of founders. I did workshops where I would meet founders one-on-one. I felt that was a great way to build the community here, and I wanted to do it at scale. So I joined like-minded founders in Chennai, and we launched SaaSBooMi. “Boo Mi” means land, so “SaasBooMi” means ‘the land of SaaS.’
We basically created a community where it’s only for founders, no other employees, no vendors, no sales teams, or sponsored presentations are allowed. It’s hard-core founder experience and knowledge-sharing so that people can take away real inputs and implement it in their business.
Could you talk about the importance of factors such as content marketing and UX design for inbound marketing?
Content marketing and UX design are very important. One of the things where we have innovated a lot is content marketing. We did a special type of blog, a visual blog, which is heavy content but presented in a visual infographic style. It’s not like a typical infographic — people are able to click on it and then the page will sort of respond with something and then they’ll be able to do further interactions, and then it’ll give you some more content and then they’ll do some more interactions. It’s not like a text blog, it’s interactive. We have been successful at the intersection of content marketing and user experience. When these two things come together, success for inbound marketing becomes very high.
Can you discuss the differences between the flywheel model and the funnel model in marketing, and why it is your belief that the flywheel model is most relevant for SaaS businesses?
If you go back to classic marketing, it generates a lead and then it passes it on to sales and then sales convinces the customer to buy, and then the customer finally gets the product and then he starts understanding the product, starts using the product, and most of the time gets frustrated because he didn’t know this is what the product was before the sale was made. This is the classical funnel-based sales model.
In the flywheel model, what happens is marketing does whatever it needs to do and then the customer comes to the website and signups — and they don’t go to sales, they go into the product. When they go into the product, then the flywheel starts. Because if you build a great product, people start liking the product and then they engage with the product, start using the product, and then they start giving good word-of-mouth feedback, and it becomes easy for sales to convince them to buy the product. The loop gets closed because a great product brings more people into the system, and then the whole system starts earning on its own. It sort of connects back with the sales engine that I talked about. That’s really what the flywheel model is all about: It is where the product is central to the whole process.
Are there things you learned from that experience that you could turn into advice for other entrepreneurs?
People often say, “Follow your passion,” but it often takes a couple of decades to see results. Following your passion is not like you do it for one or two years and then you see if it is working or not and then you change it. That’s not following your passion. I started on this journey maybe two and a half, decades ago, where I decided this is what is going to be my passion. It took 25 years for me to see a huge success, but people do not understand that following their passion means investing that kind of time. I believe if it’s something you are passionate about and you invest that much time in any discipline, you can make that kind of success.