Bootstrapping your Dreams with Vivek Bhaskaran

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Bootstrapping your Dreams, Vivek Bhaskaran and Simon Severino | STRATEGY SPRINTS 183

In this episode, Simon welcomes Vivek Bhaskaran, the founder of QuestionPro. QuestionPro is one of the industry’s leading providers of web-based research technologies. His life motto is simple - “The two things that drive me every day are motorcycles and client success!” In 2008, his startup made Inc. Magazine's list of the fastest-growing private companies, ranking 25th among business-service providers. Since that time, Vivek has never looked back by spearheading both the product and global expansion of QuestionPro. He continues to play a key role in defining the company’s strategy, technology and leadership in the industry. You’ll often find Vivek on the road visiting our clients and helping them strategize and design solutions to their ever-evolving research and business objectives. Let’s listen to Vivek’s sharing on bootstrapping your dreams. 


3 Valuable Insights: 

  • Have a live chatting with your customers 
  • Collect huge amount of data for decision making
  • Hire local people to systemize and dominate the markets


Show Notes

(00:17) -Simon: Welcome back to the strategy sprint podcast. I'm your host Simon Severino. And today, my guest is the founder of question pro, he's passionate about democratizing insights and enabling everyone in the company to access insights and data. Welcome, everybody Vivek Bhaskaran. 

(00:36) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Hi, Simon, how are you doing

(00:38) -Simon: So good to have you here? And we will deep dive how to build a global sales team, which you have done and you want to share with us. Yeah. Thank you for that. And Vivek what are you currently creating?

(00:54) -Vivek Bhaskaran: So I run a question pro uh, we help companies, um, you know, conduct surveys, um, gather insights from employees, from customers, um, do market research. So we have a software platform that enables, um, everyone to collect insights

(01:10) -Simon: And, uh, these insights, what happens then with, so why is it important to collect the insights in your.

(01:16) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Decision making. It's making for decision making really, you know, it should be, how do you price things in everything from price elasticity, to, you know, what kind of markets to invest in, what kind of markets not to invest in who, for an employee perspective, what is working for employees during COVID, um, work from home work, from anywhere work from the office. So, so anytime you have decision-making, uh, we enable, you know, people are looking for some data, uh, there's behavioral data that you can see, like what people are actually doing, and then there's attitudinal data. So we kind of fall along the attitudinal data side. Like, how are you thinking, um, you know, how do you feel more? So, you know, things like that. So that's kind of what we help our customers, uh, kind of, you know, gathered up, frankly.

(01:59) -Simon: Cool. And, uh, in a second, you will share with us how you have built a global sales team. Uh, and the, before I would love to hear who you nominate for the strategy award.

(02:15) -Vivek Bhaskaran: For strategy award, I'd probably nominate, uh, my friend, Rob Hahn, he's the CEO of idea scale. Um, and I think he's done a phenomenal job, um, building out a company called idea scale here in Berkeley, um, in California. And, uh, I say here because I used to live in California, but I, now I live in Texas. Um, like everybody else, I guess. Um, so yeah, Rob Hahn from idea scale.

(02:37) -Simon: You mean everybody's moving from California to Texas right now?

(02:41) -Vivek Bhaskaran: That's the storyline, at least that's the storyline,

(02:45) -Simon: Why Texas?

(02:50) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Uh, probably taxes. So that's kind of the, in the States with these, those different taxation in different,  different States and, you know, so probably that's kind of the, the big reason why people are moving and, you know, uh, so that's probably the primary reason I think.

(03:02) -Simon: And are you staying at all, all in one cluster or are you spreading around?

(03:07) -Vivek Bhaskaran: That's a good point. I think most of the people are moving to Austin. Um, so yeah, it is a little cluster. Austin become like a small little kind of know many, many kind of tech hub here in Texas. At least

(03:20) -Simon: I had so many guests. You ask how many guests we have per week. We have five guests per week. I had 200 guests and every single, I think every single one that was from California said that they were just moving, moving out.

(03:36) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Yup. Yeah. Either it's Austin or Denver anywhere, you know, frankly, those are the or salt Lake city. Lots of people are moving out of California and it does accelerate it obviously with the pandemic, it was accelerated. So we, although, although a fair point, we actually moved out before the pandemic. We moved out about a year and a half ago, two years ago.

