An Interview With Mitch Russo
Creating a niche can have multiple long-term advantages for any SaaS founder. You can always find an adjacent market to expand your business once you’ve established your company as a leader in that niche. For us, this is illustrated by our focus on Digital Adoption. Our focus on this niche — developing and nurturing the space and community in addition to our own specific product — has helped us innovate and scale rapidly, establishing Whatfix as one of the leaders in the space.
As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Khadim Batti, CEO and Co-Founder, Whatfix Inc. Khadim co-founded Whatfix in 2013 along with Vara Kumar, and now serves as CEO. Prior to Whatfix, he was responsible for managing the Deep Packet Inspection and BI product portfolio for the Huawei Central Research Division. He holds a Master’s in Information Technology from the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore, and Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from the University of Bombay. With Whatfix, Khadim plans to make it easier for everyone to use technology everywhere by enhancing the state of digital adoption. Enhanced digital adoption will drive greater user efficiency, enterprise productivity and better business outcomes. Khadim has been passionately educating and mentoring aspiring talent for about a decade and a half now. Moreover, he acts as a mentor to several early stage startups like Healofy (Parenting), Vernacular.ai (Artificial Intelligence), FeetApart (Fitness).
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was always driven by the potential impact that software platforms can bring to any business. Having spent close to 10 years in the industry, I was confident that the value-based model of SaaS was here to stay.
Vara, our CTO, and I have worked together for almost 9 years. We shared a common passion of building a global product company from India with innovation at its heart. We took our first bet on enabling SEO (Search Engine Optimization) for businesses. We built an on-demand SaaS tool that businesses can use to implement recommendations for enhancing their organic search visibility. It was called SearchEnabler.
We received initial success but soon realized that the product is not being adopted effectively. The drawbacks stimulated further research. Also, in order to solve the adoption problem, we tried building smart flows (the present day EasyFlows in Whatfix). This worked like magic for most of our customers. We saw immense improvement in adoption of the product. The traction increased significantly and we got numerous requests from customers to build the capability for other solutions too.
This made us take the problem of ‘Digital Adoption’ seriously and we decided to run more experiments. We kickstarted a free, community-based model which enabled everyone to create flows on any digital platform or website. The response was phenomenal. It further validated the results we got earlier from our customers. We started to realize that ‘Digital Adoption’ is an unsolved problem which can have a huge impact on productivity. With the increasing dependency on digital solutions, the time was apt for a product that can solve the adoption problem effectively. Thus, we pivoted our efforts to creating Whatfix.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Most of our ‘Aha’ moments to date have come from our customers. We had 55 paying customers when we rolled out our first entrepreneurial venture, ‘SearchEnabler’. Even after realizing the potential of the product, a lower percentage of customers were using it effectively. To help them, we started solving for the ‘adoption’ problem as well. Results from this exercise was the biggest ‘Aha’ moment for us. We knew we were onto something. This propelled us to try it via community model which helped us gauge the scale of the problem-statement. We realized that the digital platforms need an adoption-focused product that can drive effective usage and productivity.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Both Vara and I had a vast experience in the software industry before taking the baton of entrepreneurship. Our first venture ‘SearchEnabler’ got off the ground but the sales were not on our side. We were running the business using our savings and they were drying up fast. When we stumbled upon the huge problem of ‘Digital Adoption’, we knew that this is a huge opportunity to solve something which can drive significant impact for businesses. Also, making digital experiences simple was close to our heart. But pivoting at this stage was like starting from scratch and the cash crunch wasn’t helping.
There were times when we fell short of motivation but we couldn’t ignore the traction we were getting for Whatfix’s concept. Also, we had data from existing customers to validate the value that can be derived from such a solution. We knew from our experience that if we keep delivering value, we’ll figure out a way to make this work. This kept us going even when we were cashless for 6 months.
After that we got our foot into the GSF Accelerator (Global SuperAngels Forum) and that changed a lot of things for us, steering us in the right direction.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today, we have more than 100 Fortune 500 companies as Whatfix customers. We started with a simple dream of solving a fundamental problem at scale and we’ve been able to do that for more than 500 companies and counting.
