Editor’s note: This interview, as part of SandHill’s series of software leader profiles, discusses lessons learned and insights from Praful Saklani, who led three successful startups and is currently CEO of Pramata. He shares experiences in pivots and building company culture, explains leadership traits and warns about an aspect of the “entrepreneurial itch.”
Q: You’ve led three companies. What are the most important lessons you learned at each of these companies?
Praful Saklani: Let me start first with a common lesson from all of them, then a lesson from each of them. The common lesson is that anything you and your team come up with may be powerful, but it’s 10 times more powerful to come up with it in collaboration with your customers. It’s very easy for a very driven startup to think that they are going to outsmart the market. But my advice to CEOs is, as early as you can – even earlier than you may be comfortable – start engaging with a select group of your existing and potential customers to understand what you’re not seeing and hone in on where the real value proposition is.
As you know, there is a lot of attention on sales enablement solutions and customer relationship intelligence, which is Pramata’s space. We started off focusing on contracts and legal folks in our customer organizations. But because we talked with our customers, we found our customer intelligence technology was far more powerful and valuable if we focused on sales and finance teams.
The same thing happened at my second venture, WaterHealth International, where talking with customers helped us see their real pain points and a big bottleneck, so we added powerful value by combining our technology with a financing model, especially for rural customers.
Q: You founded Yatra at age 25, so I imagine you learned a lot as a leader there.
Praful Saklani: Yes. I learned how to listen and weigh people from various backgrounds and experience. That fundamental lesson helped to shape my personal philosophies around respecting and focusing on the whole rather than just individual ideas. Nobody is the smartest person in the room.
Q: You were also co-founder of consulting firm Invotech Systems and VP of market development at WaterHealth International before you founded Pramata where you are now CEO. What were your main learnings at the other companies you led?
Praful Saklani: When I sold Yatra, my “entrepreneurial itch” and philanthropic leanings took me to WaterHealth. It was a very interesting experience because we were providing for-profit excellence in a social impact business. A lot of my learning was around the need to really understand the target audience and to really clarify the mission.
At Pramata, my learnings as a leader are the need to focus on customer centricity and to keep your eyes open for where the biggest value for the customer is. If there is an additional opportunity inside your business, a culture of customer centricity will help you find it, constantly asking yourself the question of is there additional value that we’re not seeing.
Q: You mentioned earlier the pivot that you led at Pramata, from the focus on legal to non-legal folks at customer organizations. How do you drive a change like that?
Praful Saklani: It starts with creating a customer-centric culture, but it also requires cross-cultural collaboration. You need to make sure your product people talk to the sales people, who talk to the marketing people. You need to ensure effective communication and collaboration.
It’s also important to take an iterative approach, not just from an agile perspective, but from a go-to-market perspective and from data-driven decision making. Go out there as quickly as you can and get data, absorb that data, then refine it and figure out which of your assumptions were correct and which need modification.
All three of these aspects need to be driven from the CEO down into the organization.
Q: What is the most important attribute or skill a leader needs in order to drive change management through an organization?
Praful Saklani: I feel my biggest strength as a leader is that I understand that, beyond vision, you need a phenomenal group of people that can work together towards objectives. As a leader, you really need to understand the cultural dynamics playing in the company, where are things clicking in critical mass and how you can proactively assess progress in creating the culture and collaborating to improve performance year over year. I think having that understanding is an important trait as a CEO.
Great ideas will only take you so far. You have to be able to execute. And I think you need to do that in a way that is enjoyable for the people in your company. Build a results-driven yet joyful culture.
Q: You referred to the entrepreneurial itch. Of course there are many examples of the positive outcomes of this mindset. Are there any negative aspects that young leaders need to be aware of?
Praful Saklani: The good aspect is the drive to want to create something (a product, outcome or movement) that is different and meaningful. But in business, you need to understand how to balance that with reality. Otherwise, you’ll pivot continually from idea to idea and not develop true depth. And that exhausts customers.
Q: You’ve been quoted in the past as advising startup leaders to focus on the one thing that their company does better than any other company in the world. Please explain how to figure that out.
Praful Saklani: The odds that you hit it on what you’re best at the first time you go out there, when your company is born into the market, are low. Maybe some companies can do it, but for the most part, it doesn’t work that way. But there is a bit of a proven process.
The first thing is to make sure the problem you’re trying to solve is a real problem. Then interact with customers to figure out the best way to solve that problem. Your first assumptions of how you think the problem manifests itself and how to solve it may not hit the bull’s eye.
I think more often than not companies fall short in relentlessly focusing on execution. Our team at Pramata has done a phenomenal job. Our ability to produce great software and our ability to really collaborate with the customers and bring in a solution under budget is amazing. Once you figure out the problem and collaborate on how to solve it, it’s the execution that allows you to become the best in the world at doing that.
Q: When you were just out of college or still in college, which was during the dot-com era, you knew then that you wanted to focus on technology. What was interesting to you about it?
Praful Saklani: My father was a Unisys employee. We had computers while I grew up, and I always had an affinity for technology, but I was not driven to computers. But while I was in college, we had access to the precursor of what is now the World Wide Web. Suddenly I intuitively knew this was something different, something that would impact the way people would communicate with each other. And the word “commerce” started coming online while I was in college. Like young people today, I wanted to have a part in changing the world.
Q: Is there a software company or leader that you admired back then?
Praful Saklani: I remember seeing an article in Fortune in 1996, talking about the work that was being done by companies like Yahoo! and Netscape. They talked about co-founders in their 20s, and those young entrepreneurs were inspirations to me.
Q: Who do you admire today in the software world?
Praful Saklani: The company I really admire is Salesforce. They took a category that had many waves of history in salesforce automation and CRM. Not only did they create a strong customer base, but they really created a culture around their sales operations and sales automation. They built a culture around empowerment and measurement. You actually feel that culture when you talk to their customers. I think that’s something every company should emulate.
As a leader, I really like what I’ve seen from Marc Benioff. I like that he has a very clear customer-centric mindset. I also admire what he has done as a philanthropist.
Another person is Hasso Plattner, co-founder of SAP. I think that he has a genuine passion around excellence. He “made it” a long time ago, but he still keeps up with how to catch the next wave of technology. I have a lot of respect for him.
Q: Where do you think sales automation and customer intelligence solutions are headed? How will they change over the next two to five years?
Praful Saklani: For most companies, over 80 percent of sales revenue next year will come from businesses that are their customers today. Although over the last decade there has been a huge investment in sales automation/enablement solutions, most companies’ understanding of their customers is still very limited.
Knowledge of the relationships with current customers is a very fragmented area in most enterprises. To find that information often requires looking in multiple systems – one place to find the contract and another place to find the billing data and a third place to find purchase history.
Solutions such as Pramata make that customer information more easily accessible to give sales reps knowledge that will help them sell more and deliver a better sales experience. Sales automation/enablement solutions will become even better at providing customer intelligence that helps companies know what is the best precursor of the ability to grow a customer.
If they then service existing customers at the highest level, they can grow those relationships and make them more profitable over time.
Praful Saklani is co-founder and CEO of Pramata. He has deep expertise in the artificial intelligence technologies core to Pramata and experience in delivering enterprise process solutions to large corporate customers. Prior to co-founding Pramata, he founded and served as CEO of Yatra Corporation, which leveraged artificial intelligence and Internet technologies to optimize travel management processes. Previously, he was co-founder and managing partner of consulting firm, Invotech Systems, and a key executive of Waterhealth International, a social startup focused on bringing affordable drinking water purification solutions to developing countries.
Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor of SandHill.com.