Sangeeta – In Her Own Words
I go by Sangeeta. I recently left the corporate world after more than two decades to launch my own tech-startup, “Gotara” providing career advice to women in STEM. I have always been very passionate about this topic while growing up in Aviation, Energy, and Tech industries. At Gotara, we provide 24/7 nano-learning programs based on the latest research and insights from influential STEM leaders so we can close the gender gap and give women in STEM a fair advantage.
I was Vice President of Connections at Amazon, where I was responsible for Research, Technology, Product, and Business Deployment serving all Amazon associates daily where we identified obstacles that got in the way of customer delivery, like the organization or the process or innovation to address.
I have had the privilege to start an organization from scratch and turn around underperforming organizations at Nielsen and GE. My work experience spanned across Technology, Retail, Market Research, Aviation, Energy, Plastics, Automotive, and Electronics, in the field of Data Science, Marketing, Diversity, Engineering, Research & Development, Operations, Risk Management, and Quality.
Prior to Amazon, I was at Nielsen for over 9 years in various roles spanning from Chief Business Process Improvement (BPI) Officer to Global Data Science Leader, to Chief Diversity Officer, to Global Client Operations leader across 106 countries.
Before joining Nielsen, I was at GE Aviation, in various roles from Risk Manager to Integration Leader of an acquisition to General Manager, Quality to Senior Research Scientist at GE Corporate R&D.
I completed my Ph.D. in Materials Chemistry from the University of Illinois, and M.S. in Chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. I authored two books (sold on Amazon.com) and have 26 patents to my name.
I was recognized through the Nielsen CEO award, the National Women of Color Technology Award, and the GE Latimer Innovation Award. I have a daughter who works in NYC and husband who is a founder and CEO of Gensuite. We love to travel globally and play golf whenever we get a chance.
How do you marry a burning desire to help women advance, with the need for economic viability?
How do you take something that works very well at the individual level, and carefully rebuild it so it works for thousands of people reliably and effectively?
And how do you balance the needs of individuals with those of large companies and make both of the happy?
In this episode, D Sangeeta, founder and CEO of Gotara, talks about the career-long frustrations that prompted her to found her startup, her patient journey to scaling the solution the right way, her laser focus on data and financial discipline, and much more
- How and why timing matters for your startup
- How to transform your life and career experience into a great startup idea
- Ho to select the right idea from many, for your startup
- How to design your startup to leverage your unique background, skills and strengths
- How to craft your startup’s focus to maximize impact AND viability
- How to buck popular pressure if your startup is in a “hot” field but you’re doing something different
- How to price your offering for long term viability
- How to achieve traction as a B2B startup
- The dangerous trap facing ambitious founders and how to avoid it
- How to make tough decisions simpler with one rule
- How to balance mission and money when you’re very ambitious on both
- How to be an inspiring leader and still maintain authenticity
- Smart tips on dealing with the investment community as a first time founder
Links and Resources:
Gotara: The career growth platform for women in STEM + that Sangeeta founded
Flywheel Social Enterprise Club: Nonprofit social accelerator based in Cincinnati, OH
Shubha Chakravarthy: Hi Sangeeta, welcome to Invisible Ink! I’m so excited to have you here!
D. Sangeeta: Thank you Shubha! Thanks for the invite. I’m looking forward to our discussion.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You had a pretty interesting journey across so many different industries. You have a very impressive portfolio – 26 patents, PhD in physical chemistry. I don’t even know where to begin. You are doing very well in corporate America. What triggered this movement to entrepreneurship?
D. Sangeeta: I got the bug of trying to lead an organization from my GE days because once they identify a potential talent, they put you in a different job. You are helicoptered into a different job to see how well you do to make you a general manager.
So, I had done jobs in pretty much every area function that you can think of, even though as a scientist to begin with. Then I thought, “Hey, I could draw the company. Why not?” But my husband was closer to doing his startup, his spinoff. So, I said, “Okay, I’m going to be a financial backstop. You go do this.” Now that company is doing well. So, I thought it was my turn to do it.
I’ve been wanting to do this for almost 10 or 15 years, and I waited to find the right time, and in some ways it was the right time because the area that I really wanted to go after, where I wanted it to be a fun thing, that it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like a hobby and passion and what I wanted to work on, if I had launched that 10 years ago, it would not stick. It is the right time now.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Is that just because DEI is so prevalent or is there some other reason why it is the right time?
D. Sangeeta: I think with the Me-Too movement and what happened in Minnesota, the Floyd incident, and all really opened the eyes of all the employers and the employers started to put their money where their mouth was, and they were not doing that before. It was a lip service checking-the-box exercise. Now they are spending the real money. I said, “Oh, now I can make a business out of this.”
