Practical Founders Podcast

#28: Bootstrapped B2B SaaS company in India serving IT services companies – Sandeep Kumar

Sandeep Kumar quit his job working for an Indian consulting company to start a software company in 2005, when product-focused startups were not common in India. For the next 10 years, they experimented with product features and customer profiles until they finally found an important buyer with budget power who needed their must-have software. 

ProductDossier is now a comprehensive platform for enterprise consulting and IT services companies in India to manage project financials, project resources, project delivery, and new opportunities in one system. Over 50 large consulting companies in India use ProductDossier to manage their global project portfolios to ensure high-quality and profitable project delivery. 

The company has 100 employees and is growing steadily without any outside funding. Sandeep shares the important lessons he learned in his 15-year journey about product-market fit, building trust with big Indian customers, developing a great organization, and thinking big.

Best quote from Sandeep:

“I think it’s a blessing that we didn’t raise outside funding. The reason is that we had the freedom to experiment, to try and experiment and then evolve. 

“We finally figured out that we were not building must-have software, we were building nice-to-have software. And we were selling to engineering managers who don’t have decision-making powers or a budget.

“Based on those learnings, we pivoted. For me, it was step-by-step learning that we couldn’t rush in building the right foundations for our business, building our organization, and developing high trust with our customers.”

Edited transcript of Practical Founders Podcast interview with Sandeep Kumar, founder and CEO of ProductDossier.

Greg Head: And we’re live with Sandeep Kumar, the founder and CEO of ProductDossier in India. Welcome to the Practical Founders Podcast, Sandeep. 

Sandeep Kumar: Thank you. Thank you, Greg. Thank you for having me this evening.

Greg Head: And of course, it’s morning here in the States, so we’re doing that late night, late evening for you and early morning for me across the world thing, which is just amazing. You and I are old enough to remember when it wasn’t so easy to do business in the States from your side, and in India from our side in the ’90s and 2000s. But this is kind of a magical time that software and the Internet and all of this is everywhere. And of course there’s an explosion of software development services and a software industry in India. I’m talking to software founders in India almost every day, and I think there are more software startup founders in India than there are in the United States. It’s just a massive market, a massive industry.

Sandeep Kumar: Absolutely. I think today the parents are telling their kids you should become an entrepreneur, this is the best time. So kids are really starting early, earlier. You know, you need to have a little bit of gray hair to become a founder. That was the sort of the right age. And I think you are bang on; it’s a completely flat world today. There is no difference whether you are sitting in India or you are sitting in the U.S. You have access to pretty much everybody and everything around the world.

Greg Head: Isn’t that interesting? What did your parents tell you you should be when you grow up when you were a kid?

Sandeep Kumar: So first thing is, Greg, I am from IISC, Indian Institute of Science. It’s similar to IIT, but it’s just different. So my parents actually, if I look back, they never told me anything, what should I do and what I should not do. And it’s always a post facto that I told them, “Look, I left my job and I have started my own company.” And so it was like sort of information to them rather than, you know, discussing with them and then deciding. So they never told me anything. And in fact, they didn’t know until I already started.

Greg Head: Well, let’s talk about ProductDossier now, and then we’ll go back to how you started that company and some of the lessons and your successes. You’re up and running, B2B SaaS company in India, and I think most of your customers are in India, but you sell around the world. Tell us what ProductDossier is.

Sandeep Kumar: ProductDossier, like you said, we are a B2B enterprise grade software company. Categorically, we are in professional services automation. So what it means is we digitize and automate business processes for project based industries, which includes project financials, resource management, project delivery and upstream and downstream processes like billing, rev rec, etc.. So that’s the very sort of niche area we are focused on.

Greg Head: And so is this software for the big IT services companies that are doing projects for companies in India and around the world? Is this what they could use to manage their projects? Is that really your focus, serving the IT services businesses in India?

Sandeep Kumar: Absolutely. So like I said, we focused on project based industries. Now, project based industries could be a few like IT services ITES or legal consulting firms, financial consulting firms and so on. But we picked up IT and ITES as a focus industry. While our software can probably be used by others as well, but of course we want to be very focused and we want to own a particular industry and then we will move to the second industry. So that’s one of the learnings, you know, we have had. We don’t want to spread too thin. Of course when we were starting up, all this wisdom was not there, we learned it on the way. So we were this spread out, and then now we are bringing a very thin, narrow focus. If you look at these IT, ITES companies, they already have the CRM piece, right, the customer facing where they get the opportunities and all. And then they have the ERP piece where they are doing a financial system, accounting, and all those things. So these two pieces I think are pretty established and there are few players in each one of them. There are challenges in between them. This is where there is no one leader or there is no one system today. People are using Excel or some homegrown utilities, and this is where they actually execute their business or projects. And we found the opportunity that this is a place where we can become one of the leaders. And with this sort of simple vision, and I was not that articulative when we were starting off, only today I’m able to say, but that’s where our focus is.

Greg Head: And when you say ERP, Enterprise Resource Planning, the financial and manufacturing management and so forth, that’s what big companies call it. Are you selling to very large companies, global companies, or what size companies are you selling to?

