Tales from a first GTM hire: Tushar Makhija's journey at Helpshift, Airbase & TeamOhana

July 17, 2023

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Episode Summary

Tushar is the Founder and CEO of TeamOhana, a headcount management platform.

After starting his career as a software engineer at VmWare, Tushar founded StockEzy—a social community for stock investments. Four years later, he joined the founding team at Helpshift, where he was the first sales hire and eventually became the VP of Revenue, leading sales to over $20M through Series B.

Tushar then went back to the beginning again as the first go-to-market hire and eventual VP of Sales & Success at Airbase.

Now, he has started over once again as the founder and CEO of TeamOhana.

Some revenue leaders thrive in the chaos of early startup life. They love getting their hands dirty, leading early sales deals, finding product-market fit and establishing a go-to-market foundation.

Tushar Makhija is one of those people.

In this episode, Tushar and Alex chat about:

  • How Tushar went from first-time sales rep to VP of revenue in only a few years at Helpshift
  • What it was like to go from startup mode to working with a professional CEO at Helpshift
  • Advice for first sales hires
  • What it means to be a sales leader
  • The difference between being a sales leader and a founder
  • Why Indian immigrants are so successful in tech leadership positions.

Links and References


First sales experience at Helpshift

Alex Kracov: I'd love to start with your time at Helpshift, which was sort of your first real sales experience growing a SaaS company from zero. I'd love to know how did you get that job. Because you sort of made this transition from the founder of a social stock company to being the first sales rep at an early-stage company. Can you tell that story?

Tushar Makhija: It's actually a very interesting path to get there. So when I was still at VMware, I was moonlighting and I started my company. It was with two other co-founders who were basically - all the three of us, we're housemates and we went to school together. So we just had a good rapport. But that company was good to get started in the sense like, hey, are you a founder? Can you build a product? Can you get a few customers going? But it was not going to scale. So I met a few VCs. We're like, "This is a hobby. It is not a company." Actually, you not mention that. But because you were in the, I would say, in the circle, the VCs themselves said, "Well, we have another company which is doing something interesting. It was Helpshift. They're just closing their seed round." These guys were like early angel investors. I met the founders, and we hit it off.

The idea was: all of us were engineers. Then the two founders said, "Well, we don't trust anybody. You're an engineer. It seems like you can talk to other people. We were building a technical product. It was an SDK that we were selling to game developers. So I think you can do this." The person who convinced me to join was the co-founder and CTO of Helpshift. He's now the co-founder and CTO of TeamOhana as well. So it was his idea. He said, "Tushar, you're a shitty engineer, but you can dock technology to people. Let's make you a salesperson." That was his exact words. That's how I got started.

Alex Kracov: That's amazing. I remember Jack from Lattice once said. It's like, to be a good founder, a good sales rep, you need to be the one who can communicate from the nerds to the customers. Go back to the engineers that go back and forth. And so yeah, it's very funny to hear how that engineering experience informs your sales process.

Tushar Makhija: And it was amazing. I was like, "I need at least $100,000. I have a mortgage." They're like, "Okay. Fine." I didn't understand equity at that time. I didn't know. I had to Google what SaaS was. I didn't know anything. All I knew was, hey, I want to do this. I want to be knee-deep in startups. I realized that if I have this unique opportunity to work with - our CEO was a great product person. Our CTO was great at technology. They were building something very exciting, so I just took the leap. I couldn't just say no. I'm happy I did that.

VP of Revenue at Helpshift

Alex Kracov: So you went from having basically zero-sales experience to becoming the VP of revenue. From my understanding, in those early days, you were essentially like a BDR. Then you worked your way up and were running deals, and then eventually managed the team. How did you figure out how to do all this stuff? How did you figure out sales? How did you figure out how to be a revenue leader? What was that learning journey like?

Tushar Makhija: I think that the journey was - it was a full four-year graduation. The first year, it was just me. The idea was, we didn't have a pricing model or anything. My founder was like, "Can we get 100 people to use our SDK?" We got that crunched. That just basically got people to sign up on our agency. I'm interested. I'm interested. I said okay.

I was lucky that we had a consultant who was a marketing consultant. He said, "Tushar, you need to follow up three times." He gave me these tips. "At least three times, see if you can find them on LinkedIn. Try and see if somebody is giving a phone number or trying to do that. Offer them a lunch and learn card." Even at that time, we were offering that. We will come and buy you lunch, because it was not like a Zoom meeting. We would just come and meet you. Most of our customers were centered around Palo Alto and San Francisco. I think it was just that early phase. It was yes, learn how to demo. I think, one thing, I am the type of salesperson who really focuses on the product. So I think the early journey was very simple. Learn the product. Learn what you can. Learn what resonates with people. Because I think developers are really direct with you. They're like, "This is sh*t. It doesn't work. Oh, no, this is how it works."

