A person built strong from the roots, shall be strong in the fruits. Imbibing the exposure and advantages he gained from his early days, Sethu Meenakshisundaram, the founder of Zluri is on his way to success.
He made use of the opportunities available and set up a venture that focused on the need of the future. Let us read through this inspiring journey of his.
YC: A person gathers his strengths in his childhood. How was yours?
Sethu: I was born in Madurai. I come from a family of doctors. My mother is a homemaker. I took Computer Science in 11th to avoid the compulsion to become a doctor. I saw my father working all day and realised if I am to become a doctor that is how my life is going to be. It is quite ironic, my sister took inspiration from it to become one, and I chose not to become one.
I studied at Jeevana School, our school focused on J. Krishnamurti’s Educational Philosophy. His philosophy focused on providing opportunities to students for organic growth. Hence my upbringing was completely different. It deeply influenced me to become an entrepreneur. I was provided with en number of opportunities all along my school life which helped me shred all my fears on and off stage. I then joined Amrita School of Engineering to pursue a BTech degree in Electronics and Communication.
“You don’t need to be first everywhere, you just need to be on top where you belong.”
YC: Your suggestion to engineering students to make the best of four years of BTech?
Sethu: Internships, Internships, and Internships. Just one suggestion.
Internships come with great exposure and real-life learning. Today, there are options for students to explore and find a fit according to their skill set. I would highly recommend them to go for an internship (through college or even explore options outside college). An internship is the foundation for a professional career ahead.
During the second year of college, I got the opportunity to work for Avaya, which specialised in Cloud Communications and workstream collaborations, as an intern. I got the opportunity to work with the sales team there. By the time the internship was over, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. That changed my whole career, I figured out my path forward.
YC: Your takeaways from your sales internship?
Sethu: Sales is one of the toughest problems (with no disrespect to other business functions). My early exposure to sales helped me a lot throughout my career and most importantly in my current role of heading sales for Zluri. My then takeaway from my Avaya were:
- Sales is all about understanding the customer. Many times you don’t even know the person who is paying you the money while you are behind a computer. It usually takes time to understand customers, while I was able to gather it at a very early age.
- Sales – pre sales – product – customer service. I understood this real-time business cycle. During my internship, I got the opportunity of working in these functions for three months each. This exposure gave me a lot of insight into my strengths. At this time, I broadly had an idea that I would like to pursue sales as my professional career.
- Open work culture. Avaya believed in open work culture. I consider myself lucky enough to get such a warm exposure at the beginning of my career. We have built the same at Zluri – Trust, transpency and most importantly all members working toward a common goal.
YC: Post engineering, most students are confused about pursuing an MBA, MS, or a job. What would you suggest to help them?
Sethu: Simple – Always a job. If you go for a Masters, it would just be another degree. Working would provide you with a perspective on your career. You don’t have to rush. You should rather get a point of view, understand, and then choose.
I wasn’t even aware of entrepreneurial opportunities during then. I wished to get a job initially. A middle-class upbringing makes you a good employee but never a good entrepreneur. To me, the next phase was to understand the global market. So I chose a job in Dubai.
YC: What happened after the college years?
Sethu: I joined Avaya as a Key Account Manager, worked there for around 3 years. To further enhance my skills I decided to pursue a one year MBA course in Global MBA & Marketing Management. I studied at SP Jain School of Global Management. The one-year program operates on a unique twin-city model; six months in Dubai and six months in Singapore. It exposes students to diverse business environments and cultures, thus preparing them for a global career.
Post my MBA to further diversify my learning, I wanted to explore a new country, a new industry, and a new job. I joined Deem Finance as Management Associate in Retail Banking. I realised that retail banking was not my cup of tea. I could not find any creativity in the job (with no disregard for banking). Boredom started hitting on me a lot, luckily my professor Rajiv Jayaraman then invited me to join his startup – KNOLSKAPE. It was an experiential learning space with a mission to help organisations and employees become future-ready. I got excited, plus there were no downsides, thus I decided to join them in 2013.
YC: The journey in KNOLSKAPE?
Into the Basics!