I never wanted an NGO. NGOs are very hard to sustain. I wanted to have a business where it makes its own money to do the right thing and where everybody wins.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I completely understand the huge uptick in spend and attention right after the George Floyd incidents and all of that stuff. But now the economy is cooling off and inflation being what it is, I’m reading in the papers and the press about how it is no longer a priority because, guess what?
It is a recession; therefore, DEI doesn’t matter. I’m just curious as to what you are observing and what your take is on that sentiment that I’ve seen quite a bit.
D. Sangeeta: So, I’m a contrarian in this whole era of recession. I think it’s a fake recession. If you look at all the companies that are laying off people, if you look at their financial statements, they are actually doing pretty good. It is a market correction that is happening from the tech industry because they were over capped. It is a market correction for technical compensation for tech folks. They were getting all pay for no reason, so the course correction for that segment of the market has unfortunately impacted.
The rest of the market – and it is kind of a domino effect. If they say, “Oh, I’m not going to spend any money,” then this business loses some revenue, and then the next business also loses some revenue. So, that is the fear.
However, I still have leaders who truly believe in not the DEI initiative, but how the businesses really run, how critical is talent? They are still spending the money and they have not backed off at all. So, if you are a real leader and if you want to run a real business that makes money, you will not back off from investing in talent. It is as simple as that.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That is a great segue. So, tell me about what Gotara does.
D. Sangeeta: As I was saying, I wanted to get into the field where it has been very male dominated. I grew up in aerospace, energy, and technology industry and I feel very privileged and lucky that I was able to rise to executive ranks and I felt like, “Why aren’t there more women doing the same thing I’m doing? I’m not smarter than them. They should be here too.”
What I saw was if you mentor and coach and you take some people under your wing and you become their sponsor, you can. But you can’t scale that. It is a human one-on-one interaction. It is very hard. You are a busy person. I have been wanting to scale that for the longest time, and I’ve been very frustrated because I couldn’t do it.
So, I wanted to do something which you can scale and help millions of women, at the same time provide a platform for the people who want to give back and people who want to a safe space, advice or some help right now, because my career is at a point where I could get totally derailed or I could actually sky rocket to a new space and I didn’t have that in my career.
I was lucky that I got a sponsor and didn’t even know what a sponsor meant at the time. But most women do not have real mentors, coaches, or sponsors to help them. Even if they have somebody in the company, they can talk about the company culture, how to succeed in the company and things.
But when it comes to sensitive topics, they can’t. I’ll tell you that once or twice, I have shared sensitive stuff where I truly had huge trust in my mentorship system. But the word gets around and you get passed over for a job. “Well, she has a small daughter, so she probably doesn’t work travel well.” Let me make that decision. Don’t make the decision for me. But those are the things that happen.
This is where a third party like Gotara could really help. I wish Gotara was there when I was growing up. I was in some really bad situations where I was ready to give up my job or I thought I might get fired because I had challenged this big leader, but I knew I was right, but nobody was supporting me until the data had proven me right, which took two months. I didn’t know whether I’d get fired or I would just simply leave. No one should go through something like that.
As a leader even though I care about having diversity of thought, I never have intentionally said, “Oh, put a page on diversity and I want to have a diversity review.” It is just integrated in the whole business. If people are presenting, why aren’t junior people presenting? Why is it just senior people? Or why are there only men? Why are there no women? Or why are there people only from the US? Why not from China or India or Europe, who are also part of our team?
Driving that kind of diversity naturally makes the team much better, and when you lose the diversity, you lose as an organization.
Many times, I couldn’t keep tabs on everything. Once you become a senior leader, you don’t know what is going on at every level, and you have an organization like Gotara, that can come in and help just in time, bite-size stuff, you will retain their talent.
You will keep that talent motivated, and they will help. The way our system works it’s an AI/ML driven platform. But at the same time, you have the support of leaders who have lived in your shoes and they are giving you their best experiences to help you succeed.
Shubha Chakravarthy: It is very clear that it is a scalable platform, and I can get real time assistance or support if I’m a woman in STEM. So, let’s say I’m an employee at Amazon or some tech company of your choice. I’m having a problem and I don’t know how to get my next promotion. I’m being told repeatedly, whatever, pick your favorite poison. How does Gotara help in this situation?
D. Sangeeta: It could happen two ways. An employee can go to their employer, it could be your tech organization and say that “Hey, I want to go through a Gotara program.” So, they may choose to send you or a cohort of women along with you, or in many cases, the employer we are talking to will decide that they are not the selected 10, 20, or 100 women to go through the program, what we call Career Sprints. There are eight-week career sprints. The only thing that they need to do is identify these women, and then we take on from there.
So, we minimize the load on the employers and managers. We have templates of a leader, inviting the manager, inviting the participants. So, we want engagement to make sure that people are watching the progress and helping them progress and then we go through onboarding, and they come with a three-to-six-month goal, and we help identify what are the couple of skills they need.