I would say that the community also really helped. We were funded by True Ventures. Lars Nielsen was always available for office hours. I was a voracious student, and I used to go bother him a lot. He was very kind. He always answered my call. I was reading everything that was available on inbound marketing on HubSpot. Everything. I don't think there was any e-book. They provided all the tips and tricks and do's and don'ts.
Then in the second year of our operation, in the second year of my selling, SaaStr became a team. I met a few people at SaaStr. Matt Cameron became one of the - he built Salesforce APAC and many other things. He was super smart. Again, I befriended him. I kept emailing him, asking him questions. I still ask him questions. So it was really trial or learn by fire, learn by doing, and then lean on these certain people who've just been very kind and shared their knowledge. I think that's how I became a salesperson.

Alex Kracov: That's what I'm going to say. I mean, that's the best part about Silicon Valley and just tech in general. I think people are so generous with their time, and they're always willing to talk with you and share advice. I think even when I was at Lattice, it's like, alright, just trying to find people, a stage or two ahead of me, to get a sense of how are they doing it so that I can apply those learnings to myself. Jason Lumpkin on Twitter or whatever, all the tweets, all the blog posts and stuff, it is just so phenomenally helpful.

Tushar Makhija: Quora.

Alex Kracov: Quora, too. Yeah, but it still seems really big. I don't know if anyone's actually reading Quora anymore.

Tushar Makhija: Now you just read him on LinkedIn.

Alex Kracov: Exactly.

Tushar Makhija: Just to add there. I think the leadership part was actually very hard. Because I haven't managed engineers before, which was, again, very different. I think a lot of managing salespeople was getting over that thing that, can I be the salesperson? Now this may sound ridiculous. But I have not seen a lot of Indian salespeople or sales leaders. My whole team was these 6'5 white boys and lacrosse players from all these different universities. I've never played competitive sports. My competitive sport was getting high grades. I mean, growing up in India is a little different than growing up here. But I think that was the - I don't know. What is it - impostor syndrome or something. Can I do it? Can I not?

I think my team quickly realized two things. I'm still in touch with many of them. They said, "You always led by saying, 'let me do it first, and I'll show it to you,' rather than saying, 'go and figure it out.' If there's a cold call, I'd make cold calls. I did cold email. I did all the demos. If I was available, I'm on the demo with you. I think that was the trust that the team said. Then the leadership evolved from there. I've made tons of mistakes. But I think to become a leader, first, you have to be accepted as a leader by the team. Then they let you become better at leadership. So that was a whole journey for four years.

Alex Kracov: Yeah, that very much resonates with me. It's like you first need to be this player coach, where you're showing them how to do things. You're rolling up your sleeves. It was a servant leadership. I think it's the term, right? You're on the front lines working with people, and then you show them how to do it. Then you can become more of a manager and a leader. For me, management is also different than leadership. Management is telling somebody how to do something. Leadership is inspiring people to a sort of outcome. I don't know. It's an interesting thing. I'm still trying to figure that out myself.

Tushar Makhija: I'd still say I'm a sucky manager. I am a decent leader; I am a sucky manager. But with all these books that are being published - Scaling People being the most recent one - they're just telling you some of the best practices. So now I'm diligent with doing my one on ones. I write things down. I use a Notion page. I'm not just remembering things. Yes, I think becoming a manager is harder than becoming a leader, at least for me. I think managerial processes are what makes a good manager and a good team. I think those are some of the processes that - I would say everybody who has not read Scaling People should start reading Scaling People. That's it. You don't have to hear it from me.

Alex Kracov: Yeah, we can put that one in the show notes. I'd love to talk about the revenue journey. Because I think when you're at Helpshift, you basically got the company at around $10 million ARR. From my understanding, it was mainly big enterprise deals you were working. Is that right? Can you paint a picture of how that all worked in the early days?

Tushar Makhija: Yeah, so our first year was just to get 100 customers. Literally, that was 2011. In 2012, my founder said, "Hey, we have to start thinking about Series A. We need to be a millionaire." I'm like, okay, all of these 100 people has to give us $10,000. Guess what? Nobody gave it. All those 100 people didn't give us $10,000.