(03:55) -Simon: Beautiful. And it's not needed anymore to be there in order to have impact there and, uh, to use what is this beautiful amalgamation of talent and tech and, uh, and, and network, right?

(04:13) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Yeah. I mean, for sure. I mean, even with the pandemic you know in the last six months it’s just obviously accelerated, we have kind of been gone from anywhere really. Even for our company, we used to have an office in India. We have an office in Austin, um, and everyone else and Mexico, but we've gone right now. We, we hire people anywhere and everywhere. So forget quite frankly, at least for tech. Uh, I think it doesn't matter if you're, if you're in a digital workspace, then I think that at least for the next year or two, I think, no, we don't, we don't, we don't anticipate having an office. So we don't have an office. We used to have an office, we shut it down. Um, and all of us are working from office or working remotely right now. So I think that's, that's a, that's a very interesting time.

(04:54) -Simon: We had one guest who said, Hey, Simon, I'm on various page right now. And you have taken this picture. And the background is where this page, I'm seeing this from my, from my window. So would you like to live in California? And then I said to him, yes, I love California and I am living it right now. It's just, I'm living it in Vienna. Wherever I am.

(05:19) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Exactly. Exactly.

(05:21) -Simon: And in fact he said, okay, keep it as it is. Don't come here because it's not, it's not like

(05:27) -Vivek Bhaskaran: It's not safe. It's not safe anymore. So I've got a funny, it's pretty brilliant and pretty much it right now. So yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

(05:37) -Simon: All right. Building a global sales team. Tell us what was the context? What was the challenge?

(05:43) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Yeah. So if you think about it, we are a B2B SAS platform. So we have to build a team for selling. Um, we're not, we're not, you know, it still requires, it's not a completely point, click buy solution. People want to do a demo, they want to talk it. And so we have the challenge. We said like, okay, we want to sell globally. Obviously it's a SAS platform, there's no particular market. Um, and instead of kind of saying that we're going to be U.S. centric, we want it to be completely global realistically. Right. So, uh, so that was the challenge. Uh, we start off actually building a team in India, um, that, uh, that had kind of like, we kind of started off there, um, and found a couple of really good guys that, that, you know, took on the challenge of, um, you know, completely, you know, it works for us partly because we are selling online and everybody is online and our solution is online.

Everything's online. Right. So, um, so the, the, the biggest challenge was putting together a system for kind of, you know, how do you, how do you, how do you source inbound leads? Um, and then, you know, going, you know, walking people through the funnel and closing deals. So it's, you know, I'd say it's like, not, it's not rocket science, frankly, but put a system, putting a system together, um, whereby you could segregate my, you know, markets, you know, not America, South America, Europe, APAC. Uh, so that's what, that was the first level of segmentation we did. Um, then the second thing was, um, you know, lead generation, every B2B SAS platform has a problem with lead generation. That's kind of like number one, probably number one kind of issue. Uh, we kind of solve that by just doing, you know, obviously doing SEO and marketing realistically, right? So SEO and content marketing is our primary vehicle, uh, uh, SEO and priority of marketing our primary vehicle right now, um, for, um, doing this. Um, so

(07:31) -Simon: Which marketing activities did you try and which one did work best? Because everybody right now is thinking, Oh, should I do LinkedIn? Should I do ads? Should I do podcast?

(07:45) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Right. So I think we've tried, I think we've been in business for almost 15 years. We've tried, I've tried almost nearly everything, uh, sorry. From at one point we were paying 50 grand a month to Google AdWords. Uh, you know, th the, the one thing that has worked for me is consistently is, uh, search optimization, content marketing, realistically, right. Content marketing, inbound content marketing, really. Right. So where's the context of, you know, you know, we're on podcasts are, um, just pure, you know, deep content top of the funnel content, um, and then middle of the funnel content, and then kind of comparative content. Um, so that's like three or four different tactics you can use in terms of content. Um, so that's kind of what we do. Uh, that's what has survived over the years. Uh, anytime we start spending money on anything else, we kind of look at ROI later on after, you know, after even the first three months, six months, we get this, you know, we, we get disheartened, um, uh, like, like.

