In episode 43 of EnterpriseReady, Grant speaks with Neha Sampat, CEO & Founder of Contentstack. They discuss Neha’s career journey into enterprise and how Contentstack is accelerating the shift from monolithic suites to agile technology stacks.
About the Guests
Neha Sampat is the Founder & CEO of Contentstack. She previously founded Built.io and Raw Engineering. She was one of “50 Women in Tech Dominating Silicon Valley” in 2015, was named in “San Francisco Business Times Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business” in 2017, and is a “San Francisco Business Times 40 under 40” honoree. Neha was also honored as “CEO of the Year” by Aragon Research in December 2018 and Female Tech Trailblazer of the Year in 2020. Most recently, she was recognized as “Best CEO for Diversity” and “Best CEO for Women” in the 2020 Comparably Best Places to Work Awards.
Grant Miller: All right. Neha, thank you so much for joining.
Neha Sampat: Hey Grant, thank you for having me, excited to be here.
Grant: Yeah. Well, let's jump right in.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into enterprise software.
Neha: For sure.
So it's kind of interesting I actually come from a non-technical background, which is weird because I am a tech CEO now, but I started off my career always on the sidelines of tech.
So I did a PR firm and that was my first real big move into entrepreneurship back in 1999.
So I had moved to Silicon Valley from Denver, Colorado, where I went to undergrad and I started a public relation firm focusing on consumer and enterprise software.
And we were essentially helping brands to establish a presence in Silicon Valley. And in doing that, I spent a lot of time with product managers and product marketing folks. And I learned that I had a passion for products probably more so than marketing. So I managed to transition into product marketing and product management, working at a company that was the darling of Silicon Valley at the time, which was then Sun Microsystems.
And so that was my transition from just being in a pure marketing role to really being more closely aligned with engineering and products and software, and ever since then which was almost 25 years ago, I've been in enterprise B2B software.
The journey kind of continued, I stayed at sun for a few years in a variety of product marketing and product management roles.
And then at that time it was the days when there was a lot of conversation about what happens when you have a lot of people coming to the web, how do you monetize that?
How do you turn those in to paying customers? How you better engage?
And so I developed a passion for web as a channel and it was a channel for commerce, but also just a channel for engagement.
And that was the role I took on at Sun, which I then went on to VMware and built their online store and their entire e-commerce initial channel, which we turned into a 50 million business.
And while I was there at VMware, I kind of ran into the same problems I ran into at Sun, which were the business side of the organization and the IT side of the organization had a hard time getting on the same page, so I actually developed a really important passion for wanting to try to bridge that gap app.
And that carried into the rest of my journey as an entrepreneur and I essentially left VMware to become the CEO of Raw Engineering, which was a company I had founded just before I went to VMware.
And Raw Engineering was doing consulting work helping big brands, figure how to get up to speed with digital transformation initiatives.
And if you think about that timing 2007, 2008 is when mobile was starting to come into the enterprise and organizations were struggling with, what do we do?
What does this mean for us? How does mobile fit into our world?
Bring your own devices became a big deal if you remember at that time and cloud computing was also really new.
And so companies were trying to figure out what does cloud mean for me?
What does mobile mean for me, and how does this play into my digital transformation strategy?
And so Raw Engineering was a consultancy that helped companies figure some of that out helped build the first workloads in AWS.
We were actually one of the first 100 AWS customers.
So really early on really learning cloud very early and became experts in that and that led to our passion for two main areas, one was integration on the cloud and the other was content and how the world of content is changing.
And so we eventually established two different products out of the Raw Engineering company, and we did it because we were trying to service our companies that were going through all these changes.
If you think about what was happening at the time, one of the big things was that people were starting to choose what technology they wanted to buy and marketers were kind of becoming technologists to a certain extent, and they were swiping their credit cards and signing up for services and starting to use a lot of different technologies and tools.
And content was also changing, content that used to be just web only was starting to move to mobile.
And what used to be static content almost brochureware was no longer okay, you needed dynamic content, you needed content that was more personalized and it was no longer okay to wait a month to change a website, you needed to be able to do it quickly, and in real time and sometimes even tied to an integration where content was coming in as it was being changed.
And so with all of those trends and changes, we were helping brands accelerate how to engage with their end users.
And we eventually built two different products, one was Built.io, which was an integration platform as a service.
And that integration platform connected any service with an API to anything else with an API and then orchestrated workflows between them.
So if you think about something like a Zapier, all the way to something like a MuleSoft, we sat right in the middle of that and democratized integration insight enterprises.
And that was Built.io integration platform as a service or iPaaS as it's called in the market.
And then the other product is Contentstack, which was an API first CMS.
And the reason that we needed Contentstack at the time and pioneered this space, which is now called headless CMS or API first CMS is because of all those trends with essentially, now you're having to move from web to all these other places where content is being consumed, you need a centralized place to host your content, just like you do for customer data and your CRM.
You need a way to connect that to all the different services and tools that your company and people inside your company are using.
You want to balance business users and technology users, and you want to make experiences more dynamic.
And so as digital experiences were starting to evolve, the content management related to that also evolved.
So we essentially ended up with a services company that was doing really good work for large brands, an integration platform as a service, which was a SaaS company and Contentstack, which is also a SaaS company.
So fast forward to 2018, we split into three separate entities and late 2018, we sold Built.io to Software AG.
And so we got out of that integration business and shifted our focus to Contentstack, which is what I'm currently running today.