But because we had some early traction in this gaming vertical, we got introduced to Supercell. Supercell, at that time, was building this new game. They were a Zendesk customer and they were like, okay, Helpshift brought in the whole support experience inside the game. So you never left the game. It was not an email. Even the response that you were going to get back from the support team was sent as a push notification. They really liked it. Right in October, they signed a pilot for three months. I said, "I'm going to come to you early January to see if you would want to sign a deal." I got there early January, and they signed a deal. It was a million ARR for one game. Then I literally called my CEO. I said, I think we can get a Series A now. Can we?" That was the Series A journey.

Then from there, I think we organically just realized that the larger the size of the company, I mean, the larger the size of the app - because it was somewhat from a B2B to C model, right? If you don't have a lot of consumers of your app, then you don't have a support problem. If you're not doing in-app purchases, then again, you don't have a support problem. Because in-app purchases was one of the best ways. So we quickly realized that all these social apps are out of questions. It's an advertising model. Nobody is going to pay us. So we looked at who is selling the most inside the apps. We had new companies like Zite app, Flipboard, Pulse. They all became customers because they just launched some kind of a subscription tier. Then it was mostly mobile gaming. That was huge for us.

Second year, we went from one to four. Third year, we went from four to eight. Then the fourth year, we actually slowed down. We had our first year of churn. That was my first learning that, mostly, in the third year, all your first-tier customers are going to be joining or want to churn because you've not delivered on their promises, and you have literally failed them for two years of renewals making promises. We were supposed to be a $10 million ARR company, but we had $2 million in turn. So we ended up - some bookings was high but ARR came low.

That's when we got a professional CEO. Then in the next six months, we went from 10 to 18. We can talk a little bit more about how we went from 10 to 18. But I think the more rewarding journey was from 1 to 8. Because building quarters, setting up territories, segmenting customers, figuring out what is an SMB motion versus what is a mid-market motion, different pricing structures, I think that, in a way, that taught us and made me ready for Airbase and now TeamOhana. But it also made the company ready to tackle that next leap when Linda came in. When I left the company, we were an $18-million ARR company. It took us four and a half years to get there.

Working with a professional CEO

Alex Kracov: Got you. What was it like working with a professional CEO? I think it was Linda Crawford, right? She had had a pretty big career before Helpshift at Seibel and Salesforce. How did she change the company? Were you nervous to work with somebody like that?

Tushar Makhija: Yes, I was very nervous. Also, we were running a little. We're running a startup, and we didn't have good processes. Sometimes we were yelling in the office. And now we were told that you're suddenly going to be buttoned up, because Linda is not going to listen to any of this nonsense. You can't be angry. You can't be pounding the same. You can't put the music up. No beer pong starting at 4pm. So we were suddenly asked to grow up. I think that was one change on a good side. I mean, she helped us become more mature, responsible adults.

After she finished in helping us, I think it was very clear in the sense that she said, "You guys are a great technology, but you haven't yet figured out how to scale the company." I think she spent more time fixing the HR function, the marketing function, bringing in some product, like product leadership. She gave me a free rein. She said, "Tushar, we want to get to a $20-million ARR company. Can you take us there?" She gave me that target in a year. I got to 18 in six. She literally said, "There are some things that you do that I don't like. But in the interest of revenue, in the interest of time, I'm going to let you run with your process. But realize that, at the end of this year, you're either going to uplevel to match my standards, or you're going to be layered, or you're going to be out." Those are the three things that are going to happen.

It was very transparent. She gave me direct feedback. So I think when she laid things out that way, it made me very clear on what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. And if you know where your end is going to be, there's no surprises. Every month as we hit our goals, I was telling her that okay. Then come July, I said, hey, I'm flying to - actually, June 15, I was flying to Cary, North Carolina to meet Epic Games. Epic Games was on a three-month pilot. Fortnight was just going to be ready to be launched on mobile. They were like, "Okay. We need Helpshift in mobile right now." It was a $1.5-million deal. That got signed on June 30th. June 30th, we were - literally, at midnight, it got signed because the CFO had to take a last-minute flight out to Hong Kong. When he landed in Hong Kong, he had the docu signed. He signed it at the airport. Then we're an $18 and a half million company on that day, ARR.

I came back and I said, "I think, Linda, you will get to $20 million without me in the next three months. Let's find a way for me to transition." Because I I was just ready for a new challenge. I didn't see myself growing more because I think - here's the thing. If I wanted to uplevel myself, I actually wanted to say everything that I have learned in the 0-to-1 and the 1-to-10 journey, how do I do it again in another startup? So I didn't want to do the 20-to-50 journey. I thought that I would not have enough time to learn the ropes till I at least done the 0-to-10 journey one more time. So that's why I left.