(08:39) -Simon: Somebody right now is maybe new to the game. And as, so what is this inbound content marketing? Does it means that you try and write as many blocks as possible on your own sites?

(08:51) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Correct? Yeah. So Darren ride as many automative con authoritative articles, really. Right. So you can look at the top of the funnel, like, what are people searching for that is in your space really? Right. So if you're trying to sell, I don't know if I'm trying to sell, you know, in my case, we are trying to sell to researchers. We are trying to sell to people who are doing conducting surveys. So if you're like how to conduct a survey, for example, like, you know, it's not about Tara question pro, but it's like, what are the 10 tips to one of the things to think about when you want to create a, create a questionnaire? So, so we'd write an article around, you know, 10 tips to 10 tips for the value, you know, how to create a survey, one of them, you know, what kind of questions to ask what, you know, you know, unbiased questions, not leading the witness and so on and so forth really.

Right. I may try to rank that. So that's kind of like, you know, you know, educational content really, you know, evergreen educational can almost think of it as Wikipedia, frankly, Wikipedia for certain, for the really right. Writing, good Wikipedia articles for certain, certain, certain contexts. Um, and then, yeah, I mean, obviously publishing it on your blog publishing on your, on your site. And then, you know, not just one time, but, you know, having a bunch of these articles, and then obviously having a bunch of people linked to it, which is pretty standard kind of model effectively. Um, we got a little bit lucky. I'll be honest with you. We got a little bit lucky. We started doing, uh, you know, content marketing from 2005. Cause that's what I knew how to do way back when, and it was before SEO was sexy. So we got, uh, we got, you know, base rank and everything else, um, really fast. Um, and at that time it was, you know, frankly, it was a lot easier to do content and SEO marketing, you know, 10 years ago than it is today. Um, so that's gonna, that's what I mean when I say inbound marketing and that works really well. Um, and the part that really made for me,

(10:28) -Simon: Many people in our community right now are asking themselves is, should I write the content? Or I outsource it to an agency? Should I hire somebody to write, especially, and this question is this cast, controversially. Some people say the CEO should do it because this is part of the vision and it's core branding and others say, no, the CEO should never touch it. Uh, it should hiring or outsourcing is the way what's your take?

(10:57) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Uh, my take is like depends on how much cash you got simple. Like if you don't have much money, then you, you know, you're the janitor, you're the CEO. You, you bottle up and write. I've written a bunch of articles, honestly, when I started the company and people shove the company. So, so I was the janitor. I was the coder. I was the CEO. I was everything. So I wrote the articles. Um, so, uh, I, I really, I think it's a, it's a matter of, you know, we know we, our capability and by time, really the two are two, two things. Um, some people really don't want to write or, you know, it doesn't, I like writing. So it's okay for me, it comes naturally. So I feel like, ask me to write a blog article that comes naturally to me. I don't have to think about it too hard, but I understand that are people who are, who have read those blogs and said, I can't write a 600.

If you can't write a 600 word article in under 45 minutes, then you're probably not a natural writer simple. Right. So exactly. It's not just like your content, you know, it's as simple as that. Um, so in, in that case, you should probably outsource it or hire somebody to do that because it's going to create a lot of friction. You force yourself to it. If it takes one day to write a 600 word article, then probably it's not going to work. Cause you know, you, you can't, you got to think about it in that particular context. Right? So, uh, so my, my viewpoint is that if you, if it comes naturally to you, then, you know, you know, get it done, um, every day, uh, if it doesn't then outsource it and are going to hire somebody for it, and that's a separate debate, whether you outsource it or you do hire somebody for it, it is really, if you have somebody that, you know, that is a good content writer, I'd probably in-source it more than outsource it, honestly.