Sethu: KNOLSKAPE was then an eleven-member startup, where I was the twelfth man. My inital role was to build the academic business. We scaled to 25 educational institutions and then hit the wall. It turned out to be a not-so-scalable business model due to pricing limitations, deal size, and sales cycle time.
We pivoted to mid-market & enterprise, and that move showed promise. From hitting the wall to pivoting, all happened in the first nine months of my joining.
As KNOLSKAPE was growing, so was my career. I moved to Sales and Customer Success Role, then Business Head of India and eventually became the Chief Business Officer – Sales Strategy & Execution.
I owe a lot to KNOLSKAPE. There, I learned things like:
- Building from almost scratch.
- Building and managing a team.
- Scaling a business – By the time the journey ended, we had 150+ employees, 500+ customers in over 55 countries.
- Finding my co-founders.
- Lastly and most importantly, the problem identification for SaaS management.
Team @ KNOLSKAPE
YC: How was Zluri born?
Sethu: As the pandemic struck, people all over the world were cutting costs. Even at KNOLSKAPE, we faced the same issue. We also had to cut our costs. It was then we realised how much we were paying for the softwares we were using and didn’t even bother to ever see how those were performing or even valuable. Many times you tend to focus so much on business growth that you forget to track the pilferage.
We (Chatinya, Ritsh and myself) also knew that software will be a dire need in the times to come. But the pandemic just expedited the whole process. People turned to technology more than usual. We could sense an opportunity here and started talking to people around. We knew Computerisation and Internetisation were to be followed by Softwarisation.
We zeroed in on the probelm. It is a pain for organisations to track and manage software stack/tech stack. Truer if most of the software being used is subscription-based (SaaS). Time, money, and resources are wasted on an ongoing basis. Hence Zluri was born.
Zluri helps IT and finance teams to automatically start discovering, optimising, and managing their software stack across departments, employees, usage, vendors, and utilisation with engagement ROI.
We were convinced of Zluri’s future and were able to convince others too. My wife supported me to take this risk, and I had nothing to look back on. I decided to go for it!
YC: Was there a dilemma in choosing between B2B and B2C?
Sethu: The problem statement in our minds was that of B2B’s. Also, we had ten years of experience in building a B2B business, but none in B2C. It is always better to go for something which you have experience in. B2B was hence the obvious choice.
YC – Can we talk about the initial journey of Zluri?
Sethu – Continuous analysis and feedback helped us a lot in defining the road map for Zluri. We were able to figure out what would work and what would not. Major learnings were:
- We helped companies save money on wasted licences and other such aspects. It was but a one-time purpose for many. Only for IT was it a regular problem, and we narrowed it down.
- How to price, approach and communicate. All the companies were software-based and heavily dependent on Cloud. We focused on their requirements and found it very easy to pitch in and sell thereafter.
- Outbound SDR was one way of sales that helped us a lot.
- We asked for a lot of references from anybody and anywhere. This relentless execution also helped us a lot.
YC: What three things helped to create the awareness for Zluri?
Sethu: Marketing and sales goes hand in hand. Marketing is all about creating awareness, which eventually leads into sales. The plans we followed was quite simple:
- Do stuff that compounds. Even before funding, we started writing blogs, writing about the problem. We topped the Google search list organically because we genuinely wanted to solve the problem. Spend a lot on content to create awareness.
- Do events. Make people experience your product. People tend to remember the experience you provide them, and events are a great way to reach out to them.
- Community building. Go to forums and groups and talk about yourselves. A community possesses your potential customers, and it can help in spreading awareness of the product tremendously.
YC: What are your suggestions on sales?
Sethu: There are many strategies for sales. A few I have learned in my professional life are:
- Don’t claim yourselves to be unique. We made this mistake with Zluri but very quickly corrected ourselves. Every buyer would admire the statement, but nobody would buy from you. Nobody wants to take the risk of buying a product that has not found its market yet. What they want is a better product that has value to them.
- Fit in. To specify a niche is important to be chosen by your customers. You will show up in search results only if you fit in.