Alex Kracov: Got you. I love how just honest you were with yourself around what you wanted out of your career. Honestly, I felt the same sort of thing at Lattice. It took Lattice like 0 to 50. It was like I didn't really - it was appealing to try and do 50 to 100, 100 plus. But it's just not quite my personality necessarily. I wanted to do another crack as a founder and do the 0 to 1, and put those skills to use. And so yeah, I don't know. It's interesting how different people fit at different stages. I think it's just so important to just be honest with yourself around what you actually enjoy doing, where you add the most value and all that stuff.

Tushar Makhija: Exactly. I think that enjoyment was the most important. Building something from the ground up, I think, was where I found more comfort and more joy. It sounds like, okay, let's see. Whatever we do, that is the next thing that we want to do. But I didn't have anything lined up when I left. I literally took six months off.

Building the sales team at Airbase

Alex Kracov: That's good. You need a break. But then you went back to early stage, right? You were the first sales hire at Airbase. Can you talk about getting involved with Thejo in Airbase, and what was it like to build that sales team from the ground up?

Tushar Makhija: Yeah, I think back in those days - you might have seen this - the drift guys used to walk down the streets of Boston and record themselves on LinkedIn. So I literally recorded a video walking down University Avenue. Because that's where I had been given the job offer - in Coupa Cafe. I got the job offer for Helpshift. It was like full circle for me. My first large company account was Flipboard, which is also on University Avenue but slight in that, like blocks. Also, VMware was around there. I was like, my life is around here. I moved out, and I now live in the city.

But I was like, let's go back there and walk those streets. I recorded this long 15-minute video and posted it on LinkedIn. One of the people that saw that video was Thejo Kote. He sent me a LinkedIn message. He said, "Tushar, do you remember me?" I'm like, yeah. There was an engineer that used to work for Thejo and worked for Helpshift, so I'd heard about him in his previous company. He's like, "I'm doing something new. It's a SaaS product. You should check it out. I'm going to talk to you." So we started talking. We met in August. We met in September. Then we met in October. He closed the round in October. He was debating whether he should take it around or not.

Then he said, I think there was, again, a little bit of skepticism that is always there from some of the VCs. Like, he's only done it once. Can he really do it? I think Thejo was very clear. At least, he just told me that it's like he wanted someone who can get their hands dirty. He was not looking for a VP of sales who is going to just come and figure things out. Because one of his first question was like, "When are you going to hire your first people?" I'm like, "Maybe three months, maybe six months. I don't know. Till I become an expert in spend management, there is no reason to hire anybody else." Again, things moved faster. I closed my first deal. It was clear bit, and I closed it in the first month of joining Airbase. We hired our first AE in April.

But I think it was - again, the founder has to be really clear on what they are looking for in their salesperson or in their first sales hire. The first sales hires usually cannot be only focused on selling. They have to be focused on messaging, and you have to be ready to get your hands dirty. I am that kind of person. If, actually, you restrict me, I'll get annoyed. I want to attend product meetings. I want to attend anything that we're doing with marketing. I want to write the sales email. I want to be part of how the deck has been made. Because Thejo was using the same VC deck on the sales side. I was like, "I don't think that's going to work, Thejo." He was like, "Why? Look how much money was on this." I'm like, "Sure. You had to give up equity to get that money, right? These are people we are only giving the product to. Let's change it a bit."

He was very accommodating. I mean, there are some people who just wants to be successful and don't get in their own way. Thejo is one of them. He knows what he wants in life. He will see, like, okay, I need to get this done. If Tushar is helping me, I'm going to support Tushar. If Tushar is not helping me, I'll go find someone else. But I will be successful. That's the great spirit that he has. So yeah, that's how I joined Airbase.

Selling in a competitive space at Airbase

Alex Kracov: It's been management is super crowded, right? You have concur who dominates the enterprise. Then a bunch of these startups, Brex and Ramp, and Airbase competing for both startups. Then everyone's trying to move up market. How did you think about establishing the sales motion in such a competitive space? How did you sort of think about those pressures?

Tushar Makhija: From the very beginning, there was a very - it starts with this product vision that Thejo had. He said, "I want to be the place, or Airbase is going to be the place to manage all non-payroll spend," which is a very technical phrase. But it makes a lot of sense to the buyer persona. So it starts from there when he simply says that the vision is: I'd spend bill payments and expense reimbursements. Those are the three ways you spend money. I'm going to track and manage all of those three things. That sets the stage on what we want to be.