And I can tell you that by no means it was easy for us to achieve this feat. After we got into GSF accelerator in 2014, we raised a small amount of $45,000 to find the Product Market fit for Whatfix. We had a powerful concept that works but making business out of this concept took a lot of experimentation. It was not until 2016, when we realized that value of a product like Whatfix is much more for major and enterprise firms. We started focusing our energy on cracking bigger accounts but we all know that’s not an easy nut to crack. Also, there weren’t enough examples of SaaS companies from India who have sold to enterprises globally. So, we didn’t have any playbook or reference point to start with. This led us to do a lot of experimentation with GTM as well. But with all these iterations our learnings were compounding and we were sure that ‘Digital Adoption’ is a problem that we can solve at scale. This kept us going!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The early days were full of funny stories. From our brand identity to the way we solved problem statements inside the organization, everything was changing very fast.
I remember when Vara (my cofounder) was booking travel tickets for his family, we realized that the inefficiencies within that process are a consistent problem which roots from lack of adoption. The problem-solver attitude in us wanted to see if we can enable his family members to book the tickets on their own. We thought of showing a series of orange balloons that can guide them to book the tickets seamlessly. Eventually, we realised that the same concept can help our customers to implement the DIY SEO platform for their businesses. So, we started generating smart flows for them and gradually started working on a community-based model.
In a way, we owe the travel booking websites for conceiving the idea of Whatfix.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are pioneers in a category which has a market size upwards of $10 billion. When the potential is so huge, it must reflect in everything you do. We are in a very exciting space and leave no stone unturned to keep striving towards our goal. If I am to quote Marc Benioff (from Salesforce) “Life grows relative to one’s investment in it”. Everyone at Whatfix is totally invested in the vision which compounds our efforts in fighting the challenges of ‘Poor Digital Adoption’. This brings a rigor in our team and helps us to keep innovating while delivering wow-customer experiences consistently.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I believe the most valuable tip I can give to any founder is: ‘Don’t be OPERATIONAL’. Most of the time founders have a lot of things on their plate in the beginning. As they grow their companies, they keep adding responsibilities and fail to build teams that can take ownership. This is the primary reason for burnouts as scaling becomes a major issue. After hitting the Product-Market fit, founders must focus on hiring and building a strong team to build scale in an organization.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
We have a lot of people to thank for this beautiful journey. Our ex-colleagues left their comfortable jobs and joined our struggle at a very early stage. Moreover, I can’t thank Rajesh Sawney (from GSF) enough for writing the first check to Whatfix. Helion and Stellaris Ventures also joined to support us as early investors, and are still guiding us every step of the way.
In particular, we are thankful to our early set of customers who believed in our vision and are still standing strong with us. As we expand, the support shown by the entire SaaS ecosystem from US, India, Australia and Europe is also commendable.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
We’ve 500+ paying customers, across 30 countries with 100+ customers belonging to the Fortune 500 club. We are serving more than a million queries a day.
A lot of our initial traction came from a systematically built Inside Sales system which helped us reach global enterprises. Now, we’ve teams for both inbound and outbound demand generation. We have a strong relationship with each of our customers. Many of them also act as our advocates and their references turn into our customers as well.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We are a pure-play SaaS product.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’d say creating a niche can have multiple long-term advantages for any SaaS founder. You can always find an adjacent market to expand your business once you’ve established your company as a leader in that niche. For us, this is illustrated by our focus on Digital Adoption. Our focus on this niche — developing and nurturing the space and community in addition to our own specific product — has helped us innovate and scale rapidly, establishing Whatfix as one of the leaders in the space.
Another important factor is paying attention to unit economics. It is the most fundamental way of building a sustainable business. For example, I still see many entrepreneurs who try to acquire customers by betting on several channels simultaneously. This can make your customer acquisition costs (CAC) shoot up quickly. Thus, it is necessary to iterate until you figure out the channels that work for you and be careful before burning cash.
At Whatfix, we give a lot of emphasis to this. From the outset, we’ve paid attention to our acquisition costs. We actively experimented with different channels of customer acquisition and strategically doubled-down on a few for whom the investment made the most sense. This has helped us to sustain and improve a healthy LTV:CAC ratio.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
“Learning by doing” is a motto we firmly believe in, at Whatfix. It is also something that is close to my heart. The pedagogy today focuses primarily on theoretical knowledge. I can still see a lot of scope to innovate the ways in which we impart education.
For example, many children and youngsters miss out on some fundamental concepts of practical knowledge that they can only learn by enduring the situation. I believe that integrating these experiences into curricula can have massive impact on the way youngsters navigate their life. It’ll help them in dealing with their problems more effectively and lay down solid plans to achieve their goals.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
“5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SAAS”, with Khadim Batti, CEO of Whatfix was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.