And since our spin out, we've raised 89 million and have been focusing on just high growth for Contentstack.
Grant: Cool. That's great context, thanks for sharing that.
Grant: Go back a little bit. Your first company you started was Raw Engineering, so what made you decide to take the leap and start that company and leave VMware?
Neha: So my first company was probably when I was 10 years old, so I've always been an entrepreneur at heart and I've always built things, I've always had side hustles.
And when I moved to Silicon Valley, I had worked at a PR firm for a year and then I actually started a PR firm called Special SaaS Communications.
So I've always had the passion for building my own thing, whether it's product or companies.
And it really comes down to having the ability to really influence what the end result is, but also just being a part of something, that sense of significance that comes from building something and then seeing it in the market, there's no other feeling like that. And so once we determined that there's a need, my go-to is, "I'm going to go build this into a company. I'm going to go fix this problem. I'm going to go figure out how to do it." And that's just inherent in who I am and how I think.
So Raw Engineering really came out of the fact that we were starting to see all of these trends, and a lot of it for me came from being the business person in a technology company and wanting to be more empowered.
And essentially what we were finding is this shadow IT that was starting to formulate, it was sort of a bandaid, it wasn't really solving the problem for enterprises.
It was that enterprises were feeling held back by just technology.
And so we started the company to accelerate the way that enterprises could better engage with their end users, using technologies that were also IT sanctioned, but doing it in a way that empowered business users and so that was the core passion.
The passion was the world is changing, things need to be more API first or built on microservices and not suites, and we want to empower both business and technologists users inside organizations.
And so those are the fundamentals that led to building a company on the services side and the products just came very naturally and organically as a result of what was happening in the market.
When you were starting the services business, did you imagine, "Oh, we're going to build products at some point and make that transition," or was that something that just you decided to do part way through?
Neha: Yeah. So we actually, when we started the company, the intention was to build the integration platform because that was the first aha moment.
Everyone's buying all these services and tools, nobody's talking to anybody about it, there's no centralized way to manage it.
And we built it with this idea that integration is moving away from the data center behind your VPN, firewalled systems and your servers that you manage and into the cloud.
And at that time we actually said integrations moving to the web, because cloud was still a new technology hadn't really been figured out.
So we started the company with the passion for integration on the web, but it was 10 years too early for that, because there weren't that many SaaS tools yet, it was still new, it was still formulating.
And internet of things was also a big term that was being thrown around at the time and how does that... what's IoT for the enterprise?
And so as we were trying to think through all of that, we ended up taking on a lot of service engagements to help companies work through these problems.
And that actually just informed us further, what was really happening across not just the companies that we had spent time in, but the companies we were servicing.
So we had a much broader view into what's really happening in the market. What are the real pain points and how do we address them?
And so we built the products out of pure necessity.
Grant: Cool. And were you just giving them to your customers initially?
Was it part of their ongoing consulting fee? How did you think about pricing this?
Because I think there's a lot of folks that have consulting companies that dream of making this transition to actually being a product led company, so how did you do it?
Neha: It's a really good question.
So we didn't know how at the time and I think that's true for several companies that start the way we did.
We started off adding it to our service engagements.
And I would say the first few started off as tiny little licenses, just from a legal perspective to be able to license the software.
I could say that the first Contentstack contract was hundreds of dollars a month, not thousands.
And over time we realized that we were way undervaluing the software, but it took a few years to really figure out how to build a true SaaS company because we were in the mindset of a services company.
And I would say that late 2016, we had made the decision that we should split the companies, it took us about a year to figure out how to do it well and in a way that was fair to our customers and our partners and our employees.
And January 1st, 2018, we were split into three companies, two of which were SaaS companies, all licensing based with very limited services revenue.
Grant: And how did you determine who would run each company?
Neha: That also happened naturally because we did give ourselves the time to figure it out.
My passion was always on the content side because I had in my career built digital commerce platforms and rolled them out.
And I actually believed that the business user was going to come ahead in the content experience in terms of the balance between developers and business users.
A lot of the innovation that was happening landed on the business user side.
And so for me that was my passion, I wanted to go down the content path.
And my co-founder was an integration nerd and still is and essentially he came out of TIBCO software, where he had been one of the key architects behind their business works integration platform.
And so that was his background, integration was in his blood and for him to go down the path with Built.io made a lot of sense.
So that's how we divided and conquered and we found additional help to help us run Raw Engineering while we were going through the transition.
So now both Raw Engineering and ContentStack are run by completely different folks.
Built IO, we obviously exited and were able to get my co-founder back in Contentstack.
Grant: Oh, funny. I love that.
And then is Raw Engineering still a services partner or is it part of the business still at Contentstack or not?
Neha: So we have several implementation partners and Raw Engineering is still one of them.
So there are joint customers with Raw Engineering, but we work with an ecosystem of other system integrators now around the world.
Neha: But Raw Engineering does still have a Contentstack kind of business and expertise, but they do several other things as well.
Grant: Yeah. That makes sense. And what were the biggest challenges in terms of making that transition?
Because I think it is-- there's so many folks that really try, like you mentioned pricing was a challenge, organization structure.
What are the other unforeseen consequences that might arise if someone tries to do the same thing?
Neha: Yeah. I think if we look back and I think about my inexperience with it, there's a few things that would change.
And one of them is if you just think about the outcomes for a services company versus the outcomes for a SaaS company and how the market looks at how those companies are valued.