We actually said, Brex is a corporate startup, corporate card. Ramp is a corporate card. Ramp came a little later. We were the only spend management solution per se for the mid market. So that was the early understanding. Then we just doubled down on that. We were the only person - I think we were the only company back in 2019 that was talking about spend management. There was a company out in Europe called Spendesk. They were talking about spend management, and we were talking about spend management here.

I think that once we knew what we want it to be, the credibility part actually started by - first starting capital has very good office in the city in San Francisco. We requested them that once a month on Thursday evening, we will throw a party there. As part of that party, it will be like - there's not really a party, but you have like wine and food and drinks in the beginning for networking. Then we invited one CFO, and we launched this thing called The Path to Becoming CFO. I think that was the most important place - where everybody who is a controller, or a VP of Finance, or a head of finance, anybody aspiring for CFOs - we had the CFO of Salesforce there, the CFO of Asana, a lot of accomplished names. When people hang out there, they started listening about us.

We are not pushing anything. They will come and talk to us. "Hey, what do you guys do," in your second meet up, in your third meet up. In those six months, I think the word around the vision of Airbase really took off. The hard thing that we did was, we said we are not a free product. We are going to charge you. Basically, any smaller company, we completely removed from the equation. Two contrarian things: this was not free, and there was no credit. It was a pre-funded model. That removed the need to compete with Brex or Ramp and that free-tier completely. So we chose our own tier. Then we hyper focused on, "Hey, we have the best integration into NETS v. We have a customizable approval matrix. We've got all of these different features that the others did not have." Because they were just getting a lot of customers with high cashback but only doing corporate cards.

I think it was a combination of this approach to get like-minded people together in a room, give them some value, and then tell them about what we do, and then be hyper focused on what we are and what we are not. We simply said, "You want credit? We don't have credit. I'm sorry. Let's go away." I think that helped a lot.

Alex Kracov: Yeah, it's such a good lesson in there of not just being really clear on what your ICP is, building for them, saying no to things that might seem appealing at the time but just being super focused. I still remember. I live in San Francisco. I remember Airbase had all the billboards around with controllers on them. These are like unsung heroes. No one has put a controller on a billboard ever, right? They're the unsung heroes of companies. It's really cool how Airbase kind of like made them a hero and elevated them as a persona and a professional.

Tushar Makhija: Yeah, straight off Benioff's playbook. It was strange. It's a chapter in behind the cloud on how he made the customers as champions, right? Sometimes, when we speak during podcasts, it seems as if all of this came naturally. There were a lot of failures in the middle. I had this huge argument with Thejo once. When I said, "Brex is offering 2%. I want to give 2%," he was like, "No, if you do 2%, I'm just going to bleed a lot of capital. You're going to set the wrong thing." I'm like, okay, what am I going to do? So then I negotiated with him and I said, "Okay. What if we get spent commits from people?" If we tell people that, only at the end of the year, if you have spent, say, a million dollar on our cards, we will through you up to 2%? He was like, "Okay. Done."

Another thing is that founders, by nature and by design, are headstrong. Because they have to be. They are trying to create something out of nothing, so they are going to be true to their convictions and beliefs. If you want to join an early-stage startup, you cannot be quiet or shy and not speak your mind. You may get fired sometimes. Your boss may get irritated sometimes. But if it all works out, then it will be a very good journey.

I mean, two years, the valuation of the company went from $30 million to $600 million. We went from zero to $5 million ARR. That was the pedigree when I left. So I left at series B because it was very - again, the same thing hit me. It was like, okay, series A was pre-emptive at around - we didn't deserve a Series A but valuations was skyrocketing. We crossed that hurdle. We went one to five very quickly. But now if you want to value that $600 million, this 5-to-50 journey, it's going to be crazy. We were not ready for the 5-to-50 journey. Again, pre-emptive round. We see comes and gives the money. Nobody was asking the hard questions at that point in time in 2021. What are you going to do with the money, and how you're going to grow? Because it takes time to figure all of those things out.