Sometimes the skills they think they need versus the skills they actually need may be different. Within eight weeks, they are actually making a business impact or an impact on themselves. My expectation is that a majority of the women who go through the career sprint are going to get promoted or will get a bigger scope job or will get higher visible opportunities within the next six months to a year.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Got it. So, the career sprint is really the flagship offering of the business. So, you had a core focus on improving diversity and advancement for women in STEM as your core idea. Did you have multiple ideas, and if so, how did you evaluate them? How did you put them through a filter, how did you land on this specific design?
D. Sangeeta: So, I would say that I was evaluating multiple ideas for the startup. I said, “This is what I’m passionate about. This is what I want to change, but how do I do it? What is the unique thing that I can bring that not everybody and his mother is doing? Whether it is e-learning or coaching or mentoring, what is missing today? Why am I not a scalable advisor. Why people are sitting in Dubuque, Iowa with no connection to the tech industry, not getting the advice they need? Why are women sitting there highly qualified but cannot get the best jobs like the women sitting in Seattle or Silicon Valley? Similarly, Nairobi, Kenya, or a small city in Gujarat, India.” They will all say, “Democratize access to how you can succeed.” I think that is what drives me the most.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You now know that you want to democratize access. You also have a pretty good idea of what the building blocks are, right? So, there is some coaching involved and some mentoring involved. There is some objective. You have all the building blocks. Walk me through how all of them come together to form this concept.
D. Sangeeta: So, this is where technology comes into play. Every interaction happens through the platform. It is working 24/7. We guarantee pretty much most of our members that they will get advice within 24 hours after they ask, we believe what they are asking is urgent and it is important.
So, when they say something is not working, or “My manager threw me under the bus last week and I need to course correct, otherwise people will think I was not the creative one and I didn’t do that and somebody else who did it and soon enough I won’t be getting the promotion, I’m not getting the raise that I need to get.” It is so important to course correct as soon as possible.
I’ve learned that throughout my career that if you let it simmer, it never gets finished. You also shouldn’t respond immediately sometimes on the sensitive situation. So, you take a breather for 24 hours and then you respond, and in that time, we get you help. So that you are actually making an informed decision on how to do it professionally, where it doesn’t hurt your career, but it accelerates your career.
Shubha Chakravarthy: It sounds like all of these complex pieces took some time to put together. Can you walk me through your roadmap of how you started from the idea, how you built each piece, how you tested it, and how you came to the place where you said, “Okay, this is ready for the road at a high level?”
D. Sangeeta: One thing that I would say is when you do a startup, what I originally thought versus what I built is very different. Fundamentally, it is the same. The mission is the same. The audience is same, but exactly what we are offering is different. At first when I wrote my whole business plan, I wrote this in a very Amazon fashion, PR/FAQ, press release, etc.
I said, “Women have three stages of their career. They are in high school, then they go to college, then they are at work. So, I’m going to take care of all three.” As I started to think about it, I said, “Oh my God, this is like boiling the ocean. There are competitors in each one of these fields.”
I personally have the most experience, in this country, in professional working. That is where the biggest loss is also present because you are putting so many women through the training and education and half of them drop out of the workforce. It is a lot. GDP, loss for society, individual financial loss and loss for the family and the employer is about $9 billion a year for US employers. Most of this loss is from STEM, plus jobs and they are the most lucrative jobs. So, we went from three different phases to one phase. Maybe we will expand, but that is where we are focused.
In the beginning we said we are going to have a B2C business. We did all our research. We did interviews and stuff and we said, “This is how we are going to sustain a little bit of fee for a year.” What they didn’t realize is we were trying to really teach a new behavior to these women where they had to come and share something sensitive about their career and how are they going to trust, and what is it that they are going to get that was non-existent in the marketplace. Now, maybe people will say, “Oh yeah, go to Gotara.”
So, once it becomes a brand, you will probably monetize it a certain extent. But in the beginning, people had no clue. So, we had to immediately change that, drop any kind of fee, make it free for everybody. I’m glad we did that because it is the right thing to do. Then we had to figure out how to make money.
There were employers who we were talking to us who very keen on what we were doing. They wanted to get some help because they were all struggling whether some people accept that or not. Pretty much all employers in this space are struggling so that is how we came up with these career sprints.
So, we experimented that manually and then we coded it, and then essentially it is a continuous learning process, and it is an iteration of what customers want and what users want. So, we are constantly getting that feedback to understand what we need to improve on our stuff, what we need to add. So, there are lots of other things that we can do, but we are very focused on one or two things that we want to do really well, and we want to be known in the marketplace for those two things.
Once you have that, it gives you an entree into the field. Otherwise, there are huge players in the field in general about mentoring, coaching, e-learning, you name it. Even though ours is different, people are not going to see the difference until some people experience it.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Where would you describe Gotara is in the startup process? Would you say you are pretty much ready to go to, you are in the market, you are still testing market? How would you characterize your position?