Sandeep Kumar: We definitely are not selling to very small companies. We are selling to mid to large, and our sweet spot is really, any company, especially in India, because there’s a large IT industry here with lots of people. So we are selling to anybody with 400 to 500 employees up to maybe 50,000 employees. That’s sort of our sweet spot. And we want to start early with companies, right when they are 500 to 1,000 people so that we can grow with them as they are growing because every company wants to become 5,000 or 10,000 people in India.

Greg Head: And where are you based and how many employees or full-time people do you have?

Sandeep Kumar: We are based in a city called Pune, which is in the western part of India, just below Mumbai. We are about 100 miles away. Today we have about 100 employees and we have about 50 odd customers. The good thing about customers is, all of our customers are much, much bigger than us. Much, much bigger. And that’s a good thing, right? Because that gives you a sense of responsibility. Sometimes I say I don’t even sell software. I sell trust because that’s what they have because they are putting their mission-critical processes on our software. And they are always, every single day, I think they are worried about our health. “How are you doing, Sandeep? And more importantly, how is ProductDossier doing?” You know, both of them are equally important to them. And another good thing about our customers and our industry we have chosen is that most of these companies are global in nature. They have about 20, 30% of their employees overseas in the United States, in Europe and other parts of the world. So by virtue of that, even if we have sold it in India, our software is used in multiple countries. So today, as I speak, at least in 20 countries our software is being used by people of so many nationalities. So our software has gone through that test of global acceptance. And that is why I say, you know, nothing could be better. We are selling in our backyard and still we have the global audience.

Greg Head: Yes. And you’ve got a big smile on your face thinking about your momentum and your opportunity. You know, a typical story here that I hear from Indian entrepreneurs who see my stuff on LinkedIn and we have a chat, they say, “I’ve got an IT services business and it’s spitting out profit, but I really want to make a product so I can get the multiples of revenue and scale it globally.” And there’s a totally different DNA business model and go-to-market and a way of thinking between “we’ll build you any kind of product services, anybody for anything,” and the focus of a scalable product. But Sandeep, you didn’t start off a few years ago saying, “I spent 20 years in the IT services industry. I saw this opportunity. We went out to build this product and now we’re up and running.” Tell us how you got this started. It’s a different kind of journey and you had a lot of lessons along the way.

Sandeep Kumar: Absolutely. So I think in 2006 I had spent barely eight, nine years in the industry, and two or three things happened. One is the founder of Infosys, Narayana Murthy, I’m sure you and your audience have heard of him. So he is like a middle-class person in India, right? He doesn’t come from a business family or big business groups. I think he was the first person who told an average person like me that you too can start a business. That is the first thing. Because until that time we thought, at least I thought and everybody like me, that businesses can be done only by the Tatas, etc. These are the big business houses in India, right? So that was the first thing. And second thing, while I was working for my previous employer, Geometric Software, I got a lot of opportunities of traveling to the U.S. and Europe during my days at Geometric. And what I learned there is that those guys are into products. And I had known the culture at Geometric Services company, how we work, where we are being billed and there is invoicing at the end. The way they do business, they build intellectual property. This was very different. And I was very fascinated by that, that “Look, if you want to do something, product is like creating something out of nothing.”

Sandeep Kumar: That’s your invention, right? And then somebody is paying you for using that. What could be better than that? So these two things combined. Then I said, “Let me try.” And I did a back-of-my-hand calculation. Look, my salary at that time, when I started it was maybe $1,000 or even less than that, actually. And I said, even if I’m not successful, I can always get this job back. It’s no big deal. So my loss is very minimal, but I will learn a lot. I didn’t go to any MBA or management school, but I said probably I’d learn something. And that’s how I jumped into it without doing much thinking. And sometimes I call it the power of ignorance, where you don’t know what you are getting into. I saw one picture somewhere, a deer that was blind was drinking water from the same pond where a lion was drinking water. So it was just the power of ignorance of that deer. He didn’t know that there was a lion standing next to him, and he drank water and went away, right? So that’s how my journey started in entrepreneurship.

Greg Head: People say the India market is huge. There are apps and software and of course, huge IT services. Everybody recognizes now if you’re creating a software company, you’re going to use talent from around the world, including India or wherever. But in 2005 you actually had to go to the States to see, no, there’s more of a product game that they’re playing that’s different than the services game. A software entrepreneur, it’s cool now in India, but was it cool back then? It was kind of an early wave.

Sandeep Kumar: Yeah, absolutely. So at that time, software was big in India. Everybody, every graduate wanted to join software and there were companies. But like you said, they were mostly services firms. There was a term everybody used to use in India, “body shopping” at that time. So a lot of people like graduates, they wanted to visit the U.S. on H-1B visas and things like that. And the culture of products wasn’t there. At the most, we would build some utilities or something to go on some reputed products in the U.S. as a sort of an add-on. But I don’t think anybody sort of ventured into full-fledged enterprise-grade sort of software. My visit to the U.S., of course, showed me because I went for a company that was a product company. So I learned a lot of things from there that, you know, it’s very different for services and products.

Greg Head: And that was also not the SaaS era, the recurring revenue business model and the cloud-based stuff. All those.