Again, I took a week off. I went to a secluded place just to sit down and think through what I really wanted to do. I realized that this is my opportunity to become an entrepreneur myself and start a company. This idea of headcount management came from while I was working at Airbase. So I said, okay, now is the time to leave, leave on a high. Thejo is not going to screw this up. So my daughter is going to go to school. My equity is going to pay for her. I don't want to - she pays for my health insurance. I'm like, okay, health insurance checked. Future of the baby, checked. Okay. Let's go do something. I picked up the phone and called the CTO, my co-founder at Helpshift. I said, BG, it's about time, dude. It tool so many years to come up with an idea. I think I had this now. Do you want to-? So we spent the next six months talking to CFOs and heads of people just finalizing the idea. Then in October of 2021, we raised our seed round.

Transitioning from a sales role to a founder role at TeamOhana

Alex Kracov: Awesome. A good time to raise a seed round. And that's when we met, I think, too. You were poking around the idea of TeamOhana, which was the new company and headcount management. I'd love to hear what does that transition been like. Because it's very different. Being an early revenue sales leader to a founder, I'm going through that myself. How do you think about that transition?

Tushar Makhija: One quick correction. I think you and I met for the first time on a phone call because we hired Jin Zhou as our head of demand.

Alex Kracov: Oh, yes. Yes, I forgot about that. Yeah, oh, my God. Yeah.

Tushar Makhija: But yeah, I think there were two, I would say, that I felt really comfortable starting the company in finding design partners and doing the early pitches, and talking to VCs, and talking to potential customers. Because that's exactly what I did at Helpshift and at Airbase. Nobody knew about spend management. Nobody knew about what's in-app customer service. What the hell is that? Customer service means that. It might even mean something else. I think that muscle was built out.

What was hard is like I've never hired - in the last decade, I've never worked with any engineers directly. I would work with product teams. How do you actually become a good leader to the engineering organization? It was really hard for me. Because I don't think any engineer joined this company because of me. They joined because of my co-founder. Allowing my co-founder to find - even though I hold the CEO title, allowing him to have that kind of influence on the company, not just in the boardroom and ownership but even outside on how we're going to set up our operations. Because the first 10 hires were all engineers. I was the only one in go-to-market in all things that we had to do. So I think that was the hard part. I think leaning on my co-founder really helped.

The other transition, which I still feel I'm still transitioning, is that there is a lot of I felt that if I made a decision, it will go to Thejo. Then Thejo is going to either approve or not approve. So there is some onus on him as well. Now there is nobody between me. I have no echo. You get into this meeting; people will say, "Tushar, these are the pros and cons. This is how much engineering resources we have. This is how long it is to take." How do you prioritize?

At that time, we have to think about all these things. Okay. What should we ship first? What is the highest value to the customer? Sometimes the decisions, I slow them down. They're like, "Make the decision." I'm like, "No, let me go talk to someone else." Because sometimes you want to lead with your black pen. Sometimes you really don't want because you're not sure. So I think that adjustment of making these decisions and trying hard that these decisions are good enough decisions. I can't blame this on anybody else. It's nobody else's fault. It is my fault. I think that is the hardest part and the hardest transition. It's still going on in my head.

Alex Kracov: Yeah, I'm dealing with the same thing. It was such a comfort at Lattice. Like, all right, Jack. I'll just focus on marketing. You make the hard decisions around financing. I can give my advice and my input. But now at Dock, it's so existential. Every little decision - from financing, to product stuff, to sales, go-to-market, hiring - it's all on me to figure that out. I have to live with the right decisions and the wrong decision. It's so rewarding when it works out. But I've made a million wrong product decisions and then I have to deal with that, like delay in our product or whatever it is. And yeah, it's a funny mental game you play with yourself as a founder.

Tushar Makhija: Yeah, and I think that's where - I think now, more than ever, as a founder, I find the importance of carving out some me time, the importance of carving out extra time for the family, I think these are the things that I didn't appreciate. But now I'm like, I cannot be walking around inundated. I cannot take the Friday evening and make it my Saturday morning. I have to snap out of it. I'm going to say, you know what? This is the weekend. I have to take my daughter out to her class to meet her friends. I have to take her to the park. I need to focus on that and find happiness then, and not be wandering all the time. So to compartmentalize and not be a founder for those few hours is hard to do, but a must do. Otherwise, you will just burn out.

Alex Kracov: Yeah, the compartmentalization. Is that the word? Yeah, it's so important. When you're focused on work, you need to be on that. But when you're watching TV, you need to be able to be focused on that. That Bob Iger book, he put out I guess a couple of years ago, has so many good stories of how he's compartmentalizing - he's the CEO of Disney - when all these crises are going on but then he has to give a big talk. I think that is just like what it is to be a CEO and to be the person in charge of a company, which is hard but rewarding in a lot of ways, too.

