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Show 130 – Unicorn Interviews – Vijay Tella – Workato

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In the 15th episode of our series that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR Agency Tyto, and their own Without Borders podcast, Russell Goldsmith and Tyto’s founder, Brendon Craigie were joined online from Palo Alto by Vijay Tella, CEO, and Founder of Workato, the leading enterprise automation platform that helps organisations work faster and smarter without compromising security and governance. In January, Workato announced a $110 million series D funding, which helped them reach a valuation of $1.7 billion.

Vijay began by explaining that Workato is a platform to help customers connect or integrate across all of the different applications they have in a company and automate workflows, how they get the work done across their applications and people across the company. He said there’s an explosion of SaaS applications, a lot of fragmentation of data and pieces of work get done in hundreds of apps, so at Workato, they make them all work together cohesively. Vijay said that historically, these type of platforms for integration were the domain of IT and technical experts, however, with where businesses are going, it’s really important to have the entire team on board, helping them to work better and transform how their companies work. He said it’s a team sport and this kind of platform needs to be accessible to both non-technical and technical users.

Vijay said he has been in the integration space for a long time, was a founder of TIBCO where they created technology called the TIB, the first platform in the enterprise software space designed specifically to integrate applications and data together. He said he has had experience with a couple of billion-dollar products in that category at TIBCO, then at Oracle but what they’re doing at Workato is a lot more inspired by some time he spent in the consumer space. When he took some time out in the consumer software and came back into the enterprise space, there was a huge movement to consumerisation of business technology, with SaaS applications, but the underlying platforms to make them all work together remain the domain of ideas and technical experts. Vijay said what really prompted them to start Workato was the domain of businesspeople is very big and the problem was much bigger, it affects all the people in the company, but they also questioned who can do this automation.

Vijay explained that the initial team was the team that he had worked with at TIBCO, which was almost a 14-year journey for him. There’s a team that they put together there to build a product called Business Works that became the blueprint for how integrations were done. He said companies that came on later, like Neilsoft, Informatica, they took what TIBCO did on premise and moved it to the cloud, so the team that built Business Works, was almost a defining product in integration space, and it replaced all the stuff that he built earlier. Vijay said he reconnected with that team after his consumer company was acquired by Skype and they were the ones that really stayed involved in the space, that pointed out how difficult the problem is, because he was at that point checked out of the enterprise software for many years. He said it’s after reconnecting with Gautam Viswanathan, one of his co-founders and a couple of other colleagues, they connected the dots between what Vijay saw in the consumer space and what they saw needed to be done in the enterprise space – there was a big problem to solve.

Vijay explained that one of the things he’s seen over time in the enterprise software is there’s a pattern in terms of how products are built and what they do. He said if you pick any sort of platform space, there is innovations that happen typically in how the products get delivered, so in the case of integration, TIBCO did this on Prem and then Neilsoft and others came and said, we’ll give you the option to do it in cloud. He said this hybrid cloud/ on prem architecture was created and then other products came in that said they will run completely in the cloud. So, he said it’s the same type of problem that is being solved for the same audience but delivered in better ways and how you deliver the product has huge implications of how easy it is to consume and it’s not a rethinking of the problem itself.

Vijay said one of the things he saw when he was not following enterprise software at all for six or seven years, was the expectations of always being on and being perfect was even higher in the consumer space. He said there’s two big dimensions in which they felt like things needed to be completely rethought bottom-up.

  1. A total rethink on who their audience is and what their experiences need to be
  2. Integration was always seen as a plumbing problem but now when you look at the proliferation of hundreds and thousands of apps across the entire company, the problem is much bigger.

He said the plumbing problem is still there, the data still needs to be synched up, but it’s a much bigger problem, it’s now no longer just the domain of IT, it’s also the business teams but they don’t think about integration and plumbing, they want to have their workflows work across their applications and it’s a different perspective and it’s a different problem. Vijay said the workflow problem is also an integration problem but there’s a third aspect of it:

3. The workflow problem is affecting all the Salesforce admins, operations people, HR apps, these are the people that are setting up the systems and they need to tie them together.

Vijay explained that every single digital worker in a company has a lot of different applications they’re working with a lot of context and fragmentation. He said the scope of the problem is bigger, what integration meant in the business-driven SaaS era is, it’s plumbing problems plus much more, the scope of the problem is bigger, the audience, expectations and experience are completely different. He said almost nothing that they did before felt relevant, so under the covers, it needed to be strong and highly performant secure, but that needed to be behind the wheels, a platform the entire company can use. So, Vijay said they put together a completely unique team, people from very different places, from consumer and cloud native companies, integration and so on to rethink this problem bottom up and from first principles. He said it’s a harder thing to do but they needed to solve this problem more cohesively rather than have six different platforms for little bits and pieces of it.

Challenges

Vijay said it was technically challenging and they had to solve some very hard problems architecturally in order for them to be able to bury the technical details and make the product usable for business users. He said the community aspect of it is really important but making integrations that somebody created in Company A, usable in Company B is very difficult because the apps are different, and they’re customised differently. Vijay said there’s a list of 18 items that they felt they had to solve at the other end of the spectrum, for example how they’re getting data between the systems needed to be bulletproof, there’s a lot of innovation they had to do to deliver this. He said there’s the other part of it, a social problem of business and IT not trusting each other historically. He said the businesses want to be empowered, but in a secure and scalable way and IT actually wants to be involved in making an impact on the business. So, he said there was this undercurrent that was always there, but they were using different tools, different platforms and there was no common language. Vijay said when they created this platform, there was a huge appreciation that they’ve seen both from IT and business and they had to think hard about both the technology problem and social problem around IT and business working together but it’s been exciting to see how that has come along.

Becoming a Unicorn

Vijay said internally they don’t talk Unicorn stuff, their experience has been building billion-dollar revenue products, not billion dollar market cap products. However, externally they have seen a big shift in how people look at the company, they have achieved the product market, it’s a validation of their recognition by their customers and partners in the market about the type of product they have, their vision, their point of view and how they’re delivering on it and it definitely helps with getting that message out more.

The Pandemic

Vijay said from a business standpoint, the pandemic has been a big positive, it has really forced companies to rethink how they get work done. He said there was always a desire to be transformative and modern, but there’s a lot of inertia built into companies to change, Covid has essentially really nuked that inertia, it’s forced everybody to move forward, simplify things and get their systems connected together. He said there are also horizontal transformations, for example how marketing and sales gets done these days is completely different. He said no one is going to events, there’s a lot of digital noise around and a lot of information locked into how people interact with your company and with other services outside of your company. Vijay said they grew almost 60 percent globally during the pandemic, so about 40 percent of their people haven’t seen anybody else. He said the whole set of workflows around people and HR is being completely scrambled up and had to be redone and it’s driven significant acceleration in their business. He said before the pandemic, their plan was to double the business last year and they went well past that, so from a business standpoint, very positive.

Accelerating the Growth of Workato

Vijay said this problem of getting companies and industries to be able to get their data applications and people working together better is the biggest opportunity in enterprise software. He said there’s huge estimates for how big this market is, and they believe it’s one of the biggest out there, they’re a very small player just starting out. He said for them it’s pretty clear they’re at a very early stage in that journey, but they have amazing Fortune 500 type customers around the world meaning they have been able to build out a very solid product foundation globally to be able to deliver this service as a utility anywhere in the world. He said at this point, their focus is now increasing awareness and increasing their ability to support the customers globally. So, he said they’re going to continue to be investing a lot in their product and there’s some exciting areas that they’re working to layer on top of what exists of their current product. Vijay said they are also opening up data centres outside the US, in Europe, and then later on this year in Asia Pacific.

Differentiating the Company in a Noisy Environment

Vijay explained that they’re still figuring out how to differentiate Workato and historically, their business was almost all inbound, their customers came through referrals from other customers and partners. He said they focused on building a really deep foundation, there’s a lot of products in the space that don’t work well, and it was really important for them to just go deep and get it right. Vijay explained that there’s two things that they’re doing to try to really change that:

  1. Within the company, they’ve created a significant outbound organisation where they have identified industries and target customers in this industry and they are going really intensely after that in an account based marketing sort of way, where there’s deep awareness within the target segment.
  • They are working more broadly on part leadership and getting their vision out there through other influencers, analysts like Gartner’s, Forrester’s, HFS Research and other influencers who have really loved their vision.

He said a third part of it and probably the biggest part is their partners. He said what really happens with transformation and the movement to cloud is the digital foot soldiers are actually these small, mid-sized and boutique consulting companies that specialise in financial operations for non-profit or retail transformation or they are regionally, vertically or domain focused experts. Vijay said they are the ones that companies are bringing on board to help them change and Workato are absolutely the perfect platform for them. He said they have been incredibly passionate adopters of Workato, and they consider them to be an extended part of the team. He said they see that ecosystem where there are, almost a hundred to a few thousand of these ecosystem partners that are making the transformation happen on the ground as being their key agents for getting the message out and being the force multiplier for Workato.

DSMN8 released a report on LinkedIn looking into companies whose employees amplify their presence on social media the most in the computer software industry. At Number One was Workato with over 53% of their employees sharing company content to LinkedIn in the previous 30 days of them releasing that data.

Vijay said he was really proud to see that but was not surprised with what their team does, they had an unbelievable year with almost 40 percent of the people having joined during the pandemic, they have a really special team, and he feels really fortunate every day to be part it. He said what it reflects is that as a company, they are all on the same page, they’ve got a great platform, a really good solution to offer to a lot of companies and most of the world does not know about them yet. He said they put a lot of effort into creating content, not about Workato, but about ideas for how companies can really change the game, how can they generate more leads and meetings and opportunities in the pandemic in a pure digital way. Vijay said they have a lot of really great content they do with their customers and partners, so taking those ideas to the world and sharing it is very important for them. He said he was thrilled to bits to see that their team was very active in that and being the number one company in the world was very humbling.

Building the Company Culture Through the Pandemic

Vijay said the company grew about 60 percent last year but even before the pandemic, from starting the company culture, how they do things and who they work with was always the most important thing for them. He said Workato is his fourth start-up and the biggest take away from the earlier experiences is that, you don’t just remember all of the great business outcomes that you see, but you remember how you felt working with the people you worked with and you build lifelong relationships. He said to him, that’s what you will tell your family down the road when looking back, culture was and is the most paramount thing.

Vijay said one of the things that they’ve been very fortunate about is prior to these experiences, when they put the initial team together he already knew these people were amazing individuals. He said they weren’t just the best in their field, they had some people that created products, but they were just amazing individuals, super humble that really like nothing better than working with other smart people to tackle big problems. So, he said the first 20/30 people that they brought on to the company really set the tone for when other people came on board. Vijay said he has also seen in his past experiences as you go through these high stages of growth, there’s incredible stresses created on the culture, it’s hard to overstate how challenging it is to maintain and build upon a culture when you are growing fast from hundreds to maybe a thousand people in the not-too-distant future. Vijay explained that in Workato they have core operating principles in the company, they’re not your standard values, he said there’s too many examples of companies that have those values that don’t follow them, so they’ve taken a different approach. He said their core operating principles include:

  • Keeping the customers first
  • Biasing the long term towards the long term
  • Winning as a team
  • Being transparent their system

He said there’s about eight of them that they talk about, they were not very deliberate in the past, they just happened automatically but they need to get more intentional because inevitably it will take a lot of work for them to continue to maintain that culture and he sees that as his job number one.

Managing Internal Communications During the Pandemic

Vijay said during the pandemic they had an advantage as they were always a deeply remote company and had a very strong orientation towards bringing the best people on board, wherever they are. He said they’ve always had that culture and they have a very experienced leadership team, really good systems for how they work within each of the teams across all of these time zones. Vijay said they were one of the very first companies that got on to Slack when Slack released their product, back in 2013/14 and they were always very hungry about leveraging the technology to the max, that was always part of the culture. Therefore, he said when the pandemic hit, in terms of the actual work processes within product development, within marketing, sales, it wasn’t hard to scale the interpersonal working relationships. Vijay said what was hard, was that they didn’t get to see these people, even though they were remote, one of the things that they made a very big point of was that every year between two to four times, they would bring people back into the headquarters. He explained they even had Workato houses where people could stay long-term feeling comfortable, they have a big operation in Singapore, almost like a second headquarters where they would make sure they were spending some very high quality time together, even with each other’s families. He said they lost that part of being able to do that but the relationships and the goodwill they’ve banked over time with the existing team have helped them to bring this new team on board. He added that two of their top performing sales reps were people that they onboarded in the pandemic last year and they’re hoping this summer they can bring the Workato houses back and try to get together when it is possible just from a personal relationship point of view.

Being an External Spokesperson Vijay said he’s begun to realise that being an external spokesperson is going to be a much more important part of his role than when they were building the company. He said over the last couple of years he has had to personally make a shift towards spending more time to get their message out and that is going to be even more of a focus going forward. He said they are learning as a team to make that a priority and a big part of their jobs and that’s probably one of the biggest changes from between now and what they were doing a couple of years ago.

Biggest Communications Challenge

Vijay said that communication and being connected is the hardest challenge a company faces, and it’s been a big challenge in every company that he was part of. He said there is always this sense of people in remote areas don’t feel as connected as those in the headquarters and he’s never found a place where he’s felt that they communicated enough. He said getting into starting this company from the beginning, they knew this was going to be the biggest thing, so they tried to install a lot of things into their system. He said simple things like whenever there is a question that somebody poses on Slack, if they are in a remote location by themselves, that should get priority. Vijay said once a quarter they have a board meeting and after the meeting, they go through the entire board material with the entire company, they are completely transparent, they get the message out so that everybody’s on the same page. Vijay said they are always looking for what they can do to communicate more within and across teams, they are even creating a new role reporting to him, they want to have mobility within the company, that connectedness, so they’re always looking for ideas, but they won’t solve that problem fully.

Vijay said if he had to go back in time and speak to his old self, the guidance he would give himself about communications is to think deliberately about the type of team that you are building initially. He said it’s going to set the cultural cornerstones for your company as you grow and really prioritise the culture. He added that it’s very hard when you are the early stages to think about culture but it’s really important to prioritise that equally. He said every team is different, there are some good ideas that you can pick up from people, so be hungry for ideas, at the same time, know your team. He said don’t assume that people are on the same page as you, you’ve got to be explicit and communicate, just over communicate.