Sandeep Kumar: Absolutely. This was an on-premise model all the time. The SaaS was not heard of. I mean, as you said, it was just beginning, the Salesforce, but it wasn’t the mainstream thing. So it was only the on-premise model. So with the company I was working for, Geometric, I went to these product companies in the U.S. And there they were struggling with program management. I mean, that was the word I learned there, the program management, the project management. There were tools like CAD tools from SolidWorks or Think, but you know, there was nothing really to manage projects and programs. And so my motivation was more to build a product. And then I didn’t know much about this. Today, fresh graduates are very knowledgeable in terms of the space, in terms of the problem. My motivation was to build a product at that time. And I’m being honest rather than you know what problem. So I knew that there was a problem that existed and I said, “Okay, let’s start working on this idea.” So that’s how we started.

Greg Head: And we’ve talked before. You spent some time trying to figure out how to build product and then move it to SaaS, stay alive and find where the problem is. And you’ve evolved as a business entrepreneur as well. Tell us a few things about the journey. What about figuring it out years, which took a long time?

Sandeep Kumar: It’s a journey that, when I look back, I think I enjoy a lot and I enjoyed it on the way as well. First, as I said, we wanted to build a product and we knew the space we are in building in. We tried raising the venture capital money because that was the thing to do. Whenever you start entrepreneurship, the first thing was you wanted to raise money, but we didn’t get the money for whatever reason, right? And in hindsight, when I look at it, I think it’s a blessing that we didn’t get the money. The reason is that we had the freedom to experiment, to try and experiment and then evolve. So what happened over the next 10 years is that we built this product, and, you know, the first thing we realized is who we are selling to. We were selling it to an engineering manager and we were solving some engineering, doing engineering project management and everything. So when we went to the organization, people said, “You know, it’s great,” but we really were not able to sell. Then we figured out that, first of all, this thing dawned on us, maybe after a few years that, look, we are not building a must-have software, we are building a nice-to-have software. That is number one. And number two, we were selling to engineering managers who have limited decision-making powers and a limited budget. So really, both things are not in your favor. The difference between a nice to have and must have, actually, I think that was the biggest learning and I took a lot of time, whereas, you know, today I would tell a graduate out of college this is the thing to do for. But nobody told me at that time. And so for me it was like a step-by-step learning.

Sandeep Kumar: Based out of that learning, what we did is we pivoted. We said, “Look, I’m going to treat the projects, but I’m going to treat them from the financial side first. Is my project profitable? Is there a ROI on the project?” So when we started doing that, then our audience became actually the CFO or the CEO of the organization because they were very interested. So that was the first learning we had. Always build must-have software. At least, there should be a majority of the things which are must-have and then you can have bells and whistles around it, which is okay. And you should sell it to a person who can make the decisions. I mean, they are demanding, of course, but they can also make the decisions. They can also give you the dollars. And I think that was the first right thing we started doing. So that was the first pivot. And it took us a good six, seven years of learning and well, could I have done it in six months? Yes, I could have, but it’s just that we didn’t do it. It’s like a kindergarten to first to second, that’s how we learned. It’s a kindergarten of business. So that was the first thing, and second, like you said, in 2015, ’16, this model of SaaS was becoming very… and there was, of course, merit in it from a business perspective.

Sandeep Kumar: And at that time I think we changed our business model from on-premise to sort of a SaaS business model where we started selling by subscription. With the combination of these two things, I think we have seen phenomenal growth in the last five years. So that is one good thing. But the second good thing is that all these years, I don’t think it has gone to waste. We have learned a lot by being on the ground with the customers. We may not have sold much software in the first 10 years. That is okay. But what we have learned is we have been on the ground. We know what the customer wants and we use that time and our own money and not the VC money to build the software. And today, the depth of our software, even the customer sometimes gets amazed that, you know, how have you even thought about it? We thought about it because we have a luxury of time on our side. You always have to look for the positive side of things, right? I mean, time is anywhere lost. And now when we are going to the customer, I think it’s paying back because our deal closure, seeing value in our software, our articulation, our pitch, and we are making our customers very successful. They are seeing the ROI. Our partnership with our customer is strategic, almost like a marriage, and that to marriage in India, which lasts forever.

Greg Head: And when you say you’re on the ground with your customers, these are bigger customers. They’re not just coming to your website and trying some software and not talking to you. The last time I spoke to you, you were in a different city traveling to visit customers. You’re actually face to face with the serious leaders in these bigger companies and building that trust and implementing. Is that how you’re selling?

Sandeep Kumar: Absolutely. See, two things are happening in our business. And our business, I believe, will become more and more of that. We are selling serious enterprise software, which is mission-critical software. If our software is down for 30 seconds, the customer will have a problem. When it is that serious, the question every CEO will ask me is, “Sandeep, if you get hit by a truck, what will happen to me?” You can imagine the kind of question on his mind.

