It Don't Come Easy
Sid Banerjee | CEO and Co-Founder, Clarabridge
Sid Banerjee (his given name is Siddhartha) has lived most of his adult life in the DC area. But he grew up in southern Maine, which immediately pleased me (because I live in Maine and am sitting on a deck overlooking a pine forest as I write this). But, totally unlike me, he grew up with a father in the foreign service, and graduated high school in Southeast Asia. His father is Indian, and came to the states in the mid-'60s. His mom is Irish-Italian. I'll bet Thanksgiving dinner was interesting.
He holds both a bachelor's and master's degree in electrical engineering from MIT (not too shabby). "Wound his way," as he puts it, into his current life with Clarabridge by way of six or seven years in the telecom business. Which also opened a few old doors for me, as I too spent my "learning years" studying the telecom business. So we had a few things in common from the get-go.
He was an early employee at Micro-Strategy, an important and far-visioned data analytics firm. They were doing that in the late ‘80s, when hardly anybody else was. So he's got cred with me. He joined Micro-Strategy because a buddy talked him into it over beers. Ding! Another cred point.
MicroStrategy had 20 employees when he started; when he left it had more than 2,000. During that time, he realized that it was the place for him to be at the time. "I was using technology, working with customers and being an entrepreneur—I learned how to build a business, how to hire and how to run a business from a profit-and-loss perspective and become a business executive... I had a ball. But most importantly I learned how to architect solutions to take a lot of data from a lot of sources and transform it into applications that create business insight."
So he started Claraview, which was more or less a big data warehouse builder (although they didn't call it "big data" back then, that's what it was). And then came Clarabridge. The back story: A few of his Claraview customers wanted to apply advanced analytics not to structured data, which he was familiar with, but to unstructured information in documents, correspondence, and the early beginnings of what would come to be know as "social media."
"Like any good consulting company, we searched for a product that would help them. And we realized there was no such product for analyzing unstructured data in the way they wanted. There were some data analytics toolkits that came from academia and the government. But they were just toolkits; there were no products that solved the problem. That led us down the path to build Clarabridge," he remembers.
"There's a certain type of person—and frankly I think I'm this kind of person—who is more comfortable becoming a business leader than a technical worker. Under the right conditions. You have to be someone who can hold two disparate thoughts in your head at the same time and problem-solve for both and optimize for both," he says.
"You also have to think on your feet, which is what a high-growth start-up company is all about. What you need to do is put smart people in a room, and think about the next hundred things to do. I always say that I started Clarabridge with just enough knowledge of what to do, and just enough knowledge of what NOT to do, that I felt I could be the CEO."
And... he is. Which is more than I can say.
People Are Key
We changed to the subject of building a company, and in my mind, that is NOT about P&L or technology or stakeholder-care. It's about finding the right people. How does Sid do it?
"I look for different kinds of intelligence. Of course, I make sure they're skilled at what they're supposed to do, but I also look for what I call ‘general intelligence.' Those are your natural leaders. Those are the people who can dabble in people, technology, selling or marketing. They abstract and infer lots of things from lots of sources," he says.
"The second kind is what I call ‘specialized intelligence.' These are super programmers, or super salespeople. Those are the people you want to put into very focused, individual-contributor roles and give them as much autonomy to do what they do as possible."
And he can tell the difference? "Yeah, you learn to. The general intelligent people are comfortable with ambiguity. You don't need to say, ‘here's your input, here's your output.' You say instead, ‘here's the lay of the land. Make sense of it.' Other people—the specialized intelligent ones—need to be told what is their input and output, who the prospects are that need to be turned into customers." In Sid's view, you need both types.
Does that mean he picks those people, then lets the strategy occur from beneath? "Oh, no. I'm opinionated," he laughs. And from the background I can hear some of his employees on the call saying, "Oh yeah..."
But he says something really interesting next. "Despite that, I have had to learn to subvert my desire to tell people what they should do. I've learned - OK, I'm learning, he laughs—to let people talk as long as they need to before I draw a conclusion."
A Day In The Life
One of my stock questions during these interviews is, "What's a typical day?" Some people spend most of their time traveling. Some spend their time on the phone. Some are "walking around"-type managers, who check with their employees frequently.
"I don't have a typical day," laughs Sid. "There are maybe three or four categories of days. One category I call a "customer day." I'm on the road anywhere from 20% to 30% of my time. I visit customers; I visit employees in other offices... We've also begun a pretty aggressive marketing program where we run about 20 regional events a year in all the tier-one and tier-two cities, where we invite mostly prospects, but also a couple customers who speak about how they derive value from our analytics tools.
"But I also have regular what I'd call ‘office days.' I get involved in marketing strategy, financial stuff pretty often, a lot of sales strategy. Some product development, although I'm not always hands-on with that, I like to be involved. I basically get invited to a lot of meetings!" I believe it.
"I've lived through at least three technology revolutions. I lived throughout the telecom boom and then bust (been there, done that). Then I went though the database analytics era, and the dot-com bust. And now we're in the text analytics boom, and it is booming, I can tell you that," he says.
"I'm very much a pattern-matcher. I look for consistent themes. I try to figure out where things are going to go based on where similar systems have gone in the past. To answer your earlier question, this is where being an electrical engineer can help you be a CEO. You understand how to look for impacts and what happens in complex environments. You look for waves of growth, waves of acquisition, waves of consolidation in technologies and best practices. And I can tell you, in the world of customer contact, content management and customer analytics, we're in a wave of explosion right now."
But it don't come easy, as Ringo said. "I agree there are some customers who have a more crystalline vision of what they want to do with content and customer contact than others, and we look for those to be our primary customers. But if you build something repeatable that everybody wants, you're going to be successful."
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