Ragy Thomas wants you to love your enterprise software. And, he wants to help every organization on the planet make their customers happier. This is the inspiration that animates his company, Sprinklr, a customer experience management platform that aims to be the single place from which big companies (or governments or non-profits) engage their customers across all digital channels.
A nomadic childhood led Thomas from India to Nigeria and back, then to the U.S. as an adult, where he began his life in tech startups. In the wake of the late-90s dot-com collapse, he co-founded an email marketing company called Bigfoot Interactive, where he served as CTO. The company exited successfully in 2005, setting Thomas up to self-fund his next company in 2009, after a three-year stint as president of Bigfoot’s buyer, Epsilon Interactive. He founded Sprinklr in a spare bedroom in New Jersey because he saw the disruption email had on the way companies communicate with customers, and believed social media would do the same thing. He knew that businesses would need to be on social media if consumers were embracing it — and they would need help managing this. Sprinklr has since expanded from social media to Customer Experience Management (CXM).
Thomas shared his story and insights from failures and successes as a leader with Bloomberg Television’s Scarlet Fu during an online talk on Thursday, December 17, 2020 as part of the Cornell Tech @ Bloomberg Speaker Series.
Thomas recognized that email at scale had bumped up against some limitations. Email isn’t optimized for multimedia. Spammers and other bad actors can easily abuse it. There’s no category differentiation for senders, so important customer support responses hit your inbox in roughly the same way as coupons or sales announcements. The recipient lacks robust controls and filters that regulate who can send what kind of email, and how often.
While social media platforms have solved these tricky user experience problems, they present a host of other roadblocks, mainly the difficulty involved in keeping up with their very different APIs, rules, interfaces, and analytics.
Sprinklr adds a user interface layer on top of all these platforms, so large enterprises can manage their digital customer engagements from one place, in addition to collecting and analyzing the data that results from those engagements. Sprinklr does social listening, editorial production, digital asset management, adtech, reporting, customer care, crisis management — pretty much everything related to reaching customers digitally. Sprinklr touts its embrace of AI-infused product features and automated workflows, so users spend more time making high-level decisions, and less time performing rote tasks.
“The world needs a completely new architecture to market to customers who get their information from each other, not from the brand,” says Thomas. “Customer care needs to be proactive. People are going to give a one-star review. They’re not going to call 1-800-BRAND to complain.”
Enterprise software you can love
It’s difficult to say whether Sprinklr has succeeded in providing “the world’s most beloved enterprise software,” but private equity investors believe in Thomas’s vision, to the tune of a recent $2.7 billion valuation.
“I don’t think about all of this as starting a company or becoming an entrepreneur or building a business,” says Thomas. “I think of these as solving problems. Almost anything you look at can be made better. And almost always, you can find out how you can make it better if you wipe the slate clean in your brain.”
Thomas draws upon a concept popular in Agile software development methodology called “future backwards.” It involves reimagining how things ought to be, and then reverse engineering that outcome by brainstorming how today’s discernments might lead to that preferred future scenario.
“We are creating what I think is the world’s first truly modern customer experience management platform for large businesses,” Thomas says, and he believes this is a $100 billion market opportunity.
Thomas calls out three fundamental shifts that have led to Sprinklr’s market opportunity. The first, a change in the way we communicate, which translates roughly to the rise of social media. The second, a shift in how much data we are individually putting out into the world, which can then be mined for insights. Finally, a change in expectation; people expect a level of customer service that is much higher than what was possible for a company to provide even a decade ago. The challenge for any enterprise (or the non-profit or the government) which seeks to derive insights from data in order to improve customer experiences is that this data is often unstructured and spread across many channels and silos. According to Thomas, the companies of the future will be the ones that integrate their customer care experience into a single platform.
Sprinklr is Thomas’s attempt at creating a company that can help global brands and organizations manage customer experiences across digital channels, on one platform. Today, Sprinklr supports 24 social channels and 11 messaging channels, including email and text. Soon, they plan to add voice support. The company currently offers five products across marketing, advertising, research, care, and engagement. They’re working with more than half of the Fortune 500, and nine out of the top ten most valuable brands in the world.
