Becoming a SalesTech Entrepreneur: One Man's Journey with Ankesh Kumar
An intro by Nancy Nardin, Founder, Smart Selling Tools.
I met Ankesh Kumar around this time last year. What immediately struck me was his enthusiasm and confidence. It wasn’t hubris. It was this rare quality that’s hard to put your finger on. Let’s call it a sense of purpose. As I’ve gotten to know Ankesh, I’ve learned that he likes to ask a lot of questions. He appears to value the act of questioning just as much as (perhaps more than) getting answers to questions.
He reminded me of another person I had an opportunity to know a long while back. John Morgridge. John was the newly appointed CEO of GRiD Systems in the early ’80s. I was a young-buck salesperson and he was my bosses, boss. When he came to town, I took the opportunity to bring him along on an important sales call with a large defense manufacturer. John asked a lot of questions during the meeting, none of which seemed to advance the sale. They were high-level questions. Probing questions – almost as if John wanted to learn from the VIP we met with rather than the other way around. It left a bad taste in my mouth because I didn’t understand the value of questioning at the time.
Some of you might recognize that name “John Morgridge”. Just two year’s later in 1988, John joined a 4-yr old company with 34 employees at the time and ran it as CEO until 1995 and Chairman until 2006. That company was Cisco Systems – one of Silicon Valley’s great success stories. When John left in 2006, the company had 50,000 employees in 77 countries.
Ankesh reminds me of John. He’s an entrepreneur in his very soul. I believe all salespeople have at least a little entrepreneurial spirit in them. We treat our territories like our own businesses. With that in mind and in the hopes of sharing some inspiration, I asked Ankesh to tell his story. Here it is.
by Ankesh Kumar
I never wanted to be an entrepreneur, the problem was no-one would hire me, so I wasn’t left with many options if I wanted to keep the wolves from the door. I really dreamt of having a cushy 9-5, Happy Hour at 530, repeat.
So my journey started in New Delhi, my father who worked for Air India was transferred to London when I was three. All my education was in England, including my undergraduate degree in Hospitality. The best thing about that course was the wine tasting as the first lecture on Thursdays.
1989 when I had finished my education the world was in a precarious place, there was a stock market crash in October and then there was the first Iraqi war which there were serious concerns of a more global conflict.
I had visited San Francisco a few years earlier and decided to try to make a move from London to San Francisco, since I had nothing holding me back in London, no job, no mortgage no girlfriend. Plan B was Australia, Plan C was Hong Kong.
Three of my friends decided to tag along, so we ended up doing a trip down to Tijuana with stops in Vegas, San Diego and LA along the way.
My goal was to find a job after New Years. So come Jan 2nd we would still party all night but I’d be up at 9am with a roll of quarters at payphone and the yellow pages. We had no cellphones nor an internet back then.
After a lot of cold calling, which by the way I loved, I managed to get an interview as a recruiter in San Jose. Only catch was it was an all commission gig. Then came up the thorny question of my visa status. I invented a girlfriend who I planned to marry and obtain citizenship. After I was offered the job I asked if they would sponsor me if I would foot the bill, since I didn’t want to get married just to get a visa. They agreed.
Now my adventure starts
I was provided with a phone, white pages and a pile of resumes and told to make friends:)
It was a blast, I had the phone put down on me all the time, but I also talked to lots of good people. Made lots of friends and connections. Honestly the English accent helped.
I had enough money to last me three months, money I’d borrowed from my Mum. So I’d do the $2 appetizer buffet at the Red Lion. It was a thrilling experience, truly a sink or swim. Although we had metrics like calls, connects, meetings, job orders, I was to all intent self employed. I would just mentally check in with myself, do I feel I was building relationships and grade myself on that subjective value daily.
The survival rate at this firm was really low, less than 1 in 10 lasted more than 3 months. One guy joined on a Monday, I asked if he wanted to do lunch, he declined, he had errands to run. He never came back from his lunch/errands.
I was doing ok, not rocking the world, but surviving. I noticed in the early 90’s there were a few Indians coming over on B1 visas. When I crunched the numbers, it seemed like an opportunity to make some money.
I started to leverage the network I had built up to see if anyone was interested in exploring this business opportunity. There was a small staffing company in San Mateo who had recently been burnt by an offshore development firm. They were motivated to set up an offshore function to their firm. They saw me with an Indian complexion and with good English as the perfect person to bring on board. What they did not appreciate and I didn’t clarify, I could not speak Hindi, so apart from my complexion I didn’t have any connections or language skills. I decided I’d just wing it.
I designed a pretty cool business model, we would not hire directly, so we’d have no liability when the resources came off the project. We would sub-contract and pay the sub contractors when we got paid. I doubled my company’s revenue in 2 years. I remember when my Mum came to visit from London, we were invited to my boss’ house for a BBQ. He told my Mum, I was more important to him than I was to her.
I was promised some equity which was not forthcoming, I didn’t want to start my own firm, but didn’t believe I had an option after my boss told me he was paying me too much. Given I was getting 10% commission I figured I only needed to bring in 10% of the revenue I was currently bringing in to make the same amount.
Striking out on my own
I started with $50k in the bank, grew my company to $20m in 3 years, no investment, no loans and without touching the initial capital. We were doing 10% EBIT.
A funny thing happened, a private equity wanted to purchase us and use us as the backbone company to roll-up other staffing companies. One of the companies they wanted to roll up was the company I left. So I went back to evaluate my old boss and his company as a potential roll up, three years after being walked out with a cardboard box. It was a little awkward.
I also simultaneously started a software company, in the area of applicant tracking with a friend, we did raise $50m for that business and grew it to $25m in 4 years. We had a global business with offices in London and Australia. Fun fact, the only software companies I’ve ever worked for are ones I started
By 1998, we successfully exited both businesses. So within 7 years of coming to the US with $3k from my Mum, at the age of 33 I was able to retire.
At that time I had one daughter and my wife was busy doing her residency at Stanford. So I took a little time off, did some investing and launched a few start-ups, one in the area of employee time off and another venture that Google purchased, but really used most of the time to spend with my parents in London and my two daughters and wife.
Recently my younger daughter started at UC Davis, my wife is still practicing, so I need to keep myself out of trouble. Hence the venture I’ve been incubating, Sharetivity.
The idea dawned upon me at a sales conference in San Diego. I was having a glass of wine with other sales professionals. One guy mentioned he finally got a meeting, the prospect said I’ve received 18 messages and is taking the meeting to stop sending messages. We all laughed as we do with these war stories.
On further reflection It kinda blew my mind, with all this sales technology, where is the relationship building. I don’t want to tar all salespeople with the same brush, but it seems we can add a little art to the science of selling. A little personalization to these cadences.
That is my goal with Sharetivity, rebalance relationships with all the technology we have. Sharetivity collates all the disparate data sources that sales reps go, to find a strategic imperative or a social icebreaker. It’s still up to the salesperson to select the topic but we significantly reduce time in researching.
I’ll leave you with a phrase my sales manager used and anytime I’m having a not so good day, I think of this & then pick the phone up to make another call.
“The harder you work, the luckier you get”.
As an inventor, entrepreneur, leader, husband, father and friend, it’s important for Ankesh that he is bettering the lives of the people he encounters.
Ankesh, was born in India, grew up in London, started numerous companies in Silicon Valley. ATSystems, 0-$22m in 4 years. Sold to TMP, the parent company of Monster. Personic, 0- $25m in 4 years. The company was merged with Kronos.
Sold patents to Google for “Sharing as a “Page Ranking Mechanism”, a year before Facebook’s “Like button”