Anand Shah, Databook — Founder Q&A
The role of sales has changed from being a talking brochure turning up with the product specs, to now being an advisor.
Growing up in London, Anand Shah didn’t lack role models. His grandfather was the founder of what became one of India’s largest construction and engineering businesses. Shah’s father, who was forced to flee Uganda during Idi Amin’s mass expulsions of South Asians in the early 1970s, rebuilt his life in London as a small business owner.
By the time he was a teenager, Shah began demonstrating his talents both as a full-fledged techie — he built his own computer at 17 — and as a budding entrepreneur helping corporations build their own websites just as the business world was first realizing the internet’s potential.
After getting degrees in computer science and, later, MBAs from both Columbia Business School and the London Business School, Shah spent the following decade and a half as a consultant at Accenture. But over the course of his time crisscrossing the globe to sit down with C-level executives, Shah saw an opportunity to address a growing skills gap that was holding back enterprise salespeople.
In 2016, he co-founded Databook with long-time friend Alex Barrett. The goal was to build an AI-powered SaaS platform that automated and augmented smart pitches with targeted market insights. Sales teams using Databook would now be able to better gauge the relative strengths of their prospects and determine how likely these potential customers were to make purchases. What’s more, the system would help with recommendations and suggestions — harkening back to Shah’s earlier days as a consultant — ushering in a new kind of customer intelligence with the aim of improving sales efficiency at scale.
As Shah notes, the role of sales has evolved. It’s no longer enough to serve as the equivalent of a talking brochure turning up to demo a product. The new bar for Enterprise Go-To-Market teams is to become an advisor who solves customer needs. Or as high-end consultancies note, add “value” to the entire business.
Q: Did you grow up in London?
Born and raised in London. I lived there for over 30 years.
My mother is from Western India while my father, who also is of Indian descent, grew up in Uganda. There were a lot of East African Indians who lived there until Idi Amin expelled Indians from Uganda. After he met my mum, they got married and moved to London in the early seventies. Both became entrepreneurs and ran businesses for many years. My father’s father and mother’s father were entrepreneurs as well.
Q: So, entrepreneurship is something that ran in the family?
Growing up, I started working for my father at the age of six, helping in his shop. I kind of just grew up with that. Other friends from school also had parents working at what you’d call professional, white-collar jobs. And I always thought, ‘Oh, that is definitely where I want to go and work.’ I didn’t want to necessarily follow in my father’s footsteps in that regard. But here I am now; I guess it’s the best of both worlds — an entrepreneur who does white-collar professional work.
Q: Before you matriculated at Imperial College to study computer science, did technology exert any pull as you grew into adulthood?
There was this intersection of business and technology, which I found interesting. I got my first computer when I was 14, and then built my first computer when I was 17. I also started my first company at 17.
I started a company called Information Design with a friend of mine from school. Both of us got computers around the same time and we both had a shared interest in HTML and graphic design. This was back in the mid to late 1990s; the internet was slowly building but a lot of companies didn’t even have websites. We decided to help companies create their own corporate websites. We worked on it after school and during the summers.
Q: How did you fare?
We made a bit of money, but more importantly, it was a great way to learn how to get into business and do work for customers. We did it for about a year and a half and it was just a great experience, both working with a friend and getting something up and running to solve problems for customers.
Q: How long did you stay with it? And did you ever consider continuing the same path instead of going to college?
There clearly was a fork in the road and I had to choose. Do I go to university? Or do I continue with this business? Ultimately, I decided to go study at Imperial College while my friend continued with the business.
Q: It sounds like you already had your own business education without having to sit in class and learn lessons.
Maybe. I’m not sure. I think I was probably just a very naive 17-year old who thought that business was going to be easy and that getting customers was going to be easy. But after I did that startup, I did summer internships — at Ernst and Young and then at Goldman Sachs — and those helped me build my understanding where I could see different aspects of business.
Q: Let’s hit the fast-forward button; you went on to become a consultant and spent more than 14 years at Accenture. At what point in that timeline did you think, `Hmm, here’s an opportunity to apply my experience to solve the kinds of problems that would eventually become the focus for Databook?’
It was around 2009. I had an opportunity to consult for a very large conglomerate in Scandinavia. The process of figuring out what this $100 billion company needed to do next was something that got me thinking. I was essentially standing in the shoes of the CEO, the management team, and the leadership team, thinking about the competitive pressures, the industry dynamics, their financial position, investor expectations, what customers were expecting, and then coming up with ideas and solutions for them to improve their business. It became obvious to me that my experience should be codified into software so that everyone could also benefit from these insights.
Q: At what point in your life did you meet Alex Barrett, who became one of your co-founders at Databook?
Alex and I met in high school when we were 13. He was always the brilliant one who was just amazing at everything he did, whether it was at sports or languages or sciences. Things just came naturally to him. We just stayed in touch even after he went on to Cambridge University. He would occasionally come over and help with my mum’s flower store and deliver flowers with me. So, we had lots of shared experiences, having to go through the nightmare of logistics, planning for a thousand different flower deliveries on Valentine’s Day, and such. Another time was with the Digital Transformation project we worked on together with Accenture and the World Economic Forum. That was the start. He was able to take a lot of this management consulting and finance-speak and translate it to make it more available and easily understandable.
Q: You later left England and moved to this side of the “pond.” Looking back, do you think it might have been possible to start the company in the UK and operate from there?
It probably would have been possible. I just don’t know whether I would have had that spark for the idea if I had stayed in London.
Q: What did you find that was so different about Silicon Valley?