So a services company typically is valued at the most two X the revenue, where a SaaS company can be valued at 20 X or more.
Neha: And so just by doing the spin out, one thing that happened was we increased the value of all the companies, just automatically, without even really having to do anything besides the legal paperwork related to it.
The hard part of that was which employees end up where and what how do you incentivize them.
Neha: And for a product company and a SaaS company, it's easy to know that giving them equity in a growing SaaS company is going to be the right model.
In a services company, in hindsight, I probably would've done something more related to profit sharing or some kind of an incentive program to grow profitability, because it's just a different kind of model.
And that was something that we didn't know at the time and when people ask me now about going through this type of restructure, it's one of the things that stands out the most is just think about the incentive for your employees on both sides.
And then the other piece that we're really proud of is we have this mantra, which is care without compromise that we think about when we think about our customers.
And at Contentstack as an example we've got nearly 100% customer retention, which in an enterprise SaaS company is unheard of, it was 98.8% in the last fiscal year.
Neha: So once we get a customer on board, we hang on them, we take good care of them, we make sure that they're successful.
And that I think actually came a little bit out of having a services mentality when we were at Raw Engineering and that carrying over into the company.
And so when we did the split, we were also very careful to figure out which companies from a customer perspective should be assigned to which entity.
And we ensured that there was an agreement between Raw Engineering and Contentstack that we would have that care without compromise carry through.
So if there was a Contentstack challenge that Raw Engineering had or a Raw Engineering challenge that a Contentstack customer had, we would make sure that the touch points were really clear.
It was really easy for the customer to understand that they're going to be taken care of regardless of which company they're dealing with.
And that's just become a mantra for us when we work with other partners as well.
Grant: That makes a lot of sense the services mentality really driving high retention rate and as a services business you're so used to just constantly engaging and talking your customers because that's what your job is.
And so when you build a product out of that, it would make sense that you would keep that high level of touch, that's great.
And I think what's important is as a SaaS company, you're not expected to have a professional services arm.
And in fact, if your professional services outweighs a certain percentage of your SaaS revenue, it's actually looked upon negatively by the street.
And so from our perspective, it wasn't necessarily that we're selling services or that we have a huge services arm to our company, it was more about the mentality and the care that you take when you're onboarding a customer.
And when you're checking in with them from a support standpoint, you're ensuring that they have the support they need or you're introducing them to the partners that will give them that support.
And so it was more of just an awareness and an enterprise mentality, which I think is unique about Contentstack because we've worked only in the enterprise, all of our customers have come from the enterprise or are really heavy enterprise and complex use cases, so that mentality is built with our support team and continues to exist today.
Grant: At what point into the company life cycle at Raw Engineering, did you say, "Hey, let's actually start to build the products versus just doing the services."
Was it day one or was it like, "Oh, we're going to wait a year or two to get our feet settled." Where was the timeline?
Neha: It's a little bit weird twists and turns here, so I'll start at the beginning.
So at the beginning, the intention was to start with the product and we wanted to build Built.io, we started there.
The first couple engineers that came on at Raw Engineering we're focused on building a product.
We quickly learned that we were too early and the market wasn't ready for what we had in mind.
And so we pivoted first services and focused on services for a good probably three years before we realized, "Okay, things are shifting again and we're ready to start focusing on the product."
I specifically remember it was September or October, fall of 2011 when my co-founder Nishant sent a message to his team saying, "There needs to be a more simple CMS."
And it was because we were working with a robotics company that was trying to send customized content to their devices.
And so this was like none of the web content management tools would work.
And as a services company we had implemented Tridion, Sitecore, Adobe AEM, Drupal, WordPress and we knew what they were capable of and what they were not.
And as the world was moving towards needing omnichannel content, we found that there just needs to be something and simple.
It needs to be an API where you can easily fill out a form and then push content to a device that's unique or new.
And that was the birth of Contentstack or from my perspective the birth of headless CMS, because he sent this message, within two months we had a hello world and we were able to incorporate into the services we provided to the robotics company.
And then fast forward to 2013 and we had productized it. And it was a natural progression because more and more of our customers were starting to need this really easy form based way of changing content in a section of their mobile app or part of their kiosk in their store.
It was just little projects, second CMS projects essentially that were driving the need for this and that eventually evolved into, well, content management can be a hub and where you provide that content, wherever the presentation layer is, whether it's the web or mobile or your in-store kiosk, or a big billboard side an arena, it can all come from the same place and that was essentially the birth of Contentstack as a product.
So it really did happen very naturally and organically, and we productized it after having it in the market with some of our services customers, we productized it in 2014 to sell as a standalone license under the Raw Engineering company and then spun it out four years later.
Grant: Yeah. That just clicked for me a lot.
So the idea that you were this integration focus company, initially a product company, an integration focused service company.
And you're doing all of these integrations for all these enterprises and you realize like none of these CMS systems that exist at the time are API first, they're all designed to go to a UI and then publish it to a website that they create.
And so there's this just core insight, "We're doing all this great integration for all these other tools and there isn't a very integrable CMS. And so let's build one that's developer focused and a little bit more-" to the point of headless, you can use it without having to design it for a specific website and so that clicks for me.
That is a great story and it does make a lot of sense.
And it is interesting, one of the key insights I have here is, one, I just love companies that are like, "We don't die."