Sandeep Kumar: So today, how are we selling? In the beginning, of course, it was hard for us. Fortunately for us, we got a couple of our anchor customers who had a problem, who were entrepreneurs themselves and who liked my face, you can say, in shock. And they said, “You know, Sandeep, I will play the bet on you, and let’s do it.” And then when we got that opportunity, we never thought about anything else. We only had one mission, that we will make them successful because having an anchor customer is great, is huge. Some people may argue about it because then they will say these anchor customers will sort of pull the direction of your product development and they want one thing. But that’s where I think our team did a fabulous job because whatever we were hearing from the customer, we were not just doing if they said, A, I will do A. Actually, I will come back and I’ll say, “Okay, there is A, A plus delta, there’s that, and then generalize that and build it into a product form, right? So because I always knew that I’m not just building for this customer, but I should be solving everybody’s problem, that is what happened in making these customers successful. Most of our sales are actually incoming, not by the website, but these anchor customers either refer us to people they know or when the employees of these anchor customers sometimes go and join other companies, then they say, “Look, you know that company was not having this problem because they had this software.” So they give us a call. And so it’s a word of mouth, and that is how the technology products are sold. And now with our marketing and this pool of over 50 successful customers, I think we are in a much better situation.

Greg Head: I’m sure. And there’s that smile again because you’re up and running with 100 employees and 50 large, happy customers, and you’ve kind of gone from on-premise to SaaS and from engineering project management. There are multiple products here that all fit together.

Sandeep Kumar: Absolutely. It’s huge. Even sometimes when we look at it, we say, “Oh gosh, did we do it?” And you know, many people I spoke to, and all these are very knowledgeable entrepreneurs themselves, most of them told me, “Sandeep, are you sure you want to do it? I mean, this kind of work is done by companies like SAP or the Oracles who have deep financial… are you sure you want to do this much?” But I think we were very clear that we just don’t want to build a two or three-page app and call ourselves entrepreneurs, right? We want to solve real problems. And the problem should be such that it should keep me awake the full night. And that is what, you know, every day we come to the office we have spent a good part of our day here. And if we are not solving a mission-critical thing, there is no fun. At least I don’t feel it. It has given me, Greg, so much of a sense of responsibility. Everybody in our company, somehow it is in their head that they are not doing a simple job. They are running a customer business which is a far bigger responsibility, how dependent they are on our software. Of course, in a positive way.

Greg Head: You know, in this kind of five or 10 years figuring it out, trying this moving that, building product, changing the business model, all that, how many employees did you have? Was that a small team then?

Sandeep Kumar: Of course, we started with one employee, which was me. Until I think 4 or 5 years ago, we were like 50 or 60 people. We have grown a lot. I mean, double in the last four or five years. And I also found three of my co-founders with me. So we are now four co-founders, each one bringing, and the other two are from ITs like what you said. So I think we share a common vision, and everybody is excited about what I said, making the customer successful. I think that’s the only thing because of course there were years when we haven’t paid ourselves or paid a very meager salary because we were not having any funding. But I think today everybody feels if we do the right thing money will follow. That’s the mantra we believe in. And I think the day is not far.

Greg Head: The distinction of product market fit is we wandered around, we didn’t know, we couldn’t get funding, we pushed on things and it didn’t respond, but it sounds like you have product market fit for this size company in this industry with this problem where it’s a must-have, and it’s not must-have for everybody. We do exactly this, this, and this. That’s product market fit. If you could get another 100 of them, it would be about the same thing. You wouldn’t go sideways or… you’re narrowing in.

Sandeep Kumar: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Sandeep Kumar: You know, this power of narrowing the focus and the product market fit like you said, I think now we have got such a huge weapon in our arsenal that when customers hear us, and they say, “Sandeep you are saying the exact same thing as what we are facing.” And the customers trust in us and the same thing when the customer hears from a large company, a salesperson, their articulation, they said, “I’ve gotten more confused.” And this is our differentiator. When people say, “Look, you not only bring the software, you are like a subject matter expert.” And that’s what we are trying to marry, the business knowledge and the software. So we don’t call ourselves as just a software developer. We bring you the solution. We are your extended team. This has made a huge difference in today how customers look at us today.

Greg Head: Well, that’s the magic trick of practical founders in vertical industries. When SAP says, “We have project management for 26 industries and we’re big and global and so forth,” and some junior salesperson comes out and can barely describe this one of the 75 product, the generalist, right? And you come in as the specialist and you say, “I’ve been doing exactly this for 15 years for companies just like you, and let me ask you three questions,” and then you can go on for 20 minutes about the exact problems you have and they nod and they nod and they nod. A small company with 50 or 100 employees can beat the big guys with all the funding and global operations and so forth because they’re so focused. Sandeep, the reason we’re talking is because I’m a vertical specialist of specialists, right? Just early stage SaaS, B2B, just doing it without funding. And the beacon reached you in Pune, right, and we have conversations based on that. So like, you see what I’m saying? It’s really interesting as opposed to yet another person talking generally about SaaS or software or entrepreneurship or something.

Sandeep Kumar: Absolutely. This is such a huge differentiator, I can’t tell you. See, today companies want that startup agility, startup focus, right? And that’s what we are bringing to the customer. So they just like it and they are getting all this maybe at a fraction of the price. And tomorrow, like you said, in the next one or two years, I think our rate of acquisition of customers is growing. I mean, we are able to close much faster because if we have another 100 customers in the next two years, I think there is a lot of momentum where people will be talking among themselves and then there’s a lot of pull approach. And this could be a great situation because there are not many companies who can do stuff like us, right? Maybe there are two. That’s a very good position to be in.