It is a hotbed of ideas — all the time. You might be meeting with some VCs, or with other entrepreneurs or folks who work in technology engineering or design sales — the network effect is so great that it’s almost like school; everyone’s kind of like graduating and learning at the same time and everyone’s pushing each other.
Q: When you started the business, you decided initially to bootstrap the business. What factored into that decision?
The idea was to try and make money before we had to raise money. That was quite counter-intuitive to what a lot of startups do where they come up with an idea, then raise some funding. And then they build with the aim of creating something that can monetize before raising more money. We felt that wasn’t necessarily the right way to approach it. If we’ve got a business that is worth something, then let’s sell the product to customers, and then we’ll learn from there. We did that for three years. When you think about the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks, there’s a point in time where he’s trying to get off the island and he just can’t do it unless he builds a bigger raft. And so, we realized that venture funding was required to build a bigger raft to propel us forward on our journey.
Q: Given your experiences, what are the biggest errors that enterprise sales folks commit, and how amenable do you think they are to modifying or changing their approach to the job?
I think time management is a big challenge for lots of enterprise sales folks. There are a lot of shiny new objects out there and that means a lot of potential leads to follow. But it’s easy to get distracted into going down rabbit holes on smaller deals that don’t necessarily create as much value for your customers or for your organization or for yourself.
It’s a huge inefficiency in the world of enterprise sales and it’s one that we’re helping to correct by providing more insight, and more intelligence at the fingertips of the people who need it and at the moment when they need it.
Q: In practice, sketch out how that would work.
We’re talking about which accounts to prospect, which people to engage, what solutions to talk to them about, and what value you can bring to your customers. That whole recommendation engine, that whole calculation, is something that is hard to do constantly and consistently.
Q: I was thinking about the idea of that archetypal door-to-door salesman. The concept is hundreds of years old but hasn’t changed all that much. We’re still talking about reaching out to prospects to talk about a problem that you can solve, and then it becomes a discussion around the price for that service.
You’ve nailed that. Earlier, you asked me about my back story. Around 2009, I was still in London when the iPhone was released. I ended up realizing that we had shifted from living in a world of information asymmetry where, as you say, for hundreds of years sellers had to pitch their products to buyers. And there was always a skeptical kind of buyer who was like, “I’m not sure.” Caveat emptor, Latin for buyer beware, right?
But we now shifted the decision framework to where there was information parity. For example, if you wanted to buy an enterprise software tool, you could now go online and find dozens of websites with information about a company’s business. And before coming to a meeting, you would know price points, customer reviews, compatibility integrations, all these sorts of things. And so, the role of sales has changed from being a talking brochure turning up with the product specs, to now being an advisor. And how can I help you to solve your needs right now and solve them in the best way to being more consultative and adding value to the whole process.
Q: How challenging was it to architect and build a workable system that these reps who may or may not be tech-savvy could quickly deploy, get a read on the key buyers, and understand the most recommended solutions that they’re likely to buy?
Well, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, right? So, when I started doing my work with Accenture, I was learning from all the finance wizards who had already done a bunch of analyses and had provided a lot of textbook academic research into how companies create value. I spent nearly six years analyzing multiple companies in every industry around the world. I was fortunate that while at Accenture, I was given one task and one problem to solve for something like 30,000 hours with my team — which was what should any company do next?
Q: Speaking of your background, were there attributes that you acquired during your career that translated into the skills that you needed to be successful as an entrepreneur?
I would say that there’s a level of domain expertise and understanding that I picked up through my work at Accenture. For example, in the world of sales, somebody’s going to go meet with a customer and have a conversation around an idea or a solution. They then propose what that might mean. After closing a deal, you send a contract through, collect the money, and then you stand up a team or a product or a solution to deliver for the customer. That’s what you must do in consulting. And my background in consulting allowed me to realize the human potential for doing those different things.
Also, I think I was very fortunate to grow up within an entrepreneurial family. Having done that and seen my parents working so hard — my dad worked 13 hours a day, 7 days a week, 51 weeks of the year for nearly 30 years — the idea of hard work doesn’t surprise me. I was fortunate to learn so much from just being around them.
Q: The example he set really helped form your worldview.
My father passed away five years ago, almost at the time, we were about to launch Databook. His determination was to give me and my two sisters an education and opportunities that he didn’t have. He gave me a lot of ammunition and adrenaline to fulfill his dream and do something meaningful that can impact many people.
Q: Is your job today more fun and rewarding than being a consultant?
Ten times more fun. I now must take my own advice and implement it! And you learn very quickly whether it’s a good idea or a bad one. I really enjoy what I do. I am fortunate to have such an amazing team to work with day to day, and I have found that building something from the ground up can be extremely rewarding.
Q: As the person in the cockpit, what’s the most challenging part of the job for you?
It’s evolved over time. In the first few years, I was focused on building out the product and making sure it worked for customers. Our biggest challenge now is finding great people who have similar motivations and values.
Q: Do you have a motto that reflects your approach to life and work?
Don’t expect behavioral change.
Q: Finally, the proverbial getaway question. Who’s had the biggest influence on your professional career?
My grandfather was an entrepreneur and a CEO who ran one of India’s largest construction and engineering businesses. He built it from the ground up. Between him and my father, they were great influences on me, and I can’t thank them enough for what they gave me.
One thing that my grandfather said was to work hard first, and then put the family second. I felt that was a bit strange because most people would say put your family first. But what I think he was really saying to me was to make sure to take care of my family by making sure that I take care of business. Because if you don’t take care of business, you can’t really take care of your family.