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.
Interviewed by Daniel Karp.
Daniel Karp (DK): Amit, thanks for taking the time to meet with me. When we first invested in Gong in early 2018, you were already on the verge of hitting a hockey-stick towards fast-growth, that's one reason we invested. Tell us a bit about your growth since then.
Amit Bendov (AB): We increased our growth fivefold in our first year, We hope to be doing the same this year, too. I think we also tripled the team. The product grew dramatically, it seems to have evolved even faster than the team, so that’s great news for customer efficiency. Right now we’re recruiting for almost every position in the company: engineering, sales, marketing, customer success, finance, HR. We’ll be adding at least 50 to 60 more positions just in the next few months. I'm very happy we made the deal with you, too.
DK: In looking to raise funds, are you more interested in regular or strategic investors? As Gong’s founder, what are your top two or three concerns in terms of investors’ characteristics?
AB: With strategic investors it’s important to see what kind of market leverage they can provide, either as a customer or a partner. The question is, what else (besides money) do you bring to the table as an investor?
DK: In many ways, you provide insight to salespeople so they know what they're doing right or not, and how to improve. As such, you've won numerous awards for the Gong product. Can you speak to that recognition?
AB: We love awards! They’re helpful in terms of recognition, recruiting talent, and for the employees and their families. It’s rewarding for them to hear the company is winning them, and knowing that everybody is hard at work. The awards themselves aren't what's driving our business though. The real measure of our success is customer excitement. That's what we really look at day-in, day-out. We have a Slack channel that measures a customer's engagement 30 times a day. It reveals how they perceive and use the product. That ultimately leads to revenue success.
DK: That's fantastic! It seems Gong is the ultimate consumer of its own product. By measuring your customers’ successes, you are able to assess your own, too.
AB: It did help us quite a bit. I think our time-to-market is much faster. It demonstrates how we are truly a learning organization. I was in an enterprise pipeline call this morning, and a senior rep who just joined the company recently mentioned doing a pilot program with a large account and how he's prepping it. But, he said that "I'm going to listen to Ryan's call because he has a unique approach to training that's very successful, and I copied whatever he did." So, we didn't need to be in the loop and have an enablement function. While we could provide it, that rep was able to learn the best practices from our reps and see how to set up a great program. In the early days, we reached out to sales operations people because we figured they would probably buy Gong. We heard things from them like, "Oh, this is such a cool technology but we're busy right now, it's not in the budget, and we have two or three other ongoing projects.” After hearing comments like those 20 or 30 times in the span of three weeks, it was time to change our approach. Without Gong, it might have taken us six months to learn that. But we spotted the issue quickly and adapted. Now, when launching a product, our sales process moves much faster. We know its value within a week or two; not in a quarter or two.
DK: Within the last year or so, you've brought some great new products to market. Outside of just the basic package, you launched Whisper and introduced Beat. What’s your approach to engineering development through a customer's value lens? How have you measured those product enhancements in relation to customer feedback? How have you interlaced that data-driven approach from customer feedback to your ongoing engineering efforts, especially as the R&D team is primarily located in Tel-Aviv?
AB: Our challenge is greater than many companies, because the Gong engineering team is based in Israel, and our go-to-market team is here in the U.S. There's always a distance factor, but it’s much farther for us than for most of our competitors. We use customer feedback in a number of ways. First, obviously, we're connected to our sales and customer success. Our product and engineering teams have direct access to the voice of the customer, 100% in near real-time. They don’t need to debate the reasons they buy or not because they get the absolute truth. They’re in the trenches and dialed in. So, when a customer speaks about our product, the engineering team can easily listen into exactly how the customer feels about it, what they're asking for, and see how familiar they are with the product. Secondly, our product managers use Gong, too. They often interview customers about a future product to gather their concerns and thoughts. They'll demo prototypes and mockups to obtain their feedback. Then the findings are circulated within the product and engineering teams. This significantly shortens the product development cycle. The third benefit is at beta stage or when we launch the product. Now, our sales team can access those early conversations. They understand the context of the product much sooner than when training the customers on the sales kick-off, in conversations at events, or on a first call with them.
DK: That's one of the many benefits of being an active user of Gong yourselves.
AB: Yes, absolutely.
DK: Fantastic! So please share your thoughts about Cisco Investments, what stemmed the investment, and how you view the investment from your vantage point?
AB: Well, we view Cisco as a value partner because a large part of the business is communications and collaborations. Gong takes those communications threads and converts them into internal goals. What flows inside those pipes becomes Gong's input. We definitely see a great potential for partnership with you. It’s quite exciting!
DK: I recall you phrasing it the same in one of our meetings. Something like, "You guys are the pipes, and we can help you better monetize for those pipes and make them shine."
AB: Exactly! We take what goes inside those pipes and make them a lot more valuable. I don't know the exact numbers of what something like WebEx or a contact center software costs, but inside those pipes, people could be discussing a million-dollar deal, so the value is much higher. And if you could tap into that, it’s massive.
DK: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Let’s hear about your experience as a leader and uber-manager of some amazing teams. 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?
AB: 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.
DK: How do you keep that team of superstars motivated, engaged, and well-managed? How can you ensure there's a system of checks and balances between the teams? A team of superstars may be experts in their field, but are they experts in every field?
