Over the past year, we sat down with the founders or CEOs of five startup companies funded in part by Cisco Investments to discuss their views on the critical components of growth and the development of a healthy corporate culture. Each executive is an industry veteran who brings a great deal of experience and real-world knowledge to their companies. We think you’ll appreciate and benefit from their insights as well.
What advice would you have for other startup CEOs?
George Mathew is the chairman and CEO of Kespry, the leading drone-based aerial intelligence company, based in Menlo Park, CA. His focus is on leading the company’s mission to transform how people capture, analyze, and share insights about their businesses. Mathew has 20 years of experience developing high-growth technology startups. Prior to Kespry, Mathew held senior leadership positions at Alteryx, salesforce.com, and SAP. He has driven company strategy, led product management and development, and built sales and marketing teams.
George Mathew: So, there’s things that you come across as being a first-time CEO that you just don’t ever see until you are actually CEO. One, be very, very sure about what your product-market fit is, and be prepared to evolve the company, specifically when that product-market fit isn’t fully there.
And we saw that at Kespry. We started to see how the specialization and the focus in the market particularly between hardware and software evolved around drones. And we had to make very specific choices to say, “Hey,” who we were, call it for the next five years of the company versus the last five years. And that was the software focus we took.
The thing is, as you’re going through those changes, I would always recommend really keeping a very strong pulse on the culture of the company. And ultimately changes like the ones that we went through at Kespry to get to the point where we’re at were difficult. And so culture matters quite a bit because it keeps teams aligned and together to really focus on the journey in the long run versus all the short term wobbles, and weaves, and challenges that you run into as you’re going through that growth cycle.
Because as much as we’d all like to think that the journey is always up and to the right, it’s not. Often times, there are very specific roadblocks and barriers that you encounter, and it’s how management teams work around those things to create great companies.
The third thing I’d always recommend is just have a very strong board and advisors around you. We have been blessed at Kespry to have an incredibly strong board. Amit, you’ve been an enormously beneficial and helpful advisor to us from a board observer perspective. But as you know, the entire board is rowing in the right direction to help the company get to the next level of scale.
So, having those three things really well understood as you’re going through any entrepreneurial journey, I think is absolutely essential, particularly, one who’s either a first-time CEO or a first-time entrepreneur going through this. You’re not quite prepared until you’re actually doing it.
George Mathew shares how the drone industry landscape has evolved.
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What are some insights you can share from your days in Panaya and Sisense, as in, what works in relations to team leadership and management?
Amit Bendov is the CEO and founder of Gong.io. He brings more than 20 years of leadership experience in hyper-growth enterprise software startups. Before co-founding and leading the team at Gong.io, Amit was CEO of SiSense, and also held the role of CMO for Panaya.>
Amit Bendov: I think there are three things. First, make sure you’re in a market that solves a painful problem, and you’re uniquely differentiated within it. Having been competitors is not such a bad thing, you just have to know what your differentiation is.
Secondly, be certain the market is large enough to support you and your financial models. With Gong, we took the time to validate that. Being excited about your offering is not enough! If you’re in a good market, you’re already in a good spot. So, be sure there are potential customers who are excited about your offering.
If you’re in a good market, even if your team is just okay, you could still do fine. I’ve seen companies that I think are in a good market, and although their team may not consist of superstars, they’re still doing well.
And, then the third important thing is to build an all-star team: the best engineering, marketing, sales, and customer support people you can find. If you get that all-star team together and enable them, you have a perfect storm. Easier said than done, but there’s no way around it.
Amit Bendov shares how to keep a team of superstars motivated, engaged, and well-managed.
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What advice do you have for founders that are starting new companies that are going through that growth phase?
Russ Fradin is Co-Founder and CEO of Dynamic Signal, a Silicon Valley software company and the leading employee communication and engagement platform. A digital media industry veteran, Russ has more than 22 years of experience in the online marketing world. Prior to Dynamic Signal, he was the CEO and co-founder of Adify (acquired by Cox for $300M in May 2008) and co-founded SocialShield. He was also SVP of Business Development at Wine.com, EVP of Corporate Development at comScore (NASDAQ:SCOR) and was among the first employees at Flycast (acquired by CMGi for $2.3B in January 2000). Russ is an active angel investor in the digital world and sits on the board of directors for multiple companies.
Russ Fradin: Make sure the problem you’re solving is an actual problem that people have and not just something that feels good. So, especially in the enterprise world, it doesn’t matter how cool your product is if it’s not being used by customers, it doesn’t have to be big or small, it depends what market you’re going after, it’s not actually being used by customers, then you’re nowhere.
Russ Fradin shares more about the corporate culture at Dynamic Signal and what attracts people to work there.
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Tell us more about the culture you’re building at Prospera.
Daniel Koppel is a Co-Founder and CEO of Prospera, a data company transforming farm production by fusing agronomy, computer vision, AI and machine learning. Founded in 2014, the company operates globally and optimizes the production of thousands of fields, helping achieve better yields, healthier crops and higher profits.
Daniel Koppel: We have a few core values that really define both the day-to-day activities and also the culture at the company.
The first is to challenge everything – we don’t take anything for granted. Everyone in the team can challenge anything. There’s no hierarchy: people are used to questioning things and giving their opinion. And that’s actually the first thing we tell people when they come to the company, and I think one of the reasons that we’re able to change things that have never been changed before.
The second value is resourcefulness. Being a small company trying to move such a big industry with projects that are really multidisciplinary means that if everybody only did what their title says, it would be very challenging. We all have to be resourceful and hands-on and look for nontrivial solutions. That really reflects our day-to-day and the way we operate.
And another key value is growth. We care both about the growth of the company, but also about the growth of the individual. It’s very important to understand where every individual wants to go in terms of her career, in terms of her personal objectives, and we put a lot of focus on that. So that, as we grow the company, we also grow the individuals within the company.
Daniel Koppel shares how Prospera is driving the digital transformation of AgTech.
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What advice can you give to other founders of early stage startups?
Omar Tawakol is Chief Executive Officer of Voicea. Prior to Voicea, Omar Tawakol was the founder and CEO of BlueKai which built the worlds largest consumer data marketplace and DMP. Oracle acquired BlueKai in 2014 & Omar served as the SVP & GM of the Oracle Data Cloud.
Omar Tawakol: You want a culture that fosters collaboration. You want a team that is focused on a common vision and common direction and not on personal agendas or egos. We’ve been lucky at this because we seek the right kinds of people and we work together to establish our goals as a team. In doing so we ensure alignment. It’s not easy and it requires attention and focus, but we’ve seen a lot of success with this, both at BlueKai and at Voicea. A unified, well-aligned team can tackle almost any challenge and rise to the occasion.
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*Cisco acquired Voicea in 2019.
Investments are an important part of Cisco’s innovation strategy. Of course, investing requires due diligence. Before any investment, we sit down with the key players to learn their stories, discuss their visions for their companies and evaluate their plans to bring them to fruition. Apart from helping us find the right company to investment in, forging these relationships early in the process builds mutual trust upon which their companies can grow.
We’ll soon be sharing with you recent conversations we’ve had with the founders or CEOs of other exciting companies we’ve invested in, including Whatfix, LumaHealth, Rookout, NS1 and Secure Code Warrior.