Greg Head: Yeah. So you actually have now the momentum here. The post-product market fit momentum, which is when usually investors show up and say, “Well, you should go faster now that you’ve figured it out. You know what you are and you have traction and metrics and we can see that and momentum. Here’s some more money to go faster.” Sandeep, would you ever consider raising money now that the game is obvious in a practical way?

Sandeep Kumar: Yeah, I would say yes, we would certainly… Look, we also understand we’ve got a product market fit, we’ve got 50 customers. But look, there is also a window of opportunity, right? Especially when you know you’ve got it right. So you don’t want to go at the same pace. You want to increase your pace. Now, what are my options or what are our options? So option one is the strategic partnerships. So can I partner with the likes of SAP and Salesforce to push our product faster into the market, because that’s the ecosystem we work in. So that is one angle we are exploring. We want to partner with these leaders. And you know, together we offer a complete solution to our customers because out of these 50 customers, I think 40 of them have SAP’s Oracle and the Salesforce of the world and we have integrated. So we’ve got real use cases. So that is number one. And the second one is the VC money. So we’ll be open to it because I think VC money should be spent in the marketing and the sales and to really scale up. And we were lucky that we didn’t get it earlier because we could experiment, we could do pivots, otherwise, VCs maybe would have said, “Look, it’s not working out and let’s do something else,” and we wouldn’t be able to do all this. So in hindsight, it’s a blessing.

Greg Head: So most of your customers are India-based teams and headquarters, CFOs and CEOs in India?

Sandeep Kumar: Each one of our customers has an India story. So they have a presence in India. Now, some of these are headquartered in Singapore, some of them are purely U.S. Companies, some of them are even in South Asia, like Thailand and places like that. The majority of them are in India and they have offices worldwide, especially in the U.S. And Europe. But each one of them is using our product in more than one country, including India.

Greg Head: What’s different about selling software in India these days than in the U.S.?

Sandeep Kumar: So there are a couple of differences, in fact, very strong ones. It’s it’s a very hard game in selling software in India. It’s very, very hard. First of all, and especially in our case, when you go to the bigger customers, I mean the target customer profile is bigger than you, then the first thing they make you feel is, “Look, I’m doing you a favor by taking your software. You should be giving me money rather than I giving it to you.” That’s the first sort of reaction. It’s a very price-sensitive market, and especially for our software where each employee has to take a license. So the overall cost of ownership, etc., is very, very price sensitive. And another thing about the Indian customer is I would say they have a sort of very logical, rational approach. So they can think a lot. I mean, our schooling and everything is like that. So they would want the functionality of version 10.0.

Greg Head: So does that mean it’s more challenging to sell B2B SaaS in India to these bigger customers?

Sandeep Kumar: It is challenging because they want everything and for a price of 1.0, they want 10.0. The good news about it is if you can work with them, if you can make it successful with these companies, then obviously your product has gone through the maturity level, which would take years to get through. We as a company, while it may be a little frustrating at that point of time that you keep asking, if you are a little bit patient, that also becomes your strength because now the customer made you think and then you came out with a solution and now you have an edge as far as the competition is concerned. So I always look at the positive side of things. And I think while it was frustrating, I think that also helped us. Our solution has a lot of depth and now when we go to new customers, that becomes our huge advantage. It’s a blessing in disguise, looking back.

Greg Head: Well, that’s a true entrepreneur. You could see it any way you want to see it and create what you want to create out of that. So, well done. Is the Indian SaaS software market, is maturing, and are big companies buying more India-created software?

Sandeep Kumar: It’s a level playing field, as I call it. It is becoming more and more level-playing. First of all, there is a growing tribe of SaaS founders and SaaS companies which are building not just for India, but for the world. So that is number one. And I think the maturity level of the products, India is definitely getting there. These Indian companies, I also think they have more trust in the Indian SaaS companies, because I think in terms of offering, in terms of functionality, in terms of quality and value and especially your value-to-cost ratio, it is quite significant. There is a lot of partnership going on. So there are large companies partnering with startups to create solutions. So we will see in a couple of years when they will also start respecting the software, regardless of whether it came from an Indian company or a U.S. Company. In fact, if you are buying an Indian SaaS software, you have a benefit on the price side. And that is one of the ask of the Indian ecosystem.

Greg Head: Well, let’s talk about the ecosystems, the startup ecosystem, the SaaS ecosystem. You say when you got started there wasn’t much available and you literally had to fly to the States in the mid-2000s to see what the product culture was. There weren’t all these books and blogs and videos and everything online that people are reading, all these LinkedIn posts. What’s happening in Pune or Mumbai or in other major cities in the startup scene? Is it just getting started or…?

Sandeep Kumar: I think during the pandemic, when people had time to think and generally the startup scene has increased a lot in India in the last two or three years, for a couple of reasons. One, as I said, people are willing to take that risk. In fact, they don’t see much risk in it. They say, “Okay, I’ll take up a job, let me do this.” And then there are a lot of people, in fact, more than the entrepreneurs, I think there are a lot of angel investors and VCs and all. So they are really driving because I see there are a lot of angel investors and VCs. They are scouting for these entrepreneurs and all. Then there are organizations, like in India, there is something called SaaSBOOMi. Boomi, it’s a Hindi word, it means earth. So SaaSEarth, if I literally translate it. So there is a whole bunch of people who are part of this and they help each other, they share knowledge. Also, I have seen some successful entrepreneurs who are still running their business. Now they want to help upcoming entrepreneurs. So I think all in all it’s a good story. Everybody wants what India has done in services in the last 25, 30 years. So the next decade we should be the product nation, rather than just the services part. On the flip side, I feel the entrepreneurship system has to mature a little bit more in terms of what we are developing today. I see a lot of people are developing a few websites and things like that, but I think…

Greg Head: Simple apps.

Sandeep Kumar: Simple apps, very quickly done. But you want to have a billion dollar sort of organization, not in just in terms of valuation, but in terms of revenue, which the other companies in the West are doing. So you have to think very long term. You have to pick up one critical problem. And as I always say, nice to have versus must have. So you have to pick up that. And then building an organization is not a 12-month job. I mean, the first step in the entrepreneurship journey is to get funded. Then they think that they have arrived once they’ve got some money in the bank. But I think that should not be the goal. The goal should be what I am building. I mean, getting the first 20 customers should be my goal, paying customers. So that is a real milestone. So I think that maturity level in terms of what we are doing has to improve significantly. I still see that is a little bit primitive compared to the western part of the world.

Greg Head: It has been an exciting time in India, just fast growth and evolution, the IT services industry, so much technical talent that was working for big U.S. Software companies and global projects. And now there’s a technical talent war. Are you paying more and having a tough time attracting and keeping talent in your side? So the good news is you’ve got more customers. The bad news is there’s more competition for the kinds of engineers that you use to build SaaS products.

Sandeep Kumar: Yeah, absolutely. Talent is an issue nowadays everywhere, and more so in India because there is a war out there for talent. The services company, the product companies, and now what is happening is everybody, they are very demanding because they are saying the market is booming and these services companies get paid in dollars so they can afford to pay a higher salary. So it’s all the exchange rate thing, right? We are clearly telling people and why we are able to retain people is, look, we are a product company. We are not just developing software. We are part of making history. If you want to be part of that, making that history, then you should join us. Like, for example, the first 100 developers who wrote Microsoft products, they will all tell stories to their grandchildren. And so if you have that passion to be part of the history, a little bit of patriotism to work for Indian products going all over the world. And we really feel that we are on a mission. I don’t call myself as a software developer. I say I am on a mission. I want to disrupt the world. And I always tell our team, “Look, we may not have huge buildings, we may not have deep pockets. That doesn’t matter.” But I can still think exactly the same or even better than somebody sitting in the best of the corporates, because the mind is the same. I mean, it doesn’t matter if I work for Microsoft or I work for ProductDossier, I can think even better. So please let us use that thinking power and create something meaningful for our customers. So I think we are paying more. Obviously, our expenses have gone up, etc., but this is all part of the game. I mean, we just have to learn to play the game.

Greg Head: Right. Startups are always in growth mode. It’s not everybody who wants to join an adventure and do something big. Not everybody’s like that. So it’s the same everywhere, all around the world. You started this company yourself, then you had what you call co-founders. Is that how you built your leadership team, you brought them in and gave them a piece of the company and had them feel like they were co-founders?

Sandeep Kumar: Absolutely. That was not my plan that I was looking for this and that. It happens when you are on a journey, you meet a lot of people and some people connect better than others. Definitely, I met three wonderful individuals. Now we are four co-founders and they obviously own certain parts of the company. I predominantly look after the sales. My other co-founder, Akash, he looks after professional services. The other one is Chandrashekhar. He looks after product development and Shivani, she looks after marketing. So each one of us has our areas defined. Obviously, we consult each other wherever and then each one of us has built our team, and it’s a work in progress. I mean, we are looking for more talent because we really feel that we now need more talent because we are getting traction, we need more customer-facing people. And apart from these four, we also have five more people in our team who are sort of core team and who were there from the very founding days, and they also own certain stake in the company. The feeling is this: I’m not chasing money. I know I’ll get in the money in the end, but I’m chasing that history, as I always say. We want to do the right thing because we need little money to live the rest of my life. We don’t need much. But if we are able to create trust in all our employees and their neighbors and their friends and families, so if you join a startup, if you join a story you can make it successful. Greg, one of the things about our team is we are very ordinary people. We cannot say that we have been there, done that kind of thing. We are very ordinary people, you know, learning brick by brick, wanting to create extraordinary outcomes. So that sort of defines who we are.

Greg Head: Well, that’s practical founders. Sensibly crazy is another way to say that, right? You’re creating an unusual impact compared to other business your size. And you’re almost not a startup anymore, Sandeep. With 100 employees and a product-market fit this kind of maturity that you’re going through, do you see growing to 200 employees and then 300 employees and then being as large as your smallest customers?

Sandeep Kumar: So first of all, I feel that a startup is not by the number of years, startup is by the mindset. So yeah, our mindset, it’s still that startup mindset where we want to make our customers successful. That’s the mission. The target of our company is not to become a 200-person company, but to have 200 customers. Right now, we maybe have 50 or 60 customers. And when we do that, obviously we will have to add people. But the target is a number of customers, successful customers, and then the rest will follow. Obviously, you know, the next two or three years I think are very, very exciting years for us. We will see significant growth year on year for us. And as I said, when the customer wakes you up in the middle of the night, when we know that, they are dependent on you in a positive manner, not from arm twisting kind of thing, you feel great about yourself. You feel it’s all worth it. And that’s what we are targeting in the next three or four years.