D. Sangeeta: I want to have Gotara be constantly tested in the market. I want our product to constantly evolve even 10 years later. I don’t want it to be a constant. But at this point I think we have proven our product market fit and we are getting revenue. We have always had paid customers.
Some of our customers are in their third year with us, so that proves that we have product market fit. Yes, we can tweak the product. Yes, we can make it better. We are on that journey – not at the beginning of the idea, but actually a proven idea. We have an enterprise platform. We could scale to millions of people if we wanted to in the next month.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, you decided that you are going to take the jump and you are going to make this happen. Then today you are at the point where you have crossed the product market fit. How long did that whole journey take you?
D. Sangeeta: From the time of the launch or from the time when we started Gotara, where we started working on stuff?
Shubha Chakravarthy: I would say the latter because what matters to an entrepreneur is the moment you decide that “I’m going to do this.” So, that’s when you start making sacrifices, right?
D. Sangeeta: I would say it’s about probably about 15 months or 16 months.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s pretty impressive. Then from the moment you launched it to product market fit, how long was that window?
D. Sangeeta: We launched the product in April or May timeframe of 2021. By that time in 2022, we were pretty solid there in terms of working.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Okay. That is pretty impressive and in terms of the business model, I liked how you put together the whole piece around you – did the manual experimentation, “work it out by hand” method and engineering, and then made sure it worked right.
So, how about the other pieces of business model? You had to come up with the right revenue model and a good pricing strategy. Obviously, you are a B2B, we will talk about customer acquisition in a minute, but can you talk through how you figured out the revenue model, how you tested it, and what were your big learnings about that process?
D. Sangeeta: Before I go there, I want to say one thing that when investors are looking at SaaS companies, they pretty much want everything to be automated. But if you look at the best AI/ML that is done in a shorter period of time you literally have human beings teaching the machine. That is how they learn the best.
If you start with a tech platform you’ve got mumbo jumbo going on for a long time, so even Google today, when you do a search, 15% of the time it returns nothing pretty much to you. It’ll give you crap that you don’t need. We have a name for stuff like that. It is called human intelligence. A hundred percent of the time we give you something that is useful to you and that helps the machine learn faster.
So, I believe what customers are getting from us is a better solution than maybe what the investing world adds us up. Instead of creating a tech platform and then stumbling through to figure out what is the right solution, doing machine learning and stuff, I’m saying “Experiment manually. You’ll make the machine learn hell a lot faster.”
Shubha Chakravarthy: You brought up an excellent point and that prompts me, is there anything else that is unique about either your approach or the industry that you had to integrate into your work or your model, other than what you just talked about, which is making sure that you have a human backstop because you don’t want any garbage to go out to the user at any point?
D. Sangeeta: Yes. The thing is that my number one goal is to make the customers and the users happy, satisfied, elated by the experience that they go through. The way you get there is to understand what they need. If 20% of the time they are getting crap from us, they are not going to come back.
To me that was the most important thing. My belief is that when you have customers and you have traction, investment will eventually come. Otherwise, you can run a profitable business in. Not every business in the world is funded by investment capital. So, there are different approaches.
Now I’m going to go back to the question that you had for the pricing and revenue model. We have a subscription model where people buy career sprint units from us, and insider courses is another one that they buy. For pricing, we did a lot of research to figure out what is it that employers spend on upskilling or training individuals.
That research led us to the pricing that we did create. So, is our pricing too low or is our pricing too high? That is what I wanted to understand. The way value we sell, it is very clear to employers that the pricing point is not too high.
So, it is not a hurdle, but is, the pricing too low? I don’t believe that. However, I’ve had a couple of senior leaders who have been in the industry for a long time. They said, “Oh my God, you are selling this great service so cheap. You should increase the price.” I said, once we have enough traction, we will, but not right now. I need to have more traction. So, I’d rather stay at the price I am.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Talking about the clients who you have had, and you have brought on board. The other big piece is also the customer acquisition, right? B2B is a very different animal than the initial B2C model that you were talking about. What was your approach going in? What were your big learnings about customer acquisition from a B2B model perspective?
D. Sangeeta: When you are a startup, you have really no track record and every customer looks for that track record. So, it is hard in general, and I think it’s more based on the credibility of the founder or the leaders and co-founders of the organization than it is about the product leaders trying to sell, even though it is a unique product. Most of the beginning sale come from your network, people who know you, and they’ll say, “Oh, she’s doing this. It must be good. Let us try it.” So, it started with that, and then it has begun to expand beyond that.
Shubha Chakravarthy: One last question on the revenue and then we’ll move on to the other side of it, which is, you talked about a couple different things that a client can buy. Obviously they can buy the sprint units, they can buy data.
I like how you were thinking about how you have this core operation, and it has these by-products that can each be either collectively or separately monetized. How did you think about that at the outset? Has that changed? What learnings would you say you would pass on to others in terms of thinking about what you are actually selling and who is willing to pay for what?
D. Sangeeta: I think keeping your business model really simple in the beginning is very important. So, when we started out, I was saying, “We could do this, and we could do that.” I mean, we could create six different revenue streams and then you would get so distracted because each revenue stream requires attention of building the product, figuring out how to sell it, understanding the product market fit, evolving it, pricing it and then growing it.
So, as a result, we intentionally cut out a bunch of stuff that we said we are going to put in phase two or phase three. Phase one will be the core of why we wanted to begin this business. So, there are lots of things that we can do and generate business.
But right now, I would say that this could expand at least five times in types of products that we are offering today. So, my recommendation would to stick with whatever core idea you have and keep the products really simple. No more than a product or two products before you expand.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That is great advice. I have a one follow-up on that, which is, even within your mission, you have two or three different choices in terms of what specific product category you might offer. They are both kind of aligned to your mission, but one is closer to your mission, but might have a more limited revenue monetization opportunity while the other might be a little farther away but give you more money. Did you ever have to pay trade-offs like that? If so, how did you make those trade-offs?
D. Sangeeta: That is a very interesting question. Something will have a long-term payoff, and something will have a short-term payoff and you always have to do the dance. You have to do both. You cannot prioritize one over another. So, right from the outset we said that we are here for the good of society. Even though we are not making money, we have to do something to start making an impact.
So, we have kept the B2C site free that no one pays anything for, and we are maintaining it. It cost us money to do it. We don’t charge anything to the users, and we’ll continue to do that, but it has to be somehow supported by something else.
Otherwise, we can’t do that. We had to figure out a short-term way very quickly of generating revenue and see if that becomes a way for long-term revenue generation or you have to move on to another product. So far what we have found with our B2B, it was close enough to our B2C that it has worked really well, and I believe it is going to continue to be our long-term strategy.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I love it. It is almost like they are both feeding each other too, because what you are gaining and what you are learning on the B2B side is obviously going to feed what you do and hopefully help you deliver a better product on the B2C side, even though you are not charging anymore.
D. Sangeeta: When you are cash strapped, this is the question I ask my team, “Is it going to generate the revenue? Is it going to impact the paying customer? Is it going to impact the user who is not paying?” So, it is, on priority and if we can give something for free to the non-paying user, I’m all for it. But it has to impact the paying user first.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Love it. So then when you were testing all these, you said you could come up with five different product ideas, right? I’m sure each had a different sort of revenue margin profile. Did you say, “Hey, I’m going to pick something as long as it meets a minimum requirement?” Or were you trying to maximize revenue? How did you solve for the right product in terms of its revenue generating capacity?
D. Sangeeta: Your users and your customers will tell you that. As you are doing your research, you are talking to them, you are getting their feedback as you are building stuff. They are going to tell you what is a must have versus what is nice to have. So, you understand that, and you see how many of the customers or the users say, “Must have.” If one person says, “must have,” but the rest of the users don’t even mention it, why are you building that feature? Maybe for one customer, but then I’m going to pay for it.
In fact, we have made a mistake of one of our large customers asking for one of the features and we build it immediately and they didn’t use it, nobody else used it and it has some use, but we are going to morph that product into something that will have a better use. We’ll learn from it. But we have also learned from not listening to just one customer.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Great. It is how combination of data and experimentation is at the heart pretty much of everything you are doing. We talked about revenue, and you talked about how there is a need to make money, all of which are points very well taken.
So, this brings funding into the question. How did you think about funding in the beginning? What was your expectation going in for terms of how you were going to fund it, and what did you learn about funding along this journey?
D. Sangeeta: So, I had a very different path than most standard startups. Most standard startups will go through accelerators, if they don’t go through accelerators then something akin to accelerators. You can get 25k, 125k and you give up 25% of your company for that. So, when I started having a full career in corporate America, I said, I’m going to use my savings.
People buy mansions and people buy jewelry. People buy all this stuff. I’m going to spend my savings for this, and I’d be happy doing it. That is where I started. So, I spent a lot of my savings on Gotara so that I could stay true to my mission of what I really wanted to do. What I didn’t want to do was just go off on a tangent because somebody says, “This is how you can make more money.”
I wanted to make money, but not at expense of my mission. So, that led me to do what I did where pretty much most of the investment in the company was mine and I had some friend and family investment.
But in hindsight what I feel is going through an accelerator really creates a community for you. It helps you create a network of customers and investors. So, in hindsight, even if I didn’t need the money, “How could I have found an accelerator that could help me with that?” By the way, one just fell on my lap like last week and I am now part of an accelerator. Do I need the cash from them? I don’t.