AB: If you hire a great team and have a strong product market space, it cultivates constant success. A winning emotion that gets everybody motivated is when you attract the right people. Gong’s success creates more excitement which leads to more success. Secondly, if you hire people who are better than you….ideally in their field….and give them a leeway to run things in a way they understand, they thrive because they feel empowered in that “CEO role” of their respective fields. Thirdly, it's important as a CEO to integrate the team and their various functions to keep them all on the same page. Many companies have adopted this practice. We invest quite a bit in communicating and keeping everybody together. We took the time to codify our offering principles. It ensures everybody understands how we operate, make decisions, and prioritize at Gong. That definitely helps. Our team produced a document and a cool video that covers our eight operating principles. They were defined by who Gong is now, and what's unique about us. Our principles are about what we are. Having raving fans is our top priority. We want our team members and customers to not only be happy, but go a level beyond. One of our operating principles, for example, is ‘No sugar!’ We must be able to solve problems quickly, and there's no need to sugarcoat stuff. You should assume that what you're hearing is exactly what it is. By our nature, we always crave more. Therefore, we are quite driven. Every time we hit a goal, we celebrate, then immediately start dreaming about the next one. We realize it's going to take a while to build our vision. We don't care if there's a sacrifice. If it comes down to a short- or long-term win, we'll go for the long-term one. So, for example, let's say we're running short of our goal for the quarter, and there's a deal that we can close and make this number. If we're unsure the customer is going to be a raving fan, we don't mind missing the number for the quarter because thinking long-term is the right thing to do. That's the priority we want everybody in the company to be making. Those are just four of our eight principles! Our people use them all the time, so it's not wishful thinking - It's how we operate. And, regarding frequent communications, we have ‘all-hands calls’ and Slack channels that inform and update our team. We celebrate successes. Everybody we hire is flown to Israel for a week of immersion with our engineering team there which they love. That keeps everybody connected. We enjoy what's going on at Gong, and we’re excited about getting the word out about them through some fun marketing executions launching soon. We also did a webinar a few weeks ago for which 3,000 people signed up and 1,200 attended! It was insane! We’re thrilled to have a cult-following for Gong.
DK: Fantastic lessons for all to follow. Can you share insights about some current market trends, and how you’re facing the changes?
AB: Well, these are indeed exciting times! It's the age of AI and automation which actually go together. AI can do for CRM what AI is doing for the automotive industry with autonomous vehicles. They seem possible today because there's one level of AI that’s used to understand one’s surroundings. I mean, people now understand that the LIDAR that understands what's on the road. Then there’s great digital maps and other systems which first understand where the car is, then what's around it, and finally what's going on. From that point on, if you have enough accuracy to understand your surroundings, you can get into the work of guidance. Do some turn-by-turn direction or ultimately to fully automated functions. The same can be said for customer management. We created a system that can interpret customer conversations and assess their engagement with customer-facing people. It doesn't completely understand everything yet, however, but there’s a much brighter future ahead. We're not far from the moment, where customer management can autonomously be interpreted, like recommendations that are based on the reality of what's around the car, and also automation of many chores that customer-facing people hate doing or aren't good at doing. It's a good time to be around.
DK: Absolutely! And it's a huge task, right? You know, it's not just the conversations that you're having; all the forms of interactions you have with a customer. Every channel and engagement out there, including how that engagement progresses over time, I imagine. So, the self-learning of that system is a huge task that Gong is undertaking
AB: Yes! It's a massive engineering project, which we're thrilled about. Even though the product is successful as is, I consider sales to be still early in the process as far as the amount of effort and investment that we'll make in the product.
DK: Fantastic! We share that view and are equally excited. As a side note, Amit, my impression is that you're a bit different from the traditional Israeli CEO who geeks out on engineering features and is accustomed to heading up large engineering teams, but not really to leading full-blown firms. Unlike those CEOs, you're super market-driven and customer-focused! Please share your guidance and insights you might offer a stereotypical Israeli CEO from a technical background? How do you suggest they take that step and evolve from an engineering management role towards truly becoming a CEO?
AB: I think it goes back to the previous point. Find either a great co-founder that complements you, someone who knows more than you in their line of expertise. I've been fortunate to have, my co-founder and CTO, Eilon Reshef, with me, who’s a technical genius and a great team builder. Now, I don't need to focus on the technology and engineering as much because his involvement enables me to focus on the market. If you're the engineering co-founder, then find a co-founder who’s great with customer relations and marketing. If you're a CEO, then hire someone stellar. Many try to hire someone junior because they don't want to spend money or think "I want to start small." No, start big! Just get a superstar because in the end, if you're not successful by not being fast in the market, it won’t matter. You can't change a person, but you can complement yourself with a great co-founder or a great CRO, CMO, or both. They could bring in that new perspective you most need.
DK: Are you offering mentoring to technical CEOs, in your spare time?
AB: Sometimes people pose a specific question, and I always do my best to help. I wish I had more time in my day to provide that kind of mentoring. Perhaps, though, we should do a webinar, and you can ask me anything people want to know.
DK: Sounds good! Now, I’m wondering how can you constantly be in two places at the same time all the time? Because I think you're living in two or more time zones at any given moment.
AB: Actually, that’s not me. I have people that look like me and they're in several places around the world.
DK: [chuckles] Thanks a lot for your time. We really appreciate it.