We went to the market too early. We figured out that there wasn't an opportunity.
Maybe we were too early so we're like, "Oh, let's just do a bunch of services for a while until the opportunity really presents itself," then it presents itself, you build the products.
And because you're in this really interesting position, so close to all of these enterprise users, you're seeing a broad spectrum of use cases and you're able to identify this new opportunity as it's emerging.
If you kind of always have your eye for your builder and you're always seeing opportunities everywhere, this is a big one.
I love that, that makes so much sense.
And if you think about how much things evolved while we were in the mix, we were there, we were guiding the companies and then the market was also evolving really fast around us and all these opportunities were coming up.
It became so obvious and it just naturally happened and now there's multiple headless CMS providers in the market.
And even though we were one of the first to market, it's become a huge industry and a huge market opportunity overtime, but we were thinking about it 10 years ago.
Grant: Yeah. No, it makes a lot of sense.
I guess like the other challenge of doing what you did is, I think there is likely a--
And there might be some stories from Raw Engineering timeline on this, a likely tendency to try to build too many things.
You're like, "Oh, there should be product for this and this and this."
And so it's not just Built.io and Contentstack, there's probably at least a list of 10 other products that you thought about building or started to build a little bit or had these ideas.
One is that true? Were there other things you wanted to build?
Neha: For sure. We built several things that never really made it to market.
We did build a product in the MBaaS category, mobile backend as a service, which was an application platform for building mainly mobile applications, but really any applications.
Grant: Like Firebase and these kind of things-
Neha: Similar world.
So ours was called Built.io Backend before we did the split and that actually that product became a mobile backend for sports team apps.
And we work with several NBA teams at Raw Engineering including the Sacramento Kings, the Miami HEAT, the Atlanta Hawks and a few others.
And that eventually transformed from an MBaaS to a digital fan experience platform, which is what it is today.
Grant: Oh, interesting.
Neha: But we did build other things that literally never made it to market.
This is a challenge with being a builder and an ideas person is you often instead of going to the market to pick something that already exists, you just have an inclination to build it yourself and you have the team that can, and then everybody thinks they know how to do it better.
And you have to hone it back in from time to time to remember-- we used to say about just focusing on your core competencies.
But it's really just about what are the critical capabilities you bring to the innovation that you're trying to put out and how do you stay on that path?
Because otherwise you literally could build something new every day and there's a lot passion for building here.
Grant: Yeah, exactly.
And so I'm guessing there were probably some heated meetings you're like, "We need to stop working on trying to productize this and refocus on-" because I still think focus is what enables software companies at our size to actually succeed in scale.
So I'm guessing you had to bring the team back in a few times.
Neha: For sure. But there is still a culture of innovating and building.
And I think one of the ways that we've been able to scale that to a certain extent at Contentstack is we have innovation pods and that's a part of the Contentstack labs.
And the way that that works is you set up a team, a full stack from ideation all the way to development and testing.
And you build these pods that are building something that is adjacent to potentially content management.
And that gives us the opportunity to see what ideas they come up with. It doesn't interfere with our delivery process for Contentstack.
We stay on track, we have our agile sprints and we're able to deliver that, but it does allow us to explore adjacent innovations and potentially pull them into the Contentstack roadmap over time.
And so is a balanced way to stay focused on the core product, but also continue to make sure that there is innovation happening.
Grant: Yeah. That makes sense. It's a hard thing to do over time that balance, find the right way to do it.
And you mentioned something earlier that I wanted to highlight I think it's really interesting, I think you have a thesis around it, which is stacks not suites.
What does that mean to you and how do you guys think about that?
Neha: For sure.
So if we go back to the days of us trying to implement existing content management software, that was almost all built 25 years ago and just built for the web.
Those platforms are considered suites, typically you spend a ton of money on their license, but then you also spend a ton of money on system integrators and very specialized skillsets and then you're stuck to a certain extent.
Now the benefit has been that if you go down that path, you have this quote unquote one throat to choke mentality for a support perspective and that's always been a barrier to entry to the stacks approach.
And what we talk about or think about when we're thinking about stacks is, that's the concept of pulling together all the best of breed softwares and services that are out there to create your solution or to architect your solution.
And more companies are moving down that path, it's becoming much more mainstream to choose stacks over suite.
But the one barrier that's have been in the middle there has been, "Well, I want to be able to go to one place if I have a problem and not have to go to five different vendors or negotiate multiple contracts and all of that."
Our way of addressing that is we've teamed up with several companies that are like us and that have this microservices approach to building software and delivering support and we created an alliance.
So we are founders of what's called the MACH Alliance, M-A-C-H. And MACH stands for microservices, API-first, cloud-native and headless.
And if you put all of that together and you think about the companies that fall into this ecosystem, including system integration partners that can be your quote, unquote one throat to choke.
We also have our partners that believe in this concept of care without compromise, which I mentioned earlier.
And we make sure that if you're a part of a content stack solution that we're delivering to the market, that the other players in that also agree that customer care is something that we share.
And if there's a problem with one part to the solution, we're going to pull each other in and deliver similar SLAs and deliver similar customer support experiences.
And that helps remove the barrier that typically used to exist for why companies would choose a suite over stack.
And it gives you as an innovator inside an organization, the opportunity to pull together the best of breed of solutions and deliver the most engaging digital experiences by choosing the technologies that you love.
Grant: Oh, interesting.
