Veena, before we talk about the company you founded, salesBeat, what was your career and study journey?
This could be a long one as I’ve lived in a few different places. I’m from India and that’s where I grew up – in a very small state in the south called Kerala. After I finished school, we moved out of India to Botswana in sub Saharan Africa and that’s where I did my ACCA. I basically homeschooled for that, and then started working at a consultancy in Botswana. I did a whole bunch of different things – worked with clients in retail and in the consumer goods sector, amongst others, across multiple different countries. At some point I decided I wanted to move outside of Botswana, and into a slightly different sector, so I applied to Business School at INSEAD and moved to France for a year. After that I got a job at Pepsi in the UK, initially in finance. I then moved into various different roles like commercial finance, supporting people in sales and marketing, and with supply chain innovation. I worked on some really exciting stuff that never saw the light of day. There are some innovations that have come out recently which I see and go ooh that actually looks like the project that I worked on back then.
Yes in big companies, ideas can exist years before ever coming to life!
At some point after that I then moved to Australian Vintage, a wine company. They had been around for a while, but didn’t have a finance team, it was just a sales and marketing wing. So I was brought in to set up their finance function. That was when I got my first experience of sales, because they had a really nice wine portfolio which I enjoyed and I knew that there were consumers in sub Saharan Africa who would also enjoy it. I reached out to some of my old contacts in the retail sector and got the sales guys talking to them. And we sort of set up a market entry. In that role, I found it actually brought all of my experiences and talents together. I then moved to Diageo because they were looking for someone to set up subsidiaries in sub Saharan Africa, and worked on a project in Mozambique. Eventually I moved to their wines business to lead international sales for them, and when they sold that business to a role within their travel retail team.
I freelanced for companies in this sector for a couple of years thereafter, for start-ups, SMEs and for large corporates in sales and market entry. I quickly found out that companies, whether small or large, all had the same issues in this sector. They would have all of these really great ideas that they’d work on, but firstly, it would take so long to move things forward, and then because of the way the sector itself works, and the fact that they aren’t super data driven, it ends up being more feelings and gut led. It’s also not a very transparent sector, when it comes to finding opportunities or relevant contacts. I was looking at whether a tech solution might fix this – my background is not tech so I applied to a startup program called Antler whose first European cohort was based in Sweden. I literally relocated to Sweden for six months for that. I was already living out of a suitcase by then, so it was an easy one for me to pack up my bags and move.
I met my co-founder Alex there.
How clear were you, going into that program, on what you wanted to build in a company?
So I knew that the FMCG/CPG industry was super slow and had a couple of ideas in mind that could solve this issue, so I went with the problem in mind, rather than a detailed solution. We all had chats about these problems that we’d come there with. Some of the others there were looking at really, really interesting projects and topics – it was one of those times when I found it really hard to think okay, I’m going to stick to this because I really believe in that, because there were other problems that people were solving that really resonated as well. But I had spent 20 years of my life by then working in the space, so I thought, well… I should do something about this.
When Alex and I agreed to work together we decided to build it remote. Alex lives in Sweden he’s got a family and kids, I live in the UK, I don’t have family, but I quite like living here. And I’ve worked in teams where I was the only person in the UK and the rest of my sales and marketing teams were based in different countries for their regional locations. So I was used to working over phone calls and telecoms.
“it was one of those times when I found it really hard to think okay, I’m going to stick to this because I really believe in that, because there were other problems that people were solving that really resonated as well.”
I think the co-founder relationship is really interesting. What was Alex’s background, and what made you think you had the right skill sets to make it work together?
So Alex’s background is the complete opposite of mine. He’s all about tech, all about startups. He started an adventure sports company when he was in University and he says that his first startup experience was when he was in school, and he decided to bake cookies and sell them. He set up a restaurant at one point, moved to Sweden after selling the restaurant and then he decided to pick up tech, and since then he’s been developing Apps, managing web development projects, advising startups on the tech strategy, and that sort of thing. He’s been very embedded in that scene for a long time. We have very different points of view on a lot of different things and that diversity in thinking is super important because if you have a co-founder who basically says yes and agrees with you on everything, it doesn’t question your basic assumptions on whether they are right or wrong. I think there’s real value in someone coming with a completely different mindset.
The way we decided to work together was, we did everything together for two days – literally everything – had breakfast together, worked through problems together, had lunch together and that sort of thing. We thought, if we don’t kill each other by the end of the second day that we probably will work ok.
“diversity in thinking is super important because if you have a co-founder who basically says yes and agrees with you on everything, it doesn’t question your basic assumptions on whether they are right or wrong”
In terms of actually getting investment, as a pair you almost seem like an investor’s dream set up. You’ve got loads of experience in different fields, you’ve been to business school, you’ve got good relationships with potential clients. Was investment easy to secure?
We were lucky enough to get an investment at the end of the Antler program which did give us some time to build the product and enable people to actually make transactions on it. Although I didn’t realize how much time and effort the whole fundraising aspect beyond that would take.
We grew our platform to around 500 users in the ecosystem, and then got investment from an accelerator in New York – moved there for a few months, in early 2020 and then COVID hit and we completely pivoted the business.
We decided to build a product based on the new needs, and then started looking at fundraising now with a product which was more of an enterprise software product. Our lead investor, who’s been absolutely brilliant, is actually a VC based in New York – by the way, I think the US is a much better startup ecosystem in terms of early stage fundraising than Europe is.
Was it easy enough for you to have those conversations with investors based, in a different market?
Because of the introduction made by the accelerator that made it easier but otherwise I think investors are so hard to break through to. It’s almost like a clique, you need to know people to be introduced to them. We’ve gone through several versions of cold outreach and cold emails but it’s really, really hard to break through into that space – we would get replies from people but because they don’t know anyone and they’re putting a fair amount of money in, it’s hard to win that trust. I think being at an accelerator actually helped break into that network, but also the learning I took away from it is, use your existing network as well. We all think we don’t have networks, but we do – it could be startups that you worked with before, or people that you met at different events, school alumni, any advisors – even banks! You have to use anything at your disposal to do this.
“We all think we don’t have networks, but we do – it could be startups that you worked with before, or people that you met at different events, school alumni, any advisors – even banks! You have to use anything at your disposal to do this.”
I think finding the right investors is the key thing. Our lead investor in the US, they’ve been absolutely brilliant. We chat to them every two weeks, they are super supportive – they think of things in advance and basically go ‘do you need to speak to this person? We can link you up with them’. They’ve also been really good in terms of understanding how things work – I’m a first time founder so there’s a lot of questions that I have. We have another investor in Canada, who does something very similar. They are also a male dominated VC but they’re super supportive, so I think it really depends on the people running the firm/VC.
Yeah I remember hearing someone say ‘not not all money is the same colour green’ when you’re raising funds.
It’s totally not, I think you want smart money and people kept saying this in the beginning, and we didn’t quite understand it until we actually raised. It’s not just money, it’s the advice, the relationships. It’s like having someone on the team who maybe doesn’t come into work on a daily basis, but you can bounce things off. You’re so used to having that in a team, but often don’t get it when you’re a startup.
So how would you describe Salesbeat as a product in a it’s most succinct way?
Salesbeat uses big data & AI(artificial intelligence) to eliminate stock outs of your favourite and most relied on brands, at supermarkets.
Excellent – you’ve obviously said that a lot of times now! What are your focuses on it now, at this stage where you are looking forward?
We expect to close our latest funding round by the end of this month. So that’s a fairly big one. We’re also in the process of starting a pilot so getting ready for that is pretty important – we’ve done a couple of pilots with SMEs, but this is a big one with a large company, so it requires some working to get the team into a situation where once we start everyone in place can work on it without any disruptions. At the same time, sales is a big focus of mine so I’m still reaching out to a lot of different people. And, of course, raising awareness of what we do!
Which markets are you focusing on when it comes to sales and customers?
We’re focusing on English speaking markets, because the process of selling into supermarkets doesn’t really change from one country to another. Most common countries these days have supermarket chains – the big difference is that in more developed markets you don’t have segments that we call ‘the general trade’, whereas in developing markets, you have to have something called general trade which is more of selling into wholesalers and then they sell into markets and independent retailers.
What are some books which have influenced you or that you would recommend to people?
I would definitely recommend this book called The Culture Map, I think a lot of people in the startup space look at reading books on startup fundamentals or finance books, but what people forget is that, businesses are about people – your investors are people, your employees are people, and what the culture map does is work through how people in different cultures behave and react to things and why they do that. Culture does tend to colour conversations and I think in order to make what you’re saying absolutely and crystal clear to the other person it’s really important to keep that in mind and understand the differences.
That sounds very interesting! My final question is, who are some entrepreneurs or otherwise, who inspire you?
I think top of the list is my mum. Not a start-up person or someone who had the usual career progression, but she was someone who could have had a really great career. Initially, was a housewife and then she started giving private tuitions out of our home, eventually went into working as an executive assistant, and she took up coding and developing at a very late stage in her life. Each time I need to pick up a new skill she’s the first person I think of.
The other one is Anne Boden of Starling Bank, primarily because starting a bank is not easy. I’ve come from certain businesses that are very, very male dominated and banking is one. So hats off to her for doing something brilliant and building the first challenger bank in the UK. People don’t talk about it much but it’s doing really well.
My younger sister’s in banking – I’m going to send her over to take a look at! Final quick question, you opted to set up a remote team, how do you find working completely remote and not having other people around you?
It’s a bit of an adjustment, because obviously you don’t meet people on a regular basis but then I think what you need to do is balance working from home with socialising with friends and meeting new people – signing up to lunch club is one of the best things I did back in the early pandemic stages, and I think keeping a social network around that you can rely on is key. Working from home doesn’t have to be isolating.