Like I, cause this was a long-term strategy. I don't believe this is like a, Hey, let's do it for two months and let's go home. Like, no, it's not going to work. This is a asset building strategy. This is gonna, it's gonna pay off, but it's not pay off like in one year. Um, so you have to have kind of the, the, you have to have a think of it from that perspective. It's not like, Hey, let's just do it for like three weeks and see what happens. Like, no, you have to bet on it as a, as a strategy for, for a long time. Uh, so that's why I'm not, I'm not, I'm not a big fan of just going to hiring an agency because you know, you know, you need to build up that muscle. You need to build up that capability within, within your organization, within your sphere. Um, and that's why I prefer, um, at least I personally prefer just having, having contract contact folks in in-house as part of our team,

(13:07) -Simon: I can share how we do it because I also prefer, uh, having somebody in our team. So we have somebody in our team who will, for example, this interview that we have right now, they will, we pay a transcribing to do the first transcription, but then my team goes over it to does the editing, does a nice feature and bring every nice structure to it. And it will become a long form article, which in theory increases SEO. We are not great at it, but in theory, that's the content game

(13:44) -Vivek Bhaskaran: That's baseline. Right. And if you think about it, if you do keep doing this, then you are building this massive content base really. Right. And, and what I like about SEO is really the restored on that is long-term right? So it's not just like one campaign, right? So you spend 50 grand on a campaign or 10 grand or five grand on the campaign. Then once your campaign is done, you're done right with SEO really it's evergreen. So, you know, if five people show up, it's okay. Five people showed up because of this article, but five are going to show up next month, the month after the month after the month after we reveal it. Right. So that's a, that's a pretty, it's an asset. I look at it as an asset development exercise rather than a kind of, uh, a campaign of search.

(14:22) -Simon: It's funny, we call it assets in our internal organization. We call it because we think of it as our asset and it compounds. So if you have week five next week in 10 years, that's a lot. That's a lot of people.

(14:37) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Yep, exactly. And they all interlink with each other. It's compounds that the company, if it is like, they actually, the, probably the most important element over here. Right. So if you, if you just write one article, okay, fine. But if you, if you kind of, kind of create kind of a, a set of articles around this particular on Google, it gives you credit for that. So you are writing knowledge are not your knowledge base on certain, certain topics are relevant. Um, and therefore, you know, you get, you know, we are number one from the word research, for example, right? So it's a pretty, pretty broad topic. I get it. But we didn't become a number one for a lot research because we were, you know, or 200 articles around research. What's qualitative research, what's quantitative research, uh, what's sampling margin of error, all this stuff out of this kind of educational content. We return over many, many years. Uh, and that's why we are number one for the word research.

(15:24) -Simon: Another thing that I have found out to work really well is collaborations. Uh, I picked 24 people per year. That's two person per month where I say, Hey, let's, let's cross promote each other, your audience, my audience, they have problems. And that they, they can, uh, have value from us sharing in each other's worlds, what we do. And because I have found out that the leads coming in are much more qualified to our offer. It's it's it's preselected. And also there is a higher level of trust, uh, because

(16:01) -Vivek Bhaskaran: No they're coming in from a trusted authority really that they are promoting you. That's a great idea. I mean, good point. I should still live in India. It's a good one, man. I don't, we don't do that. We don't do cross promotion with anybody else. Uh, not, we don't, that's a good, you know, I don't know why, but we don't do it, but Hey, it's a good idea, man. We've got anecdotally talking about it here and there. Some, you know, once in a while, somebody will come and Hey, let's do a cross promo and all that stuff, but I like you are kinda thinking like put it up, put it up, put a system together and say like, Hey, look, you know what? Every month we will cross promote one vendor, simple to our, to our right.

(16:34) -Simon: I have a spreadsheet. I go for 24 this year. And uh, I have criteria how I select the 24 people, the criteria States, they, they have the same ideal client, but an offer that is different enough from my offer. Yeah. Yeah.

(16:54) -Vivek Bhaskaran: So it's not, it's not cannibalizing, it's not cannibalizing. Uh, and it is just adding ad creative, uh, you know, creating, you know, it's adding to you as well as them. It's a great idea. I like putting like, like I think what you're alluding to is like, I like putting together like pick a system and stick to that rather than just like trying to do one thing and then try and here you are like, look, I'm going to do 24 for the whole year. I'm going to do two a month. And then you can judge success and you get good at it. After the, you know, the first three months probably you'll stumble. And, but you know, by month six you get good at it. And month eight, you're really good at it. Um, so, and then starts working.