And so is there a defined interface for different parts of the stacks? Is it you can be the CMS, you can be the... I don't know what the other parts of the stack are.
Neha: So just to give you an example, I think a lot of the categories that come up a lot are so definitely content and the content hub and commerce, personalization, digital asset management, those are all the types of solutions that come together to create a digital experience.
And you can go to the market and choose a digital experience platform, which is what the Gartners and Forresters of the world will call it, or you can choose a few solutions that together make up a digital experience platform or solution.
And so what we're saying is that if you go down the stack approach and you choose the best provider from an e-commerce perspective, the best provider from a content perspective, the best digital asset manager, the best personalization engine, the best SEO system and you put all of those together, you can create a better experience, there is a better way and you can continue to have a really great support experience.
And the MACH Alliance is agnostic, if you're a member there will be competitors also as a part of the Alliance, we did that very carefully because we want to make sure that it's not looked at as a....
It should be an equitable solution, it should be that the best of breed partners and vendors should be able to compete for business, because what might work for one brand may not work as well for another, and we want that to be a level playing field and continue to make it that way.
Grant: That's great. And you found that it's in conjunction with some system integrators as well, right?
Neha: Yes, that's right.
So it all started back in January, 2020 when we're sitting at a pub in the UK and just literally on a napkin, just penciling out what would this look like?
What does the industry need? What are customers and prospects looking for and what would the partnership agreement feel like and what are the requirements?
And so there are actually pretty stringent requirements for getting into the alliance and you have to be essentially aligned with the four principles, which is again, microservices based and API-first and cloud-native and headless.
And so if you fall into the categories where you fit into that, you've passed the technology evaluation you're in.
And that was all set with a couple system integrators, EPAM and Valtech, and a commerce partner ours commercetools and Contentstack.
So the four of us set off to build this, but now there's several companies involved across the whole ecosystem of content and commerce experiences.
Grant: And so this is really interesting, I think these alliances it's almost like, how do you push the industry forward?
How do you establish common interfaces?
To your point it's very much beneficial for the customer to be able to see an entire collection of tools that they can imagine working really well together.
And it's really interesting that you took it the next level, which is to even have consistent SLAs, right?
So that service level agreement around like, "Hey, when you work with someone, that's a member of this alliance, you're going to get X, Y, and Z type of support."
But it's hard to push these things, it's hard to actually get folks on board.
It's like what were the steps that you did in order to get the other members to come on board?
Or was it just, did you get end users? What approach did you take?
Neha: Great question and I think a lot of it is driven by the necessity in the market.
And there are ambassadors from various brands that have adopted the MACH approach to building technology and having their voice at the table really helped drive the need in the market.
So our ambassadors at the MACH Alliance include heads of digital or chief digital architects, or chief digital officers from ULTA Beauty, from Dawn Foods, from Sharper Image, from Bed Bath and Beyond, from PPG Industries, the Gym Group, all these companies that have come together to say that we're choosing the MACH approach to building software.
That gives the approach and the stacks over suites approach, the credibility.
And then the companies coming together really just want in on being able to have those conversations.
And it's become almost a huge drive in the market coming from multiple angles, because the systems integrators are now getting a lot more inquiries about how do I build a microservices approach to building my software, my solution.
These companies are coming in with this new way of thinking about I want to choose microservices over the monolith approach because I want to be able to be more innovative. And then you've got vendors like us that are just trying to empower all of this to happen.
And so when you bring all of that together, it's a movement, that's occurred.
And so it becomes a catalyst for bringing all these brands and companies together and doing it in a way that's cohesive and that the industry can follow, and that even Forester and Gartner will talk about.
Grant: It's interesting.
Particularly in influencing the analysts is an important part of our jobs is to make sure that everyone sees the market the same way we do.
Did you engage them early with this? When did they get involved?
Neha: So with Forrester and Gartner, they've been involved since the inception of the idea all the way through to when we were able to launch it and announce it.
And now if you talk to either of them, they actually referenced the MACH Alliance in their reports.
In fact, the latest Forrester Wave, which came out just a couple months ago for agile content management systems, calls out which of the companies on the Wave are in the MACH Alliance.
So it has become more and more industry mainstream.
Grant: Oh, that's cool.
Neha: In a very short period of time too, it was launched less than 18 months ago.
If someone is thinking about doing something similar, how important is it to have a variety of partners, who wrote the initial manifesto?
How do you think the best way to get that started is?
Neha: So I think having partners in the mix and this is why it was important to have multiple partners as the founders, with different viewpoints and perspectives on what it should be.
And those people coming together and representing the brands and the companies that they work with, essentially wrote the manifesto and then reiterated and reiterate until they got it to the point where they were on board.
And then the next 10 companies that were going to join the Alliance were also on board.
It started off with there is a better way, everyone agrees to that, there is a better way and then we have to be the catalyst for change.
And the rest of it fell into place based on technology requirements, there's a technology council, there's a good market council, there's a council that meets to talk about the leadership principles of the alliance.
And all of those member folks coming together and agreeing is how you get there because you have different perspectives represented, and eventually it gets to something that everyone's on board with.
Grant: And at what point did you engage your competitors in it?
Neha: Pretty much immediately.
Once the alliance was initiated, it was out there.
I would say that competitors to Contentstack actually came inbound.
And as a part of our manifesto, it was that we need to go through the process of entertaining them and bringing them through the same membership process as any other applicant, so there was never any hesitation there.