Greg Head: Well, there’s a practical founder right there in Pune who’s grown something who says the measure isn’t funding, that the measure isn’t employees, the measure is customer impact.

Sandeep Kumar: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

Greg Head: And there’s the other paradox. If customers are yelling at you or they’re calling you in the middle of the night, that’s a sign it’s a must-have.

Sandeep Kumar: Everybody today, that is what keeps us awake. Every employee, you know, they feel that they are contributing. You know, to every manager we have given their KPIs, Key Performance Index. You have to make each member of your team feel good about themselves when they go back each evening. They should feel that they have contributed because once they feel that, when they go home, they will be extra happy with their families and they don’t have to really visit too many doctors because I think that is really, really important. And I have experienced it and that’s our goal.

Greg Head: Is your life saner now than in your early years? Do you have a more reasonable workload and planned schedule? You have more help in the company now. Is your work-life balance or, I don’t even know if I’ve ever said those words out loud before, but do you have some balance yourself or is this something you gift to employees?

Sandeep Kumar: First of all, I personally don’t understand this work-life balance because if I like what I am doing… If I don’t have work, then there is a problem in work-life balance. So I don’t understand that. I always say we have got two kids, one my daughter, my real daughter, and the other one is ProductDossiers. So I’m very, very happy. We always find time. Today I may not take off to go on a vacation, like ten days, but we do so many conferences and all, we take our family together, I take my daughter along and we have fun. So I think it’s just a matter of the traditional way of making vacations or the entrepreneurial way of making vacations. But we do make vacations, no problem. We do everything that anybody else does and maybe more.

Greg Head: And on your own terms. That’s another benefit of not having venture capitalists. You’re setting the pace and you’re setting your time and doing it your way. So you mentioned your co-founders, and some of those are the craziest, earliest, most dedicated long-term employees. They own a little piece of the company and you’re on a mission to make this bigger and change the world. Is the vision someday that you’ll sell this company and everybody can win a prize, or is that how you’re thinking about things?

Sandeep Kumar: We have not thought like that. Again, coming back to what we intend to do, one of our visions is we have built something really valuable. And can we imagine that every top company in the world is using our product? That is our vision. Now, if it happens, we’re doing it through ProductDossiers. If it happens with a partnership with a bigger organization, I mean, our mission is to take it to where it belongs. And for that, if we need help from one of those two or three ways, so be it. So we will be open to looking at it because ultimately we want to serve our customers and make this product reach where it belongs.

Greg Head: Are you profitable now? And could you offer some profit sharing as incentive to some of your employees and co-founders?

Sandeep Kumar: So we are profitable. Every year for the last few years we are profitable. We have cash on our books, so we are pretty secure. We have at least three years runway, so I don’t lose sleep at all. Coming back to giving back, right. This is very, very important for our people who have stayed with us for so many years, as I said. So we are doing everything, like you said, sharing certain incentives year on year. So they start seeing that there is a flow of wealth. And because it’s not them as individuals, they have families and they have… Definitely, we are on it and we will do more and more in the next two, three, four years when they can see that it’s all worth it. See, the whole idea is, Greg, I feel that as founders, we have a responsibility. We have a responsibility from two, or three constituencies. One is our customers. They have trusted us. We cannot fail them. Our product should work. And they should never think, look, I made a bad decision by investing in a startup, by taking a product from a startup. So that’s a huge responsibility. Same thing with our people. They have joined us by trusting us that whatever story we are selling, it will actually happen. And so we have to demonstrate to them by our actions. And one of the actions is sharing profits and wealth, so they feel they made the right decision and they will encourage their family members, children and future to take such risks because some of those really become reality. We have this obligation, we have this accountability and responsibility towards our stakeholders, who are customers and employees. And of course, the third one is society and all those things.

Greg Head: Well, you describe that very well, the trust with your employees, your customers, your responsibility and your community that you’re growing and are part of a big movement in the world with India and SaaS Software. A European SaaS entrepreneur described earlier this year to me that the reason he didn’t want to take venture funding is because he took his customer trust seriously, his employee trust seriously. And if he added a third customer, he called it, the venture capitalist, big money, he would have another seat at the table that he would be responsible for. You know, you’ve got plenty of trust and responsibility without.

Sandeep Kumar: Yeah, that’s true. And see, personally it’s not that venture funding is a bad thing or a good thing, right? It has both aspects. It’s just what time to go for it. Because like I said, if I want to scale our business, which we’re wanting to do now, it’s important that we have partners because of our opportunity. In the initial years, if somebody rushes me, then it’s a problem. It’s like a child, kindergarten, first, second. These are formative years, and we cannot rush our children to go from kindergarten to 10th standard, right, just in a year. That is not possible. But once you are a graduate then you can try out a few things. So the same thing with us. I think it’s a blessing in disguise we didn’t take funding knowingly, or unknowingly. It gave us enough time to experiment, to evolve ourselves, create something valuable. But we are at a point where we need to scale our sales and marketing and all those things. And if we get good partners in the form of larger organizations or, you know, VC funding, it might be useful at this time.