(17:28) -Simon: Because when we did ads, the volume was much higher, but the fit was really low. So we were basically wasting time and talking then to them when they were on our calendar. And so how can we find the right people? They can be less, but the commercial rate is higher. Right? How do you continue? 

(17:50) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Yeah. So I think that the key to one of the things, so, so once we got traffic in, then we had a team in India and we used a chat really. So if you go to our site, uh, we use chat as a make vehicle, uh, as a mechanism to convert a website visitor to a conversation, right? So our conversion metrics is not, Hey, we want you to take a free trial, difficult SAS, like, Hey, let's just go in, use the tool, but we also want to talk to you because we are trying to sell at a, at a higher price point, really. So we want to talk to the customers. Um, and so, and that's why sales team that we had. We had, we originally started off a team in India and yeah. And nobody wants to kind of pick up the phone when you're on a website.

(18:28) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Nobody wants to pick up the phone and talk to you. It's a little too intrusive really. Right. So, but people are perfectly happy getting on a chat, um, like, you know, something like Intercom live chat, any one of these platforms is, you know, at least, you know, like, you know, 50 of these things out there. Um, so that's gonna, was our ticket to, um, I'd say ticket to success is because we just didn't rely on kind of online conversions, really like, Hey, come by, go through a file process, but we kind of injected, uh, a human element to that. Um, and, and it was not very intrusive. Uh, but yet it was human. Um, so you know, a chat based interface pops up and then did we qualify the customer right there and then potentially even create a lead for a sales rep. And then the sales rep then gets engaged with the customer.

The customers love it. So they have like a kind of half and half balance. They have like, Oh, I can go online and do what I want, I want to do. But you know, at the same time, uh, there's a sales rep that I can pick up the phone and talk to, uh, customers love it from that perspective. So there's like that interactivity, it's not totally like blind. Um, and we like it because that increases our ARPU. Quite frankly, it increases the price point on which we select. So that helps us from that perspective. And frankly, that justifies, um, justifies the sales process and the sales cost. Um, so yeah, we, we built the team in India and then now we have a team in Mexico, in India, as well as in actually, um, in Germany and for doc really for, um, that, that obviously caters to, you know, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Uh, and so we test kind of the general process. So, you know, um, that we've kind of built out over the, over the course of the, for the course of many years. Um, and the keep key keep our, that we do that slightly kind of, there was also unique, was, uh, we sell our price points vary between, you know, $900 a month, all the way to, you know, $50,000, a hundred thousand dollars for big enterprise deals. Um, so what we do is we run the commercial business out of India, uh, and then the enterprise business is in market, right? So we have a team in Berlin that handles the larger deals and the team in India handles the smaller deals realistically. Um, so that's how we've kind of, you know, we've got a kind of segmented the entire market, um, so that we can, uh, we can start off at a thousand dollars. I'll go all the way up to 50 grand or a hundred grand. Um, because, because we have this, you know, commercial, commercial layer that Laura runs on of India and then the enterprise layers run in market, uh, here in Austin, uh, in Germany, in Dubai and so on so far,

(20:50) -Simon: I love it. Yeah, absolutely. And I have so many more questions after one word from our sponsors,

One of the questions now that you find it in so many countries, do you have like a blueprint, a checklist in your head and you know, okay, this is how I am going to enter that country. Yeah.

(21:18) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Yeah. So at this point, we, we, we learned the hard way, like, but, uh, so we know we have a pretty, uh, we have a playbook for our kind of operations. We just opened up an office in the UK. So we usually typically send, uh, one of our, uh, somebody from the company goes there and then we hire somebody over there. So we, we always start a market with two people. Um, not just one, I've tried it both ways, uh, when I've sent somebody over to, you know, be hired somebody in a particular market. Um, but we never send somebody over. And then the other way around, we send somebody over, um, both of them, uh, the chances, one of them have the pros and cons obviously. Uh, so we just doubled up, frankly. So we don't enter a market. Typically two, we can say like, okay, we're going to send, you know, somebody who's been in the company for some time, they can get connected to the company.