Tushar Makhija: Yeah, I think people who do decide to become entrepreneurs and start companies, it's like I was telling this to my team just on our team meeting last week. I said, hey, sometimes we hit our goals. Sometimes we miss our goals. But let's sit down for a second and realize this. How many people come up with ideas? How many people come up with good ideas? How many people come up with ideas that get funded? Okay. Let's say you got funded. How many people build a team? We have 22 people around the world now. 22 people. 20 because the two are founders. It's like 20 people have decided to come together to build something. That is basically, they believe in this. I'm like these are all - yes, the total percentage of success is very, very low. The chance of success is very, very low. But let's enjoy all of these successes. We have a band of many 20 people who are working really hard. We've got 20 customers. They buy the product. They have paid for the product, right? They use the product. You have all the usage metrics on your dashboard.

So I think you have to, as a leader, keep telling this story and not allow people to forget why we are here, how we all started, and how privileged and, I would say, lucky we are to be in this situation. Then use that as motivation to say, okay, what can we do to maximize the chances of success and try really hard to minimize chances of failure? That framing I think has helped me and is now helping my team also to come to terms with, like, hey, how they should be thinking about building the company, and how they should be thinking about being an early employee at a startup.

Establishing a sales motion at TeamOhana

Alex Kracov: I love that. You got to celebrate the small wins along the way. The journey is actually the really fun part. You mentioned you have 20 paying customers, and you started the company a year ago. How have you gotten initial traction, especially the economy, especially for SaaS is so hard right now, how have you established the sales motion? Are you doing a bunch of proof of concepts, or how does it work in right now?

Tushar Makhija: We started officially selling the product last year, but we were in stealth for like over eight months. In those eight months, we built with a few key design partners. We used what we learned from those design partners to then advertise to other companies. But our focus has been building the sales motion is very heavy outbound motion side and focusing on three things, I would say.

I mean, I'd give you a lot of credit because I've read your blogs, and I've seen how you're doing things at Lattice. I think, first, as the founder, you have to be out there. You have to be talking about what you're really passionately, you believe in, and why do you think this is going to change the world, and why it is better. The second thing is that my first marketing hire has a very - everybody has his choice. Are you going to go with the demand gen? Are you going to go with content? I went with content. We've got some thought time resource on the demand gen side. But I wanted to build our marketing muscle around content. So now we have a podcast. We have a blog. We've got all these resources, downloadable things. I think that is really helping us become the people who talk about headcount planning, headcount management.

Because we are the ones talking about it as much, I think that has organic attraction that is coming. We do a lot of outbound. That is in my DNA because I've done that a lot in all the companies that I have been. But in that outbound, rather than just asking for meanings, we actually push on content. Just because marketing can't send cold email to people who have never signed up for anything, but I can send them through outreach, right? It's like this. So if they do end up downloading, if they do end up subscribing, then marketing gets to retarget them and send them more information. But we are doing this. So it's predominantly being this content and social push. You're tapping into my network. I sold the first 200 customers at Airbase, so there's a good chance that some of my early customers are coming from Airbase. We reach out to them even now. I think next 2030, we will also come from there.

Then I would say - somebody said this. It was during a SaaStr event some seven eight years back. There was a sales leader who came and said, "Don't stop till everybody knows your name." That is the motto that outbound as a team, as a department, has to follow. It's like we won't stop till everybody knows our name. So we want to be in that position. When we do send an email, or we do send a phone call, people would pick up and say, "Oh, I've heard of TeamOhana. Yes, I've heard of TeamOhana." I think that's the spirit in which we are trying to build our, I would say, sales capacity and also our sales pipeline.

Alex Kracov: So much about SaaS company is just education and just helping people get to an outcome. If you can be the central educator for your domain, you win. Then they eventually buy your software to help with that. I'd love to hear from you, like why is headcount planning so important? Why did you build the whole company around headcount planning?

Tushar Makhija: I think if you want to boil this down very simply, it's that people in any company are 80% of your operating expenses. There is no single system today to manage people spend. If you have to just come down to the brass tacks of, there is a vendor management software. There is a procurement software. But where are you managing your people? That was my initial thought process. Then that manifests in many different ways. How do you grow your organization? Where would you hire? How many people would you hire?

If you think about whether it's a small company, a large company, organizational growth comes before revenue growth. I assume that's what happens. As soon as you raise the amount of funding, what do you do? You double the head count. You say, "Because I'm going to hire all of these people, I'm going to have more pipeline. I'm going to have better marketing. I'm going to have more features." So if you know that organizational growth comes before revenue growth, we spend a lot of time planning revenue, managing revenue, and then modeling revenue. We don't spend even 10% of that time on - actually, if you're a finance person, you're thinking from modeling a headcount budget. How many people are going to be new? How many people would expect raises? What should be an attrition? It will help you allocate capital better. If you're a people leader, then you want to think about organizational growth. Who will these people report into? Which offices are we going to hire them? Which location is best suited for us?

Then the third piece of the puzzle is the actual budget owners and the finance leader. I would say the VP of Engineering and the VP of Sales, they want constant information being spread to them, and answer a very simple question. Are we going to meet our hiring goals or not? If you don't meet your hiring goals, all your plan features will not happen. If you don't have the features, what is sales going to sell? If sales can't sell, what are they going to market to? It's all such a chain reaction. So that is why this product we have designed from the ground up for collaboration. We have designed from the ground up to bring all of these stakeholders into one system.

I feel that companies that nail organizational growth are the companies that are going to be super successful. You will see what happen. You don't have any free money anymore, so you can't just hire and fire. You have to be very deliberate about organizational growth moving forward. I think the slowdown - I don't like to use the odd word - or whatever this new paradigm we are in, that is more beneficial to a product like us. Because we are not about saving money. This is about planning, building, growing. So I think it's opportunistic to be building headcount management at this time.

Alex Kracov: Yeah, it seems so timely as everyone is thinking about their biggest expense, which is people. I think what I love about what you're saying is that, I think, headcount planning could seem like a one-time-a-year process. But in reality, it's like this ongoing thing of, am I hitting my hiring goals? Where are we at to the plan? And it's usually all locked. I mean, at Lattice, it was all locked in spreadsheet. I had my spreadsheet. Josh, our CFO, had his spreadsheet. Then we're reconciling it back and forth. Then somebody changes their spreadsheet; you don't even know. And so yeah, it's amazing to hear just how ongoing of a process it is. So yeah, I don't know. I'm very excited to get Dock big enough that I can use TeamOhana.

Tushar Makhija: Yeah. Well, we already use Dock. You're building a really cool product. We are already finding a lot of value in that.

Why are there so many successful Indian leaders in Silicon Valley?

Alex Kracov: Awesome. Well, I'm really glad to hear it. I'd love to end on a more personal note. You're an Indian immigrant. You mentioned that before. You've worked at Airbase and Helpshift, which are I think both have Indian founders, right? I'd love to hear your perspective on Indians in the startup ecosystem. Because India, as a country, is obviously growing. There's a huge startup ecosystem over there. But it's amazing to see how many Indians have risen to the top of technology - Satya at Microsoft, Sundar at Google, Shantanu at Adobe. I don't know. What's your take on Indians in the world of tech?

Tushar Makhija: I think Indians, in general, I think a lot of us come from scarcity. We don't come from abundance. I grew up in a 450-square-foot apartment - mom, dad, sister, and me. By the time my father made money, I was already shipped out to the US. So I didn't even have my own room growing. So when you grow with that mindset and when you come to the US, two things can happen to you. Because US has abundance. You can either get enamored by all of these things and then lose track, or you take on this, I would say, opportunity and say, "Hey, we are lucky we are here. How can we maximize and not just change the trajectory of our life, but change the trajectory of generations to come?"

I'm not trying to say only Indians do it, but I think Indians in technology really embody this. You never meet Indians who are marathon runners. Now you have in the city here, because we are all trying to become that. But we are good at that. We are good at that intelligence. Technology has been, or engineering has been part of our early upbringing. We take engineering classes as early as eighth grade. Now I'm hearing people take engineering classes as early as fifth grade. But I think that just makes it. Given this whole ecosystem, we thrive and allows you to maximize your potential.

I think it is just aligning of the stars and also all your upbringing. What can you do with so many resources and so many opportunities? Do you get overwhelmed, or do you capitalize on them and just continue to grow and continue to generate wealth and generate popularity or create companies, what have you, however you want to measure success? But I think it starts from there.

Alex Kracov: I love it. Well, thank you so much, Tushar, for a wonderful conversation. If people want to follow up with questions, where should they find you?

Tushar Makhija: I'm on LinkedIn. I'm fairly active there. It's Tumar Makhija, or just search for TeamOhana, or I'm at tushar@teamohana.com.

Alex Kracov: Cool. Awesome. Thank you so much. Go to teamohana.com. Go check it out, everybody.

Tushar Makhija: Thanks, Alex.

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