Greg Head: Of course. And that’s a practical way to do it. I’m not religious about bootstrapping or VC funding, it’s a lot of art. I’m just founder first and you’re doing it on your terms. So you just described the perfect way to approach it. Most founders get it the other way around. They’re getting funding too early when they should be growing themselves and experimenting and gaining confidence and trust with their team and their customers and the market where they know if they added funding fuel it would still work for them. And that’s what investors want too. So they actually don’t want to fund people’s experiments and crazy growth in mistakes.

Sandeep Kumar: And I can understand that. I think everybody has to decide for themselves what is good for them. And for us, I think it has worked out very well so far.

Greg Head: Sandeep, thanks for sharing your story and some of your learnings for being one of the early SaaS founders in India, B2B SaaS founders in India. Is there anything you’d like to say besides the must-haves and the trust that you’ve described and the focus from generalist to a specialist? Is there anything you’d like to say to Indian SaaS startup founders who are starting on the journey 15 years after you started on yours? What advice would you have for practical SaaS founders in India?

Sandeep Kumar: When I look back at my own life, what has worked well is building an organization. It’s not a one year, two. You cannot put a timeline to it. Like when I was starting up, I was telling everybody, “Look, I want to retire in 10 years.’ That was like 20 years ago. And that’s my goal. Obviously, I was being naive. I think if you want to build something really valuable, it takes time. If you are thinking one or two years, three years, I mean, chances are it won’t. So be in it for a long time, long-term thing, number one. Number two, think of a big problem because that way you will give yourself a great chance of building something which people… It should be pulled. People should come to you rather than you going and trying to sell. We have to do selling everywhere, but if you build something which is like a must-have, solving a real problem for the customers and especially, you should solve a problem by which customers can earn more revenue. If it impacts their topline, I think that is a good thing to make. So that is number two, choose your problems, which are big problems and not just because you feel it is easy to do. That’s why you are selecting it. Most of the time, how we select is, “I can do that. This is easy,” so I pick up that.

Sandeep Kumar: No, I think you should always choose what you think you cannot do. Number three, I think is, you have to be very authentic. You have to be very honest and you have to build trust. And it’s a difficult thing, building trust, because trust is not built by saying that, “Greg, I trust you.” I think that doesn’t work. You will see in my actions, and when I am in a relationship with you as a customer, as an employee, as a family, you are seeing my actions on a daily basis because through my one wrong action and 1,000 good actions still you will remember my wrong one. That’s a big challenge. It’s not easy. We are human beings, right? We always are attracted towards the voices of life.

Sandeep Kumar: Another thing that I am seeing is the herd mentality. So most of us tend to do what 20 other people are doing. And as an entrepreneur, I always listen to that, see that, but don’t necessarily jump onto the bandwagon. I think what is good for me, is that particular day, I may seem stupid that I am not following that, but I think that is the fun of entrepreneurship. What I think is right and is long term, I’ll do that and eventually, it will always pay you off because you have walked the path which nobody has taken.

Greg Head: I know, Sandeep, you could go to 10 points because you’re a very wise guy and you’ve learned a lot, and I really appreciate you sharing your story and your wisdom of B2B SaaS startups in India. That’s very awesome. Thanks for being on the Practical Founders Podcast, Sandeep.

Sandeep Kumar: Thank you, Greg. And I must appreciate you. The impact you are creating by talking to people like us. I cannot tell you, these are the things we need in our journey. When you speak to me for an hour, I feel so much more energetic and it really is a huge impact. I cannot even tell you what it means to me, and I’m sure it means to other practical founders as well. But this is huge. So my salute to you, Greg. Thank you.

Greg Head: Thank you. And this is the fun I get to have, talking to amazing people, doing high-impact things and getting to learn what’s happening this week in Pune in the B2B SaaS market. So, awesome, Sundeep.

Sandeep Kumar: Someday I’d like to meet you in person, either in Pune or in the United States. I’m sure it will happen, right?

Greg Head: This is… Practical Founders is moving. So here we go. Thanks again, Sundeep.

Sandeep Kumar: Thank you, Greg. Thank you so much.

In this episode, Sandeep explains:

  • What it was like to create a startup in India 15 years ago when it wasn’t common to create product-focused software companies there
  • The critical lessons learned to eventually build a must-have software for buyers with decision-making power in a specific industry
  • How their vertical focus and product feature depth enabled them to sell to large enterprise companies as a small startup
  • What’s happening in the SaaS startup scene in India right now 
  • The advantages of not having big outside funding too early, including strategic flexibility, attracting the right talent, and patient growth
  • How he defines work-life balance and how he manages time with his family

ProductDossier Company Facts

  • Founded: 2006
  • Description: ProductDossier is an enterprise-class software platform for digitizing and automating business processes for project-based industries like IT services and software consulting companies
  • Number of Employees: 100
  • Funding: Bootstrapped with self-funding and customer revenues
  • Location: Pune, India

Links

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Greg Head recorded this on episode on January 13, 2023 for the Practical Founders Podcast see all of the episodes.

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