They know the process, they know the systems, they know they're not a sales process and everything else about they're new to the market. So, but so then, and then in a market, we probably hire somebody over there and that they'd be paired the two of them together. Um, and that becomes the Genesis of the go-to-market. And then, then they hire people. Then they hire a marketing person then that for local content generation, uh, especially, you know, in, we like markets like Germany, because you could go do SEO, you know, in German, which is like, not, not a lot of people are doing. I mean, everybody's doing SEO in English, but now we can know we are number one for a lot of terms in German. Uh Cyntegrity with France, uh, you can do, you know, you know, it's easily language oriented, Portuguese, uh, obviously Spanish and so on so forth.

Mexico, we don't do the whole thing in Spanish really. Right. So, so it's a combination going back to your question, it's a combination of a blueprint of somebody that you have deep trust in from our team that has been working with me. So we know them really, really well. He, he knows the company, he knows what to do, not to do it, how we do imitate. Right. Uh, and then we pair them up with somebody from the outside. They're like, okay, they are, they are local in market. And the two of them work together to build out, build out a particular market. Um, that's how we've kind of run the run the place

(23:10) -Simon: So far. These is wonderful. And everybody listening here, you should go back and write down this checklist because this is how you can enter and systemize and dominate markets. This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing. What are the three books that influenced you most?

(23:31) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Uh, yeah, so I think, uh, I think from a business perspective, it's gonna principles by Ray Dalio, I think is a big, big book, but I think, I think everybody should read it. Everybody's trying to do something in this world. It's kind of a tough read, but I really like it. Uh, uh, and the second book, uh, would be, uh, the happiness project. Uh, it's more, it's not a business book. It's more of a personal kind of like happiness, uh, about how to, how to bring about happiness around yourself. Um, so I do. So that's.

(24:05) -Simon: How did it change your life? The, the, happiness book.

(24:23) -Vivek Bhaskaran: I think it's, I think my personal relationships, like instead of complaining about the fact that what my wife does or doesn't do you kind of look inwards rather than look outwards, that's kind of the key part, uh, which probably any therapist or anybody would tell you, you know, but, uh, obviously the books is a lot cheaper than a therapist. So from that perspective it's so, uh, yeah, I mean, I think that that has definitely helped me in terms of, uh, kind of focusing on, you know, happiness as it, as a, as a construct, a lot of people like, we know we all get caught up with everything else. We're not looking at what makes us happy and why really. Right. So, um, and, and really so doing some amount of time and effort around doing that self-reflection um, and the third book, uh, I would say is, is, is a, uh, is not a business book. It's not anything it's, it's a book called where the crawdads sing. Um, it's, uh, it's a, just a, kind of obviously a fiction book, but it's very, I like it because it's written in the context of kind of, you know, poverty in America and, and, and kind of humanity and poverty in America, really.

So everybody thinks that in the States is like, you know, everybody's rich and everybody's great, but it's not true. There's poverty here. And, you know, and, uh, I think, uh, to me, it was, it was very, um, emotional, um, as I, as I read through that. So it's not a business book, but it's all right. It's just still one of my, one of my, I would strongly recommend. It's a good, good read actually. 

(25:37) -Simon: So who should the book you, and where can they find you? 

(25:42) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Uh, on LinkedIn? I mean, I guess I am not on Twitter or Facebook. I, for some reason I never got into it. Uh, so people can find me on LinkedIn. So LinkedIn, my name real, just go search it by, you know, I can send you the link to the, my LinkedIn, I guess, profile. That's probably the best way of these I'm on LinkedIn all the time. So that's, that's where I am.

(26:01) -Simon: Who should be my next guest? 

(26:03) -Vivek Bhaskaran: Uh, probably, uh, either RIT, who's the CEO of trauma UI or Romy Mahajan. He's a, he's a marketer and he's a friend of mine from Seattle. So one of those two guys, I can obviously introduction both of you, both of them, but then would be an interesting, kind of interesting conversation with you really. Is there anything I forgot to ask you? No, I mean, this was a fun conversation. I mean, it's good. Good mentoring. So thank you for it. Thank you for the, thank you for the fun times. Thank you so much for being on the show. Vivek and come back soon. My friend, yes, sure. I will

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