The Atoms Spotlight - What Slintel did in its first 100 days after funding
The story of Slintel is one that we are all used to. It’s a template - of trials, tribulations and eventual victory.
But it wasn’t always clear that success would arrive.
Founded in 2018 by Deepak Anchala and Rahul Bhattacharya, the idea had been brewing for a while, and they had started work on the concept while still doing their day jobs. This was the first thing that struck me as I spoke to him. Both Deepak and Rahul had had to balance a lot of early pressure, of their jobs, of families, as they worked on what would eventually become Slintel.
The idea to inception stage
Deepak had just then quit his sales role at Tracxn and was about to join another company. But being in Silicon Valley had got to him: He was inspired by the entrepreneurs he saw around him, trying to solve big problems and hustling their way to do so.
Being in sales, he had already experienced a certain gap in the market for buyers and sellers. Back in 2016, he had thought of taking the plunge but was not prepared to go all out yet. But the idea was clearer to him now, a sales intelligence product for buyers and sellers of software.
"I went and spoke to four or five of my entrepreneur friends and pitched them the idea. I said right now there is no product, but if we offer a service like this will you pay me $1000 a month? A couple of them said no, a couple of them said yes. And that's when I said, let's start", says Deepak.
Deepak put together a small team in India. Deepak says: "We were offering services, the concept of buying intent and technographics, and all of that was very raw at that time. So we would go to companies and say, what is it that you want? We had a team data crunching, and we did that for a year. We just kept selling it to more and more companies".
Slintel reached a stage where they had 10 customers with a team of 13 people. Remember, this entire team was funded from Deepak's earnings. Deepak would come back home from his day job around 8 pm, and then from 9 pm to 2am work on Slintel’s early avatar.
The challenge, however, as they built the first version of the product, was to get good engineers. "Through a couple of friends I met Rahul and Akshay and I told them that let's not take any risk. Let’s work part-time and see how it works out. They had a day job, and they came home and worked from 8 pm to 2 am, and on weekends. We did that for almost six months", says Deepak.
From November of 2016 to January of 2018, the team worked double shifts, worked on their day jobs, and built Slintel on the side.
2018 is when the whole team finally quit their jobs and went full time on Slintel.
Initially it was all about how quickly they could launch, because all along their focus had been on the building, which also meant burning cash.
They were racing against their balance sheet going into the negative. "The question that I initially wanted to answer was how quickly could we launch a product and go to market? Unless we had speed, there would be no money. And then the real challenges would start once we started scaling, from hiring, retention, talent management, fundraising”, says Deepak.
Fundraising came with its set of challenges, because remember, both Deepak and Rahul were first time founders. They didn't know what it took to raise funds; the process was new to them. Deepak recalls, "I was a novice; we were able to get a couple of term sheets only after six months of haggling. It was tough, we started the fundraising process in November of 2018, and were able to close in June".
Through that process, the founders almost hit zero cash flow in the bank and skipped taking their salaries. Then funding came in, and the pressure eased off, but only for a bit.
"We raised $1.5 million at that time, which was significant money. First, we celebrated, and then we set a goal; our goal at that time was to get to $1 million ARR, and that was what our investors told us to go for. We were at like 50k or 60k ARR then, so 1 million seemed like a big number", says Deepak.
The second challenge that they faced was who does what. There were no processes in place. Everyone was doing a bit of everything. The core focus areas were not defined. When the first set of sales hires were made, offloading all the information and trusting them to take over was a challenge that Deepak and Rahul had to navigate through.
"This is a function that is held so closely by the founders; how do you trust a couple of account executives who just came on board? 99% of them won't perform in the first six months or the first quarter. It happens very rarely that somebody comes and starts hitting goals immediately. And as this is happening, your burn rate is increasing, and the runway is low", adds Deepak.
Creating a great culture
Rahul adds, "A startup is a very high-pressure environment, so empathy plays a critical role. So if a person is not able to deliver, understanding why the person is not able to deliver is important. Understanding and helping them is fundamental. So, it is a learning process. We realized that and gave people that space, and they delivered".
Building trust, letting go, and sometimes taking hard decisions were some of the challenges Deepak and Rahul had to take head-on. Plus they consciously chose to hire leadership pretty early on in the journey.
"We wanted to make Slintel feel like the best place to work. We knew we could not be a Google or a Facebook, but in the startup world, it had to be the best place to work. If we optimize employee happiness, then everything else is secondary. We did not fire people even when they didn't perform, and that motivated them to perform. So, between the first round and second round, all we did was focus on building a great culture and hiring the right people", recalls Deepak.
They basically made their employees feel valued, mentored them, and gave them room to grow.
I spoke to another Rahul, Rahul Agarwal, Slintel’s marketing director for some insights into the culture at Slintel.
“It starts from the top, doesn’t it?” He said, “Both Deepak and Rahul constantly ask what’s wrong, what they can improve, every time they can. They do this weekly, monthly, even at the end of the All Hands meetings. We keep getting these questions from the founders, wanting to improve every single thing they can. Anonymous feedback is encouraged.”
“So the core value is not to shun problems, but to accept and solve them”, adds Agarwal.
All of this company and business-building led to something that Deepak and Rahul would probably not have envisaged when they began: In October last year, Slintel was acquired by California-based market account engagement platform 6sense.
For the team that had worked so hard for so long, this was a great result.
When I asked Deepak what he would want to say to early stage founders right now, he had a few immediate tips. “Right now, the market is hot, you get premium valuations, and money is flowing in. Fundraising is very opportunistic, so raise fast. Next, don't wait too long to go to the market. And lastly, don't hold onto things as founders; let them go. Don't micromanage. That's the only way you will grow.”