Thomas says Sprinklr’s mission is to enable every organization on the planet to make their customers happier. He invokes the late Tony Hsieh, whose startup, Zappos, revolutionized retail customer service, eventually provoking all kinds of retailers to embrace his radically customer-centric approach. Thomas wants to have the same impact on enterprise software. To help achieve this goal, Sprinklr has worked closely with their customers to shape the design of its products. For example, Nike’s challenge was to create campaigns across a globally distributed team, creating hundreds of pieces of content, and integrating workflows and reporting across markets. They became what Sprinklr calls a “definition partner,” and Sprinklr has implemented Nike’s feedback into its product design. Microsoft played a role in helping to optimize Sprinklr’s early AI models, and many of the company’s modern care product features were inspired by a partnership with Dell.
Flipping the fundraising script
When Thomas told his wife he wanted to self-fund a startup, she cried, knowing the potential hardship it could bring the family, certainly in the early years, and even more catastrophically should the business fail. He was risking everything his family had built up to that point.
“The problem with starting companies,” says Thomas, “is it’s only sexy later, when you’re successful.” He explains how the particular difficulty of selling enterprise software as a startup compounds the risk involved.
It’s incredibly painful. You have no money. It’s a massive chicken-and-egg situation. Clients — especially if you’re trying to penetrate the enterprise market — can’t work with you because you’re a small company, and you can’t build it because you don’t have clients — you can’t sell. So, it is very hard, very stressful, and you have to sustain it over long, protracted periods of time.
However, self-funding, according to Thomas, changes the power dynamic for a founder in a fundamental way.
“I don’t know whether it’s an Indian thing, but for me, I’m more comfortable losing my money. I hate having to explain to someone why and how I lost their money,” he says. “I just didn’t want to deal with the awkwardness of letting someone else down.”
For Thomas, self-funding was a way to demonstrate that he believed in his company. When it eventually came time to seek outside funding, he’d already developed a client list, and was able to communicate, without words, that he believed in Sprinklr. He’d already put his money where his mouth was.
“I am not a big fan of the word ‘sell’,” Thomas says. “I don’t want to sell the value. I want a group of people who see the same future, who see the same opportunity.”
The Sprinklr Way
Thomas incorporates humility into his leadership style. He encourages young entrepreneurs to find big problems that need solutions, and not to worry about market timing or the economy. Just get started solving a problem, and don’t be afraid to fail. Thomas owns his failures and is open about sharing mistakes that have made him and the company stronger in the long run.
Thomas shares a story of a moment when he nearly destroyed the company’s culture that had been carefully nurtured for seven years. As the company grew, doubling year over year, he began recruiting for experience rather than for culture. In a single year, the company fired 300 people and replaced them with 400 new hires.
“We were like every other company,” Thomas says of Sprinklr’s culture after the big employee turnover. The spirit that enabled the company to grow so spectacularly was gone. When he was able to step back and recognize the mistake, the company underwent a painful effort to undo the damage. Sprinklr hired outside researchers and spoke with clients, as well as both present and former employees to figure out how things had gone wrong. After spending many months and resources on research, the company developed a new approach for employee satisfaction called The Sprinklr Way.
But, defining the new culture wasn’t enough. They also had to propagate it throughout their company. It begins with recruitment. The company now hires intentionally for employees whose careers already embody The Sprinklr Way. Thomas sees his leadership role as embodying these values as much as it’s about operational leadership.
“Culture is not what you say it is,” Thomas says. “It’s based on who gets promoted, who gets fired, and what gets celebrated.” Now the company holds a town hall or all-hands meeting nearly every week, and they’ve hired a full-time wellness coach who hosts meditation sessions and yoga, which has become a crucial part of their effort to improve employee experience during the pandemic. These efforts and others have paid off, as Glassdoor recently rated Sprinklr a top place to work.
“The beautiful thing about life is that either you’re successful or you just learned something,” says Thomas. “It’s very hard to learn from success.”
You can watch the entire discussion below: