Sanjay Shah is the founder and CEO of Vistex which is an enterprise software company, providing solutions to drive customer growth and partner relations. The company was bootstrapped to $250 million in revenue without outside investment. Recently the company raised $65 million from Accel-KKR.

In this episode you will learn:

  • Sanjay’s approach to building it and letting them come
  • Tackling enterprise sales
  • The fun and challenges of bootstrapping your startup
  • How to grow yourself as a leader every day
  • His top piece of advice before launching a business

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About Sanjay Shah:

Sanjay Shah is a tech entrepreneur, Founder, CEO & Chief Architect of enterprise software company Vistex.

For more than 20 years, Sanjay Shah has led the company, a pioneer in transforming how organizations take their products and services to the marketplace through trade, channel and vendor programs, pricing, performance incentives and rights & royalties. Global titans like Apple, Walmart, 3M, Turner, Dell and Bayer rely on Vistex to manage the full life cycle of programs through strategy, software, implementation, execution and analytics.

An Indian immigrant, Sanjay Shah bootstrap story began when he left Mumbai, India to attend Lehigh University’s business school, earning his MBA in 1989 at the age of 21.

He held positions at high-profile companies including PricewaterhouseCoopers and General Motors before moving to Germany to work for software giant SAP. Never one to accept the status quo,

Sanjay Shah left SAP to establish an entirely new category of enterprise software known as Go-to-Market programs designed to help businesses solve complex business problems.

For 20 years, Vistex has achieved unprecedented year-over-year growth without outside funding. Vistex is the established industry leader with nearly $250 million in revenue in 2018, and despite two recessions, has expanded its operations globally and its portfolio across 14 industries.

In 2019, Sanjay Shah led Vistex to accelerated growth opportunities with its first minority equity investment from Silicon Valley-based Accel-KKR (AKKR), infusing up to $105 million to fuel the company’s continued dominance.

As a self-made man, Sanjay Shah appreciates the importance of giving back. As part of Vistex’s corporate social responsibility initiatives,

Sanjay Shah formed the Vistex Foundation, which provides grants to non-profits focusing on health, education and basic needs programming, as well as Vistex Endeavor, an employee-focused charity focused on volunteerism. And with a deeply rooted passion for lifelong learning, Sanjay Shah is a proud supporter of his alma mater donating $5 million to Lehigh University and creating the Vistex Institute for Executive Learning and Research.

Sanjay Shah is an avid licensed pilot, is multi-lingual and holds multiple professional certifications and degrees.

Sanjay Shah resides in Chicago, Illinois with his wife and two daughters.

 

Connect with Sanjay Shah:

 

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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:  

Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today, we have someone that has done something remarkable, which is bootstrapping from nothing to 250 million. So quite an accomplishment. We’re going to be learning a lot about building, scaling companies, and also about financing and then venture capitalist versus private equity firms, and also about building super-strategic relationships with larger players. So without further ado, I’d like to welcome our guest today to the show. Sanjay Shah, welcome to the DealMakers show today.

Sanjay Shah: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Alejandro: So originally, Sanjay, you were born in Mumbai, India. How was life there?

Sanjay Shah: I was living in a form of a bubble. All of my family and extended family lived in a one-mile radius. So I grew up in a very close family both literally and figuratively. I also went to college right there, and my college also happened to be a mile away from where I lived. So, life was great.

Alejandro: Very cool. Why did you decide to come to the U.S. because I believe it was business school? Is that right?

Sanjay Shah: Yes. That’s right. As I said, I was living in a bit of a bubble. Everything was very hunky-dory. My world was within a one-mile radius. So I decided to explore. Business school in the U.S. is a draw for a lot of aspiration, and I succumbed to that draw if you will. I decided to come 10,000 miles away to go to business school.

Alejandro: Very cool. Then PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Sanjay Shah: Yes. I come from a family of traders and accountants. So accounting runs in our blood. That’s the degree I had. I got an MBA in finance. Then the logical progression was to work in accounting. So I ended up taking a job at Pricewaterhouse as a staff auditor right after I graduated from grad school. And I lasted a full six months and decided that I didn’t want to be a professional accountant.

Alejandro: Even though you didn’t want to be a professional accountant, I’m sure that having a good grasp on the numbers has made a difference for you.

Sanjay Shah: Absolutely. As a business owner that helps you, serves you, and it never hurts to be fluent with numbers. 

Alejandro: Yeah. You hear all these nightmare stories of startups that are doing very well, but they’re not able to project or manage the cash flows and their budgets accordingly. And overnight, they literally go belly-up.

Sanjay Shah: Correct. Exactly, especially if you intend to bootstrap, I think you have to have a good accounting streak in you.

Alejandro: Absolutely, and we’ll talk about your bootstrapping experience in just a bit. Right after Pricewaterhouse, you went to General Motors.

Sanjay Shah: Yes.

Alejandro: And you went to Canada. Why Canada?

Sanjay Shah: That’s right. I wanted to get some operational experience and work on the operational side of things, operation supply chain, different terms. Supply chain is a more recent term, but back then, it was operations. So in having a degree in finance and having work experience in accounting is not exactly something that would draw potential employers for an operation’s position. So General Motors in Canada was willing to wager a bet on me. I was changing my disciplines significantly. They decided to hire me, but they said, “The only position we have open for you in Operations is in Canada.” I said, “I’ll take it.” 

Alejandro: How long were you there?

Sanjay Shah: I was there for roughly two and a half years.

Alejandro: What was your biggest learning or lesson from working with them?

Sanjay Shah: It got me a chance to be on the shop floor and to see how things are built and put together. You spend time in classrooms learning about things, but spending time on the shop floor learning how actually products are put together, how they are transported, how the logistics work in terms of the distribution networks of large companies. I think getting the firsthand experience was critical. And I joined in an analyst position, which meant I was able to get close to the shop floor. 

Alejandro: Then after this, you join probably one of the companies that has had the major and probably the biggest impact on you as an employee and also as a founder SAP. Tell us about this.

Sanjay Shah: Of course, at General Motors, we were one of the first companies to use what’s called MRP, material requirements planning. The first type of software in supply chain that was the first of its kind back then. So I was introduced to software quite early on. People used to have only accounting software back then, but MRP was the first-ever software that was used by large companies. Then that’s how we came to learn of SAP. SAP was then making a foray into the U.S., into North America. It was a German software company that had been around for 20 years already by the time they came to North America. I was fascinated and intrigued by the software. I thought, “Wow. This is pretty cool.” That’s how I ended up working for them.

Alejandro: Now, you have them as a strategic partner, so obviously, the relationship is there. What were some of your biggest takeaways because now, you have your own company, but I think that being able to work with such a massive player and understanding the dynamics and how they worked, I’m sure that many of those lessons you’ve applied to how you’ve built and scale your own business.

Sanjay Shah: Correct. Indeed. So again, working with SAP, such a gigantic organization has its set of challenges, and there have been several lessons learned. Fortunately, I had a view from the inside as well, having been one of the earliest employees of SAP. That helped definitely. But even despite that, there are enough challenges when you’re working with an organization the size of SAP.

Alejandro: How big was the business when you joined them?

Sanjay Shah: It’s a massive organization. It’s also massively matrixed. There are so many different stakeholders. There’s not always just one decisionmaker in such a large company, especially when we rely on them as our go-to-market partner. There are so many constituencies both from a product standpoint, from a technology standpoint, and from a go-to-market standpoint. There are so many different constituencies at SAP to find the right balance to bring all of these together for hem to cheer for you. You need to find cheerleaders in an organization such as SAP if you want to rely on them to be your go-to-market partner.

Alejandro: Yeah.

Sanjay Shah: Again, finding the cheerleaders for you is a huge challenge. Then to ensure that they continue to receive value as they expand their portfolio of products.

Alejandro: So here you are in 1999. You’ve been with SAP for six years.

Sanjay Shah: Six years. Yep.

Alejandro: Then, all of a sudden, the idea of perhaps starting your own business starts to become more tangible and have more color. So walk us through the process of how you came up with this idea, and how did you incubate it all the way to fruition?

Sanjay Shah: I would love to say that I came up with this fantastic idea, and I had this great vision, and so on, but the reality is that I was a company loyalist. I was an SAP loyalist. I also spent time working for SAP at their headquarters in Germany in R&D for a couple of years of my six-year journey with them. I actually presented a couple of ideas to my development management and said that we should enhance SAP to perform these functions, at which point they said, “Yeah. If you’d like to do it, you can do it, but our R&D is in Germany, and you’ll have to do it here.” And I wanted to move back to the U.S. My family wanted to move back to the U.S. So something struck me and I said, “Well, I can’t do it here. How about if I move to the U.S. and develop it by myself, and if it works, you help me take it to market?” So I’m an entrepreneur by accident because if they had said, “Yes, you can develop it even while you’re in the U.S.” I probably might still be with SAP.

Alejandro: Got it. Tell us, after this presentation then you speak with your wife or with your family, and you still have to think about the idea of going at it. What was going on through your mind?

Sanjay Shah: It’s interesting. When I decided to sever my ties with SAP, my wife was six-months pregnant with our second child.