Grant: That feels like the most difficult mental hurdle to get over, it's like you're doing this thing, you're putting all this work in and part of your goal is to have it benefit your company and create some thought leadership, and welcoming competitors it requires a level of confidence and trust that, "Hey, this is the right thing. We're going to build the ecosystem and build the category together more than we are-"
It's almost pick out your enemy, which is not your other startup competitor that are building headless CMSs, but it's probably the existing the suites that are out there that you're trying to go take down.
Neha: I think that's the important point here is first of all, the market's big enough for multiple players and we're strong believers in that.
And secondly, there is a common enemy, which is the old way and so if you find together and commonly educate the market on the better way, then you're creating opportunity for all the players.
And that's really the direction we're headed in, we're not trying to take a tiny slice of the market, we're trying to change the way that the market perceives how products and digital experiences should be built.
And there are multiple parties that are in it and it just lends credibility to the overall movement in general.
Grant: Let's shift back into a little bit more about Contentstack as a product.
So when you first launched it and we have the whole EnterpriseReady feature set, I'm guessing you weren't doing SSO and roles and all of these different features at that time.
But given your background and given your co-founders background, I'm guessing you knew those were important feature that would come to fruition.
When did you start to think about, "Oh, we need to add these enterprise ready features, we need to make sure we're doing really good role based access control or analytics or-"
Did those come altogether, what was the path to get to them?
Neha: So going back to the services days, the services work that we did was all for enterprise companies.
And so when we built the product from the ground up, it was meant to be an enterprise product, which is sometimes different than a product that starts with thinking about an independent developer and then starts to work its way up to enterprise.
We actually did it the other way, where we were thinking about the enterprise IT audience, as well as the chief digital officer or the digital marketing audience and the user experience was built from the ground up thinking about those two personas.
So things like SSO and role-based access controls and other security requirements, those are just sort of inherent in how we think about building enterprise software.
Neha: So the levels of granularity certainly grew over time as we improve the product and on our roadmap, we continue to have even other deep dives into all of those enterprise features.
But the foundation was always enterprise focused from the very beginning.
And I think what really influenced us in the earlier days, especially when we were still productizing was the use cases that we were supporting for our enterprise customers.
And so there were certain things that were table stakes and that was built in from the 1.0, and then we continued to add the early days of our product roadmap was really driven by customers and customer needs.
And then now we're pushing customers in the direction of where the market's going.
And so there's been a little bit of a shift since we productized, and we built out the product management organization that is looking not just at customer needs but also what's happening in the market, and how do we influence our customers to do the things that are going to help them be successful.
Grant: Yeah. That makes sense.
So really coming at this because you had all these enterprise relationships, it was much more of almost like you knew you'd be enterprise from the start.
Do you think about yourself as a top down...
Any kind of company has requested demo as the call to action versus get started now, I always think about that as the top down versus bottom up type of sale, but do you identify that way?
We do and there's pros and cons to that, but we definitely have started at the enterprise level and are working our way towards more of the masses and an organization, but certainly definitely more focused on enterprise level requirements.
And so it is a top down approach and we do in our sales process try to at least have a demo and least bring both sides to the table.
So if the inquiry is led by someone in IT or by a developer, we encourage them and almost insist that they bring someone on the business side to the table and vice versa, because it does help see the light and the fact that we are very balanced in how we deliver the product.
Also just very important to have multiple touch points in that prospecting process to make sure that you're giving both sides a seat at the table, so that they feel engaged from the beginning and aren't going to block it when it feels forced on them later.
Neha: Funny story.
We have a large gaming company that's a customer and we had someone on the business side at the table and someone on the IT side at the table.
And at first they actually did not even like each other, it started off hostile almost.
And because of their experience in evaluating Contentstack and then having this light bulb moment that, "Hey, you're happy, I'm happy, we both have what we want."
They actually have since gotten married and they're out there living their life.
And I like to think that Contentstack harmonizes people in really unique ways.
Grant: The deepest integration.
Neha: For sure.
Grant: I love it. That's amazing. Were you doing most of your early sales?
Were you leading all the early customer adoption and it sounds like you're on the more of the business side, so was that your role early on?
Neha: It was, I would say that my first job was quote unquote head of sales.
I'm actually not really good at it to be honest, because I get so excited about making a customer successful that I don't even want them to pay me.
And so it's a good thing that I've got real sales people that are leading the charge now and have helped us to scale.
I definitely have more of a services mindset, that's just who I am and I just want to see people succeed in what they're trying to accomplish.
And I love to unblock business people who feel like they've been blocked by developers and technologists, because there wasn't the ability to have the products that allows you to do both.
And so I'm very passionate about that, but I do now have of course a sales team that's taught me a lot.
And I still like to think that I'm out there as a seller, but more an advocate for the company and the brand and our people more than anything.
Grant: That's funny.
I have a similar experience where I'm like I don't really talk much about price because I'm like allow the reps to handle that part.
I just screw it up if I start out because I'm like, "Oh yeah, we should just like do it for free."
No, that's not the point. We got to make some money out of this. That's funny.
What early customers and I'm not sure if you can share names or who they were, but which ones were formative in the products life cycle and as you were developing it, how were you engaging them?
What roles were you working very closely with to get that initial feedback to build the product out?
Neha: I would say the earliest customers were actually tech companies, because they tended to be at the forefront of trying to figure out how to adopt cloud technologies and mobile technologies.
And that eventually evolved into a very horizontal approach in the market to where we had insurance companies, and retail companies, and gaming, and entertainment companies and quite a few sports teams actually at the early stage of our development.
I'll give you one example that is one of my favorites and I really love it, because it was the culmination of bringing together all the products we were building.
So this was a Raw Engineering led services engagement with mobile backend as a service, API integration with Built.io, iPaaS and Contentstack for content management and that's the Miami HEAT.
And the Miami HEAT was trying to build the best digital fan experience in the market.
And it was essentially everything from navigating to the arena to parking at the arena, to ticketless entry, to wayfinding to your seat in the arena.
Neha: To knowing enough about you to where if you ordered a beer last time, maybe there's 10% or 50% off that beer the next time or they know your shirt size, so they might offer you something specific from the merchandise store, to social media interaction or billboard interaction.
And all of those types of things that make the fan experience really provocative and interesting, and also makes you as a fan want to share your data so that the experience can be more valuable.
That to me is one of those really formative experiences that really it challenged us to think differently about what is important about the content experience and the content management piece of it.
But also how does that tie into all the other so solutions around it, including the in seat ordering providers and the merchandise providers for your Miami HEAT hat, how does all of that play into the experience you get in your mobile app?
So those to me are the experiences that really drove us to be a little bit more innovative.
Grant: That's really interesting.
And you mentioned you have multiple sports teams, is it because you ended up building some technologies and some knowledge that ended up being reusable across them or is it you got referrals because you're like, "Oh yeah, these folks are doing great in this space."
Why was that a consistent theme?
Neha: In the earlier days of this we started with one sports team, demonstrated the value that we brought to them.
Other sports teams came towards us, we started to engage in sports conventions and conferences and events.
And so we became a known brand in the sports technology world and that's continued on even today.
Grant: It's interesting how that works, these little verticals that you can establish some amount of credibility in and then it becomes the standard.
Neha: For sure.
And that's also been true with retail and with gaming and even to a certain extent some of the insurance providers.
You do a really good job with one and others will hear about it and want to join and that's the power of community, really.
If you build a community of your users and they're referenceable and willing to talk about it, it makes a really big difference in how that plays out in terms of reference business, essentially.
Grant: Your product is so horizontal, basically every business that has a website and has content has this.
But often in horizontal businesses like this there is at least an early customer or a profile that needs what you're doing even more badly than everyone else does.
So if you think about super horizontal there's some spikes in there and different verticals that really needed, because they do multi-channel e-commerce.
What are those different verticals for you and what ties them together?
Neha: So I think there's a few trends that probably bring these together.
And especially what we've seen in the last 18 months with people being more digitally engaged than ever before.
One of them is omnichannel, the need to move away from just web but to consuming content, digital content on various other devices.
And a lot of people spend more time on mobile than they ever used to.
And there's watches and there's screen as you're walking through the BART Station in the Bay Area, these are new ways that people are consuming content that did not exist a couple decades ago, and so that's definitely one of them is omnichannel content.
Another is personalization and this is really about who we as consumers have come to expect an experience that's a little bit more catered to us. And it's not just the one to many, it's not just, "Hey, I'm a 30 X year old woman, because I'm a woman in Austin, Texas, I should get this." It's really my name is Neha and I like these things and you're giving me information that is related to me and relatable, and that makes me excited about engaging.
And so those are the two big trends that we've seen in the last few years that have driven the need for this type of solution.
And a lot of the time that ends up being anyone that's trying to do e-commerce or retail or anything transactional really on the web or on mobile, driving a lot of the interest that comes our way.
So if you think about retail brands, they're thinking about the experience on the web, being cohesive with mobile, being cohesive with an in-store kiosk or an in-store experience when you actually walk in the door.
And I'll give you an example I think a couple brands that I really enjoy the experience of, American Eagle Outfitters even during the pandemic, they've had to be very careful about how many people they let in at a time.
They've turned it into a way to have the person that's at the door ask a few questions while you're waiting, really just engaging very casually.
Sharing that information on the backend with somebody in the store, making sure that the person in the store knows how to help guide that person to the right place.
And then entering that information way that then turns into a personalized experience in the digital world as well.
And it's just it feels so cohesive and natural that you don't even realize it's happening and you're willing to share the information and you get value out of it.
And that's the kind of experience that we're hoping to drive for brands and what drives them to a solution like ours.
Grant: That's interesting.
Constraints definitely create innovation, so these constraints around like how and who we can have in a store, that's a cool story to hear how that's influencing the retail space.
A bit like the gaming vertical, it seems like there's a handful of these other vertical-- It seems like software, gaming, there's a bunch of different verticals that seem to be more likely to be your customers.
Is it just they value content higher, what do you think is some of these other verticals?
Neha: So gaming's also really interesting because the experience is how do you engage in terms of getting people excited about the game and the content in the game and the storyline that drives the game.
But then when you're actually playing the game where is the content coming from and how do you personalize your experience?
We used to read those choose your own adventure books.
That's now been translated to in console gaming and while you're are making choices, you're turning right, you're turning left, you're choosing to go into a certain room, the experience should change.
And in the past that wasn't easy to do, it had to all be pre-programmed.
Now some of that content can be served dynamically as you're making the decisions.
And that's possible because you have solutions like Contentstack that enable that type of dynamic content delivery.
Which is why from a gaming perspective or pretty much anything in the entertainment sphere, it becomes super interesting.