Luckily it works out with them because they are a non-profit organization. There is some donation stuff involved, but it is not a typical accelerator, which works out great for us. It works out great for them. The name of the organization is Flywheel Social Enterprise Hub.
Shubha Chakravarthy: One other question on the business building, and then we’ll move on to your personal experiences and learnings through this process. On the business building side, team is obviously a big part of it.
You mentioned that in the especially early stages in B2B, bet on the jockey, not on the horse. How did you approach building your team? What were your learnings in terms of when you need to hire? Who do you need to hire and what arrangement need do you need to have to hire the right folks?
D. Sangeeta: So, when I started, and this was right before the pandemic when I quit Amazon, I’m thinking that I need to have a brick-and-mortar office somewhere. Where should I have the office? I have a home in Cincinnati, and I have a condo in Seattle, and I was thinking, I’m going to test out both places. Let’s see which one works out.
Then the pandemic happened and everybody started working virtually. As I was building my team, I realized that in many cases I couldn’t find all the talent I needed in either Cincinnati or Seattle. It was in a different location, but they were the right talent.
The thing is finding the right talent for the job that we have in our company is unique. Our company is very mission driven, and if you are not passionate about that vision, I’m not interested in having you as a part of my organization. You have got to have that passion. It cannot be just a job.
So, as a result, all the talented people we found were all over the place. I don’t have a large team, but they are all in different states. They are in Canada, they are in India, they are in the West Coast, they are in the East Coast, the South, and the Midwest. We have people all over the place. So, I actually opened up my own thinking that you don’t need to be in one location.
That was a huge change for me. I had always worked in a company where I went to the office and I was thinking, “How am I going to work from home? It must feel very lonely.” Then the whole world joined me, so it didn’t make any difference.
But I can tell you we do a daily stand-up every day for 30 minutes. I’m very close to my team. I don’t think I’ve been this close to any team that I worked with, even though in my last job, I was on the same floor with the whole team. So, I think opening up to a virtual workforce was very important and can be very important to startups.
Even though startup mentality is that everybody is working in the garage. You don’t need to be in the garage in the same place. You can be in different prices.
The second thing is identifying the talent. Who has worked with you in the past that you could trust is very critical to have. I had a few of those people who wanted to work with me, I wanted them to work with me. So, you didn’t have to think twice about whether it was going to get done or not done. You didn’t have to work on developing the trust.
Then we actually found some really junior talent graduating out of college or junior in general, who had the passion, and they are ready to make the impact. We are training them, and they are the best people.
We will want them to be with us forever. So, talent is something that I’m really passionate about, and my hope is that anyone who works in Gotara loves it and they grow and become much bigger leader than they ever thought they could be.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Fantastic. So, you talked about this need for support and how you wish you could have been part of an accelerator earlier on.
What kind of support did you actually need and where did you find it, given that you didn’t participate in all of these accelerators? As they say, it is a very lonely road to be an entrepreneur.
D. Sangeeta: It is very lonely road. I can tell you that it sometimes feels really lonely. You go in these troughs every now and then when you are running a startup. But the good news for our platform was that anytime I felt that I would go to my daily dashboard of metrics and one of the things that we watch constantly look for is the feedback from our users and participants.
When you see how our advice or something we worked on with them impacted their career and their lives, it just absolutely makes it worthwhile, every time. That is what is the highlight of our day.
Of all the things that we look at, how many members we have, what kind of revenue we have, the first thing we look at is the feedback. Did we get any more feedback and what did they say? It has been really awesome feedback. So, that keeps us going from that perspective.
Shubha Chakravarthy: For you personally as a leader, I mean, there are some things you can’t delegate or frankly even discuss with your team because you are the torch bearer, and you have to carry that load alone. So, what kind of support or even a sounding board have you needed? If so, how have you found that support as the CEO and as the founder?
D. Sangeeta: I’m a pretty transparent person, so I actually share more than probably most CEOs share with their teams. But I give them the confidence that shit happens, and you move on.
The world is a real place. You are not always going to have everything positive. I’m going to share that with you because you will see me set about something, you know why. So, there is nothing behind the curtains here and then also when things happen, especially if it is bad news, I don’t immediately share. I kind of think about it and put it in perspective.
I don’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction of changing directions of the company because one customer said this, or one investor said that. I may actually mull over that for a while before I would say, “Do we really need to change something as a result of it?”
Obviously if it is related to something wrong or unethical or something related to compliance, we are going to do it immediately. But a change in product or a change in pricing or change in direction of how we are approaching sales or marketing or product or something else is important.
So, those are some of the things that I would hold off on and not share until I have formulated some approach of how I’m thinking. Then open it up and ask for their input and many times they come up with ideas. So, being transparent actually helps.