- Sales culture – I truly believe the sales culture in a startup has to build from the very beginning. Core founding team should not be the only ones selling the product. Everyone in the organisation and very specifically all the employees in the sales team have to sell the product all the time, not just during office hours.They have to mention about the product during casual meetings with friends, family, alumni meets and other gatherings as well.
- Understand your buyer. Narrow down who your customers are, and be true to them. You will probably reach out to the top-level buyer while pitching in. But the content you market in will directly be influencing the user-level buyers.
YC: Zluri’s seed round was funded by Kalaari Capital. How did that unfold?
The Building Blocks
Chaithanya – Was the director of Engineering, leading multiple teams in Simulations, Analytics, Research, and Infrastructure, to deliver exceptional results.
Ritish – Was Chief of Marketing
Myself – Was Chief Business officer – Looking into Sales Strategy & Execution.
Three of us were also the founding team members at KNOLSKAPE. We have worked very closely with each other for seven long years. Our investors were quite confident in us of making a great team and product. Also they liked the problem we picked of building a SaaS management platform. All these convinced our investors to trust us regardless of having a MVP.
@Me with my other cofounders
YC: Can you share some numbers for Zluri? Also, your take on scaling?
Sethu: We are just around one year old, still our numbers at Zluri are:
- Zluri has more than a hundred global customers today.
- Forty per cent of our customer base are paying
We are very bullish about space and our growth. We have very recently raised a Series A round of $10 Million funding led by MassMutual Ventures , with participation from existing investors. We plan to use the same for growth, building a stronger product and engineering team as well as sales and marketing. We are also growing from smaller customers to larger customers.
Again from my learning during KNOLSKAPE, I learned that scaling is a process that demands precision as well as vision.
- Figure out why people buy from you. People buy the product for three or four features. If the founder can decode it, it will be helpful. Also, we could expand faster today. The world has advanced to a level where we can grow twice in a given time frame.
- Have a target. It could be finding a market or aiming for a revenue limit, but having that sense of target helps.
- Hire passionate people who want to be on the journey just as you are. For sales hiring, I have kept things very simple. A call with the potential hire for about 60 minutes. If I feel I will buy the product from this person, I hire. For me, the most important skill for a person is learnability. Also I have been a sales person for most part of my professional life so that muscle also helps me a lot in building a good sales team.
YC: Any suggestions for the upcoming founders?
Long-Term + Early Onboarding
Build for Long-Term
Sethu: My learnings almost took roots from KNOLSKAPE itself. Everyone’s journey is different, but there are a few general things one could keep in mind. Build a business on things that don’t change. Entrepreneurship is hard and you ought to figure out something you can build long term. It helps you save time and effort for gathering the rights and wrongs for every aspect of a business.
I would very strongly recommend onboarding customers with free trials, this really worked well for us at Zluri.
- Onboarding experience increases customer engagement.
- Onboarding users increases conversion rate.
- Onboarding educates users and increases retention.
- Onboarding Improves Product Adoption.
Go for it with all your heart. If you fail after delivering your cent per cent, you won’t regret any of it. But if you fail without trying hard, regret will haunt you.
YC: Any community you are part of that may benefit others too? Also what is Sethu’s inspiration mantra?
There is a book called Shoe Dog written by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. It has a line, “The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.” I find this line very inspirational. Not many good start, and few among them survive. Hopefully, we did.
YC: Is there someone whom you would like to acknowledge in this journey of yours?
Sethu: I owe a lot to many people. My wife Meenu once said, “I’ll take care of us. Go give this startup journey a shot.” I owe her a lot for the support she gave all along. A friend of mine, Varun, who helped me a lot in the initial stages is also a person to thank for. My parents and in-laws, without whom I wouldn’t have come this far, were always the support pillars of mine.
Of course my co-founders, Chaithanya and Ritish. It takes courage to join an entrepreneurial journey and not give up to the end. These are a few people I could now think of thanking in this humble journey.
@ My family…
It was great talking to you. We found your story inspiring indeed and the professional values you provided us with is immense. Yellow Chapter wishes you the very best in your future years.
Interviewer: Divya Jain