We have just a lot of things that have come out of the pandemic just to your earlier point.
We've got HP that does their printables and they essentially have been able to turn just the print part of their business into a really large business, because people are sitting at home printing out coloring pages for their kids who are stuck at home and not going to school.
And so just things like that that have come out and that's a really cool example of something that's digital, but also physical and being able to transform that and create the personalized experience for your three year old, is just something that stands out and you couldn't do that before.
Grant: Yeah, that's interesting.
And I guess the other one probably we can move off customer for this, but I think it's interesting given the audience is there's actually a bunch of enterprise software companies that use your products.
So you have folks like Elastic, 8x8, Onna, VMware, Weaveworks all listed, what's really drawing them to the platform?
Neha: It's really all the things we talked about.
So if I just go around the premise of why Contentstack exists.
It starts with the fact that you've got people in an organization that have used whatever system, software tools they like and it's created a lot of data points in different places.
And often those data points are disconnected and not integrated but they do all have APIs, those systems and tools have APIs and they need a place to connect to.
So content being at the hub of that allows Contentstack to be able to pull data from all these different sources and put it into a system and framework that makes sense.
Then you've got business users and technical users that have different agendas and different timelines and different skill sets.
And both of them being able to engage both mindsets, being able to engage with the same platform, creates this magical harmony between different users inside an organization that really just want to--
The technologists want to build cool stuff and the business users want to deliver better experiences, and something that allows both parties to be able to accomplish that is pretty awesome.
Then you've got the omnichannel piece, which we talked about, which is really just creating experiences across building it in one place, but being able to deliver it every place that matters.
Neha: And then finally, there's all these trends inside an organization from a digital transformation perspective, which includes analytics and AI and ML and potentially moving from suites to stacks, adopting microservices.
So at the hub of all of that you've got content and if you think about what used to matter is you've got customer data at your center and you need a CRM.
The way that we think about it is you've got content at your center and you need a CMS, that allows you to connect to all these different points.
And that's why people are gravitating towards solutions like Contentstack, especially large organizations that have complex use cases and a lot of complexity in their organization, that needs something to understand that complexity.
And that's where the enterprise nest of Contentstack really ends up playing really heavy.
Grant: Yeah. Okay. That makes sense.
Again, it's really interesting to see these pockets in such a horizontal company.
Maybe it's just that there's logos that are on the site, but there's just so many different use cases and I'm sure specifics around it.
Part of it too feels like because it is I think headless CMS is a bit more forward leaning.
You mentioned you had a lot of software companies early, I think they're just often early adopters of technologies.
And so they're the first to see something like this and say, "Oh yeah, this is going to be really useful."
Even though they're not super omnichannel, they are fairly single channeled, but there's so many different use cases in that headless world that maybe it's just so much more appealing than having the old WordPress site or something else up, or some other standard suite of tools to manage their content.
Neha: I would say even though some of them may not be omnichannel early on, there are multiple channels they're trying to deliver content to.
Even if it means the website, the intranet, the mobile app, having content at the center and having a hub and having a place where you can then structure the content to be delivered to whatever presentation layer you want is still super valuable.
Grant: Yeah. Talk a bit more about the team, right now how big is the team?
How long have you been growing this for? You mentioned you've raised a pretty good amount of money.
Neha: Sure. So we spun out of Raw Engineering in January of 2018 with about 50 people and no funding at the time.
Grant: Oh, wow.
Neha: So fast forward about a year.
And we did our first seed round, which allowed us to build some additional go to market team in mostly the US, but we hired our first person in Europe, right after that.
And then fast forward to late 2019, and we raised our Series A which was 31 and a half million dollars.
And that's when we really started to turn up the dial on hiring on the go to market side and built out a sales team both in the US and Europe.
And then fast forward to now, just about a couple weeks ago we announced our Series B, which was a 57 and a half million raise, so all in all we raised $89 million.
We went from 50 people to 250 people over the course of the last three years.
And now we're dispersed in San Francisco, Austin, Amsterdam, and India in terms of where we have offices and we've got team members globally dispersed in various other places working remotely.
Grant: That's super cool.
And how has your role changed throughout the last two years as you've scaled this out and you're no longer leading sales, how do you think about your role today?
Neha: Yeah, great question.
So as a CEO, I feel like my job is to rally and unblock and then just get out of the way and allow people to do their best work.
And so what that often means is I'm really the glue, I'm trying to connect the different people together to make sure everyone's aligned.
We're all marching towards the same beat, we're trying to get to the same end goal and we're doing it in a way that's cohesive so that we can be effective and efficient while we do it.
And so my role is that, but what I do change is every day based on what the top priorities are, if we've got a big announcement, if we have a big product release, if there's a customer escalation, if there's a partner we're trying to bring on board strategically, if I'm fundraising.
So the day to day obviously shifts a lot in terms of what you're doing as an execution person, but my main role is really just to empower my team to do their best work.
Grant: Cool. Neha this was really a pleasure, I appreciate all of your insights and walking me through the business and the backstory.
If there's anything else you want to add happy to hear that as well.
Neha: Awesome. For anyone who's in a similar boat to where we were, I just encourage you to give it a shot.
Don't stop believing. It's not easy, but if it was easy, we'd all be doing it.
Make sure you're challenging yourself and make sure you're having fun.
Grant: Perfect. Thanks so much.
Neha: Thank you, Grant.