Alejandro: Wow.

Sanjay Shah: So, she was a little consumed. Let’s just say that. I did have a word with her, and she thought I’d lost my mind because as you can imagine, being one of the first employees of SAP, I had a very good package with them including some stupendous stock options, which I would have to get rid of or liquidate. It turns out that it was a great time to liquidate my stock options because I did that in ’99, just before the big crash following.

Alejandro: Really interesting here. So then what happens after you make the decision. You and your wife are aligned. What were the immediate steps to bring this to life?

Sanjay Shah: What happened after that was because I was a very marketable resource at SAP, I helped start what is called the highest echelon of professional services at SAP. They used to call it Platinum Consulting, where we go and help troubled SAP projects across the globe. I was one of the spearheads of that. That was a very marketable resource. I said to myself, “If I work the first shift selling my services, then I’ll be able to use that funding to develop what I need to develop on the second and third shift. That’s how I was able to bootstrap.

Alejandro: Did you recruit other people like talking of bootstrapping and especially in the early days, who were the initial people you got around you to help you out?

Sanjay Shah: Initially, for the first year, and a little over a year, it was just me by myself.

Alejandro: What was essentially the idea so that people listening get it?

Sanjay Shah: Yeah. The idea was to write the software to address some functions that were not adequately addressed in ERP Systems. To this day, continue not to be addressed adequately in the ERP System. That’s what explains our existence and our success. The idea was for me to start it, and then depending on how it goes, and once I would get my first couple of accounts, then think about bringing on additional folks. 

Alejandro: So for the people that are listening – 

Sanjay Shah: Since my consulting business was doing well in Shift 1, I was able to secure some dollars to self-fund my first hires. So I hired three or four resources in the year 2000.

Alejandro: Who were these people that you hired?

Sanjay Shah: I hired people that had the technical skills to help me write the software.

Alejandro: Sanjay, in terms of the early employees that you got, those were engineers, or what were some of these people because you were saying that this was – 

Sanjay Shah: Yes. They were engineers. My first two hires are still with me and still with the company.

Alejandro: Very nice. What were some of the early days like? Going back to what you were saying that you were bootstrapping this and doing a couple more shifts that you used to do, at what point do you say, “Now, I can finally jump on this fulltime”?

Sanjay Shah: I think in 2001, I was able to land our first customers. We were able to land a couple of accounts in the year 2001. I think that’s when I felt that we were onto something. That’s when I decided to expand the hiring for the organization.

Alejandro: Sanjay, what is the way that you guys make money with this? How do you guys monetize?

Sanjay Shah: We have three distinct revenue streams. We license our software. Then there is annual maintenance tied with it. Then we also have professional services to implement our software. Those are the revenue streams for us.

Alejandro: You guys were bootstrapping this. So what kind of challenges were you guys dealing with?

Sanjay Shah: Our first challenge was when the dotcom crash came up. It was the appetite for companies to spend on enterprise software, which took a nosedive in 2001, 2002 was the first challenge. And in general, when you’re bootstrapped, you’re going to be very stingy with your marketing budgets and your sales budgets. We didn’t have any salespeople on board, so we were engineers doing all of the selling ourselves. So those are the challenges. We don’t have venture funding or angel funding to go launch ourselves in a big fashion to let the world know that we’re out there.

Alejandro: Why did you go about bootstrapping rather than perhaps taking a look at financing the operation?

Sanjay Shah: Some of it was a bit of craziness, I guess. Some of it was just this level of fierce independence we wanted to have that “I think we can pull this off” because what we did during the day was highly marketable. I was able to sell my services and sell my time. Then that gave me the funding I needed to do what I wanted to do. Not funding for everything, but it was an atypical path. But there was fun in that challenge as well.

Alejandro: You scaled this up to 250 million before you accepted external financing, so how was that process? How was the growth of revenue overtime during those years?

Sanjay Shah: I’m happy to say that over the past 20 years of our existence, we’ve always grown every single year despite having been through two recessions. When you continue to deliver value for your customers, then they see it. We were able to get into new industries and even upsell to our existing customers. A lot of our revenue also comes from upselling. Our customers tend to be larger companies, so perhaps we sold to one division, and then another division comes across, another geography for the company comes along. So we’ve been able to constantly grow, not just for a product footprint, but also our customer footprint as we continue to invest. We are a software company run by engineers, not marketers. If you engineer good products and show value, then customers will come your way.

Alejandro: That’s interesting because you have, obviously, the school of thought of you sell it, and then you figure out how to build it and deliver. Then from what I hear, it seems it was more you build it; you build something great and something that people would like to use, and then they’re going to come. Interesting. Would you mind expanding a bit more on that, Sanjay?