Shubha Chakravarthy: It was very interesting to hear you touch on so many different aspects of your business, some of them are technical, some of them are marketing and sales related, some of them financial. Now, clearly you come from a very unique background, in the sense that you have run P&Ls before, you’ve run large organizations.
So, you kind of come to the game almost fully equipped. That said, were there skills that you still felt that you had to pick up on? What were those and how did you pick up on them?
D. Sangeeta: I say that I was very lucky to have gone through the experiences I’ve gone through. In my first job they taught us how to sell research and development, which is not an easy thing to do. This Italian guy would talk with his hands and say, “People buy benefits.” That just stuck in my head forever.
So anytime that I’m selling, I’m not selling from my perspective because I think it is a cool product or it does what I think it does. What’s in it for them? So, that was a very important, whether you are doing R&D or whether you are selling, it’s very important. What’s in it for the people who change? You need to really understand that. So, I learned that.
Then in GE, I really learned how to develop talent. I really learned how to have robust processes. It just drilled into you, so you don’t even think about it, and you are doing it. In Nielsen I truly learned how to run a global organization where I’m not there physically with them.
It came in so handy during the pandemic and as I was starting out, that without being physically present next to them, I can motivate them, I can get them to do stuff, and everybody feels like they are part of the team.
Then Amazon taught me startup, how to innovate fast and how to implement things fast. So, I got a lot of training from that perspective to run the business. I feel really confident in what we are innovating and how we are running this. It feels very comfortable and confident about.
The area that I did not have any experience in was the investment community. I had no clue what drives them. I had no clue what they think or how they operate.
I wish I had done a little bit of research before I actually launched my startup. That would’ve helped me tremendously. I learned and I now know how to approach them, how to work with them and I wish I had done that before the time came for me to start thinking about raising money. So, that was one thing.
There are things I’m learning on marketing and sales. I was never really a salesperson in my career before. I mean, yes, I was a leader, but I didn’t really go hunt and close myself and what I realize is that even though I have not done it and I was a little bit leery of doing that, I’m loving it. I’m enjoying it.
Shubha Chakravarthy: One point in the investment community – Why did you decide that you didn’t need to look up on it? Was it just the fact that you were pretty sure you were going to find other ways of funding it? If you had to learn, what would you have done differently to get more up to date or more knowledgeable about the whole investment side of startup?
D. Sangeeta: Yes, I drew a business plan. So, I relied on maybe two or three people who were from investment community and they were really senior people. What they told me was, “Oh, once you have this in six months, you’ll be ready to go and start raising money.”
I kind of took their word for it and I should have not. I should have actually done my own research and should have reached out to people who do this kind of stuff.
To begin with, I didn’t even know the names of the companies that did this. The Techstars, the YC Combinator, and a bunch of other accelerators and startup communities that I know now I wish I had known before to just get going, to kind of find out what they are about before really starting anything. So, that is what I would do differently.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Throughout this journey were there really dark moments where you kind of break to a halt and said, “Oops, hit the brakes if things are looking really bad right now? Can I go back to the drawing board? Am I really sure I’m doing this?” Have there been any moments like that? If so, what has gotten you through them?
D. Sangeeta: So, with the fear of coming across a little cocky, I will share this. I was talking to one of the investors and I asked them, do you really want to hear this because you already have investment in this area, and I mean, would you still be interested because this could be an overlapping investment? “Not interested” and all that.
Then they go through the whole thing. Then in the end I say, “What do you think?” I think you are right. It is an overlap of investment and blah, blah, blah. So essentially giving you a done. So, I say “That is okay. I’ll see you on the other side. Not a problem.” So, those are the little moments.
However, I had enough confidence in what we were doing that I thought we will succeed. I have actually not once thought that we could fail.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Give me the secret, like what is the secret to having that self-confidence?
D. Sangeeta: That is because I know we can adapt to change. I know we can be flexible. I’m not hard-nosed about doing just one thing that I think is right because I am listening to the market.
So, when you are listening to the customers and you are listening to the users and you are willing to flex and you are willing to adapt to the market, there is no reason why you won’t succeed.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, you place your faith in the problem, and you place your faith in your ability to listen to objective data and to respond appropriately to it.
D. Sangeeta: Absolutely. I have done 180 degrees on a few things that I was hell bent on. Like, “This is the way we are going,” and the data was presented, and I said, “If you present the data and it has the right logic, I will do 180 degrees,” and I have.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, the process will come out right every time as long as you have faith in the process.
D. Sangeeta: Yes, absolutely. I think that is true. So, it is not that you will not hit failures even after doing all of that. You may still see something that did not work out.
But if you are adaptable and if you are flexible, that loss is not a huge loss because you catch it as soon as it happens and you say, “Okay, we got a voice. Do something about it instead of sitting and crying about it.”
Shubha Chakravarthy: Makes sense. Obviously we share an ethnic heritage. You’re a woman in a male dominated world. How has being a woman or being South Asian impacted your journey in your view, and how have you tackled that?