Sanjay Shah: Yeah. As we would bootstrap, I think it was important I realized that having – because we are not spending as much on sales and marketing. It is important that we strike a partnership with a very large player that can give you a tremendous amount of reach into the marketplace globally, and SAP was a natural partner for us because they have thousands and thousands of feet on the street. I believe that if you engineer great product, and then dovetail or piggyback on top of a huge, successful go-to-market organization like SAP has globally, then that would be the recipe for success. Because it was bootstrapped, because we felt we had a well-engineered product, decided to get into a strategic partnership to help take it to market. That has served us well. That really has helped us grow because we started out with SAP North America first. Then slowly over the years expanded to other regions of the globe. Fast-forward to today. We have people all over the globe, Vistex employs all over the globe and selling in virtually every geography. Brazil, South Africa, all countries in Western Europe, Asia, etc. 

Alejandro: How many employees do you guys have today, Sanjay?

Sanjay Shah: A little over 1,600.

Alejandro: Wow! That’s quite a significant amount of employees. What have you learned about yourself as a leader?

Sanjay Shah: What have I learned about myself? As I have grown both personally and professionally, there are a couple of important lessons. One is I think I have learned to be a better listener. Earlier on, I thought I knew how everything was supposed to work, and I had the recipe and the solutions to all of the company’s problems. But I quickly realized that confidence is good; over-confidence is not so good. It’s important to stay grounded and be a good listener. I think I’m a good listener over the years.

Alejandro: To expand on the listening, before we go to the second one, on the listening, how do you, for example, like with employees or when you’re going out to fundraise, what is the process of first in-taking the information and then being able to digest and react proactively about it?

Sanjay Shah: We have a very demographic process. We have a relatively flat organization. I would like to describe it as a bit chaotic, but a very functional democracy. When we say we listen, listening not just to our employees who are the closest to our customers and have the best product ideas, but also to our customers. We go in as explorers, not as conquerors because we know that the right kind of input is very critical to the engineering of a product.

Alejandro: Of course. So let’s continue. What was the next thing that you’ve learned?

Sanjay Shah: I think the next thing I’ve learned is always to learn to learn. There is so much out there, and there is so much you can – I think you can never rest easy and say, “I think I’ve learned what I need to learn to be able to be successful.” You always have to have a continuous learning mindset. I think sometimes, even when entrepreneurs reach a certain level of success, they feel that they’ve mastered their domain, or they know what they need to do. I believe that if anything, you should know that you should always learn to learn. That’s something that I believe has sold people as well that I always wake up every day worrying about what is it that I need to learn more, and not bask in the success of what I have learned and what I’ve achieved. 

Alejandro: In this case, you guys were bootstrapping. Obviously, one step in the wrong direction can be fatal. So in your case and in your journey because in entrepreneurship, there’s no such thing as a straight line. Out of this journey, what would you say has been the bumpiest part of it, and how did you get back up and keep running as a breakthrough from the breakdown of whatever dark days you were dealing with? Walk us through some of those days. What did you experience? 

Sanjay Shah: The biggest bump in the journey has been this whole Cloud Revolution that customers no longer want to buy software and then run it themselves in their IT shops. They want to outsource everything and just consume a service. That has been the biggest bump. I think the industry pivoted that way about somewhere between planning on your perspective five to seven years ago, and the entire industry has pivoted toward Software as a Service. I think that has been a bit of a challenge for us having built a business on licensing software and all the follow-on revenue that comes as a result of that has been a bit of a bump for us. We are trying to develop what I call a hybrid model. There’s always some business to be had with on-prem software, but we’re also getting more aggressive and investing heavily to grow our business in the Cloud as they say; to sell our software as a subscription.

Alejandro: You brought this up to 250 million in revenue without taking any type of investors.

Sanjay Shah: Right.

Alejandro: Why did you decide to all of a sudden bring outsiders into the mix?

Sanjay Shah: That’s a good question. This whole Cloud Revolution, we feel that we are a bit behind in this regard in terms of being out there and being perceived more as a company that can do equally well with our cloud offerings. We felt that we needed to bring in some external expertise to help us grow the subscription part of our business. We were looking for a partner that has the chops, that has the history and the stripes to help us with our cloud journey. We found a great partner in Excel KPR. They’ve been around for many years, a very notable firm in the Valley, and a lot of successes to their name. They would help us build and scale our cloud business and yet be comfortable being a minority investor. I didn’t want to give up much equity. I wanted to give up a very small portion of it while drawing on their expertise. With all this, the list was small, and we found a great partner who we signed up with.

Alejandro: What were some of the key ingredients that you were looking for in a partner?

Sanjay Shah: It wasn’t the money or the capital. Of course, that’s important because it establishes a benchmark of sorts, but also to provide us with the expertise that we need. How do you build and scale a cloud business? What type of selling skills do you need? What type of product features and functions do you need in order to be successful in the Cloud? What kind of teams do you need? What kind of marketing do you need to be able to sell effectively? The whole business paradigm has changed as I described. That’s what helped us make the call with the partner we chose.

Alejandro: So this was a private equity financing.

Sanjay Shah: Correct.

Alejandro: There are a lot of people that are on the line that are thinking about venture capital, and angels, and private equity. There are different sources to get money in. What is private equity? How would you differentiate a private equity profile from the venture capital that perhaps the earlier-stage guys that are listening are probably looking at?

Sanjay Shah: The venture guys will probably come on in the very early stages, maybe in years 0 to 5, I would say. The average being 2 1/2. Different propositions, private equity being a different proposition as innovated. They try to go after high-potential, high-growth, the mature organizations, and we fit the bill on that front. I think private equity can offer a lot of operational expertise and a lot of go-to-market expertise. Once you have built a platform already, how do you accelerate growth versus venture capital is, “Do you believe in my potential? Do you believe that I’m working on something that has a great potential?” Private equity, which is more how do you help accelerate growth, which was more our case.

Alejandro: What have you learned about growth, Sanjay?

Sanjay Shah: What have I learned about growth? Growth is hard, [laughter] to say the least. You have these ideas and visions of growth, and then there is reality unless you’re exceptionally fortunate. But there are a lot of players out there. Customers are getting smarter, especially in enterprise software, which is where we play. The number of players has increased, and the customers buying skills have increased tremendously. You can’t just shove things down their throat and hope that they use it. They’re very skilled these days in terms of how they decide what to buy. 

Alejandro: And in terms of enterprise sales, Sanjay, that you were eluding to, what are your biggest takeaways from enterprise sales because it’s a beast. In many instances, it’s like a 24-month sales cycle. It’s long.

Sanjay Shah: Yeah, exactly. Enterprise sales require a lot of persistence and a lot of fortitude to stay in the race for the longer term. These are not quick sales. Especially, the larger the organization that you sell to, the more durable and the more persistent you need to be. And you need professional sales help. An entrepreneur can’t say, “Yeah, I’m also on a double-duty” and be able to sell into the enterprise. That is more than a fulltime job in and of itself. Just navigating the politics and creating and developing the value, etc. We were lucky that in our initial years, our go-to-market partner was SAP, and enterprise software was virtually nascent, and SAP was selling hand over fist. We consider ourselves fortunate in having been able to arrive some of that. But the reality now is different. You need a lot of focus and dedication and a lot of persistence. You need a lot of patience as well when you’re selling into the enterprise.

Alejandro: All right, Sanjay. There’s always a question that I ask the guests that we have on the show, and that is knowing what you know now if you had the opportunity to go back and give yourself a piece of advice, to that younger Sanjay that is about to launch the business, what would that piece of advice be before launching a business and why?

Sanjay Shah: I think the advice I would give to my younger self is, don’t follow any advice. [Laughter] Be a good listener. Listen to what everybody has to say. Everybody’s journey is unique, and everybody’s circumstances are unique. I think you have to be your own advisor and your own decisionmaker. But you should seek input and feedback from everybody. There is no one path to success. There are many paths to progress and success. What worked for one person may not necessarily work for you. You shouldn’t necessarily follow somebody’s footsteps, but just take inspiration and then chart your own path. In my early days, I used to be confused. “Person A said I should do this, and Person B said I should do this. Maybe I should trust A more than B, so I should do what A said.” No. Perhaps it should be neither, and I should do what Sanjay said would work better. My advice is, don’t follow any advice.

Alejandro: Very cool. What does the future look like for Vistex?

Sanjay Shah: The future is there’s more of everything. We want more growth, more customers, a larger solution footprint. I think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of how our products and solutions can help customers and help our customers succeed even more. So our focus is, how can we help our customers succeed even more with our products and offerings? That’s our vision.

Alejandro: Very cool. For the people that are listening, Sanjay, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?

Sanjay Shah: LinkedIn.

Alejandro: Wonderful. Are you on Twitter or any other platforms?

Sanjay Shah: No, I’m not, but I plan to soon. I’m not a big social media citizen if you will, but from time to time, I will check LinkedIn.

Alejandro: Wonderful. Sanjay, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.

Sanjay Shah: Okay. Thank you, Alejandro. I look forward to seeing the final product.

 

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