D. Sangeeta: I think from customer perspective, I feel pretty damn good about it. Sometimes you can have an advantage because you are stereotyped. Sometimes you are disadvantaged because you are stereotyped. A lot of people think, “Oh, you are Asian. Oh, you are Indian American. You must be really smart.” Thank you.
But it is hard sometimes for customers who have not experienced what women experience in the workplace. Sometimes it’s hard for them to comprehend because they feel like they have done everything right, if there is a problem women should just go to HR and complain about it. If we did, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Women get it, but sometimes men don’t.
A lot of leaders get it, a lot of men leaders get it. Most of my customers are men, who are leaders. They obviously get it. But you will also get that they have not gone through that experience where there are women working for them and sometimes you don’t even know why women have left your organization.
You are thinking that they have left because they want to take care of their kids. Now wasn’t the case, they got pushed out. Why? 95%, chances are that they got pushed out of your organization in many cases. Being a woman, I might not have known that another woman lower in my organization, got pushed out of the organization for the wrong reasons, and I wouldn’t know that because it doesn’t bubble up.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, it is just this challenge of getting across a felt and lived experience that is not necessarily shared by someone else who doesn’t share those similar types of backgrounds.
D. Sangeeta: Also, I don’t know if it is about being a woman, but not being a serial entrepreneur, so even though I have 25 plus years of corporate experience, that I believe is very useful for running a company and that is why we were profitable last year, in our second year of launch.
That is not an easy feat though, most of the startups don’t do that. But if I was a second time or a third time entrepreneur, I’d have lots of advantages.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That is good stuff. Looking back, if you had to do everything over again in terms of your startup, is there anything you’d do differently? If so, what and why?
D. Sangeeta: I said earlier I think I would probably try to go through some sort of an accelerator or understand the investor community a little bit better. Those are the two things that I would do differently, and maybe the product market fit testing I would do differently because I’ll have a different kind of input from the investor community.
I don’t know. That is the thing that I cannot predict. Looking back, if I had done that, it wouldn’t be different. It may be the same. I don’t know.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Fair enough. So, is there any, I don’t want to say advice, but what tips or food for thought would you offer to an entrepreneur who is maybe further behind the path than you are and now thinking of going out on her own in a STEM related field coming from a corporate background similar to yours? Is there anything you would say that you have learned, and think would help her?
D. Sangeeta: Yes, a couple of things that I would do differently and the advice that I would give to people is to write a document of what your idea is and who your audience is and how you plan to execute it.
When you write it down, it becomes real. “Oh, I missed this. Oh, I missed that. I didn’t think about this!” It helps clarify a lot of thought in your head. Think about who could join you in this journey, and specific people that you reach out to.
Then, think about the financials. How are you going to fund this? Do you have your own money? Do you need money? Do you need to raise money? If you need to raise money, what are the different phases you are going to have? Are you going to spend 100k and 50k first and then see how things go?
So, I think there are three aspects – Writing a document, understanding who is going to be a part of your team, and third, understanding the financial model of how you learn to start.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Fantastic. You mentioned the PR/FAQ format that I read about quite a bit on Amazon’s journey or process. Is there something you could share or that is publicly available that others could share to follow that same rigor?
D. Sangeeta: Actually, if you type in PR/FAQ, you’ll find a few examples. It is like a one-page document as if a journalist is writing about your company, what would they write about five years later after you have launched, or three years later after you have launched.
Then there are questions, which is essentially a business plan. Like, what is your mission? Who is your customer? How you want to do this? All the nitty gritty that come with running a business. That is the thing. As a CEO, you are the strategist, and you are the janitor of the organization. So, you have got to look at everything. Even if you don’t like it, you are in it. If there is a gap, you are closing that gap. So, be ready for it.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Okay. I’ll make one plug and then I’ll thank you for a great time. The one plug is, don’t just do this for STEM, do it for finance because finance is a forgotten stepchild, and I can tell you from personal experience that women have it just as hard or harder in finance than they do in tech.
D. Sangeeta: So, let me tell you this. We talk about STEM+ which includes finance, economics, data science, and marketing science, any field that has data. I have actually worked very closely with the finance people, and I can barely think of any organization where we had a woman as CFO.
So, I truly believe it is a huge gap. So, come join Gotara as an individual for free and bring your employer to get you funded so you can go through the program.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Fantastic. That is great to hear. Thank you, Sangeeta. This has been supremely enjoyable, informative, and very enlightening. I really appreciate you taking the time to share so candidly about your journey. It’s going to be a lot of fun for folks out there as it has been for me. Thank you!
D. Sangeeta: No, thank you Shubha! Thank you for starting your journey. Hopefully you will create something that will be equally beneficial for not just the women, but many more folks.