On Tuesday, April 19 we have a special quest K.V. Rao, Founder and Chief Strategist of Zuora, a leader in subscription billing and payment solutions — will answer questions and give us insight on how he has made his company successful.
Today, I had the opportunity to sit down with K. V. Rao, Chief Strategist and Founder of Zuora. Before founding Zuora, K. V. joined Webex Communications while it was still a startup and played a significant role in helping the company IPO. I thought the Bootstrappers Breakfast community might benefit from K. V.’s lessons learned. In addition to this Q&A blog post, K. V. will be joining the round table discussion as a featured guest speaker on Tuesday, April 19 at the Sunnyvale Bootstrappers Breakfast. Come join us and ask K. V. your own questions.
BB: Hi K. V. – Thanks for taking the time to share your entrepreneurial insight with the Bootstrappers Breakfast community.
K. V. – Hi Francis, glad to be here.
BB: You began your career at NASA, GM and SGI – all very big companies. What was attractive about Webex that lead you to join a startup company?
K. V. – The founders! The destiny of a startup is defined by its founders. You want to know if you want to invest/bet on the vision and capabilities of the founders. In the case of WebEx, it was an easy decision to join them, as they had two remarkable founders who had a big vision for changing the world and the drive to build a really valuable business around their vision.
BB: Next to founding the company, you have essentially lived the Silicon Valley dream of joining a company on the ground floor and helping it IPO. Could you share a little bit about your experiences at Webex. Maybe some things that you planned for that worked perfectly or some things that caught you by surprise.
K. V. – First, I would say that nothing works perfectly in any company. From inside any organization, WebEx or others, you are exposed to and confront all the challenges of building and growing a business – from hiring, to funding, to competition. What surprised me a bit was learning to deal with all these challenges by having the right focus and having the right priorities, i.e. don’t try to solve all the issues all at once. The CEO of WebEx used to say, he could only address three issues at any time effectively, and his skill and judgement in picking the right issues was key to WebEx’s success. At the same time, don’t shoot for perfection – make a decision and correct it later if you need to…The one thing that did catch me by surprise was how quickly we became a verb! Today webconferencing is synonymous with WebEx, much like photocopying is with Xerox!
BB: I have heard some entrepreneurs say do not quit your day job until you are generating enough revenue to survive. I have also heard some entrepreneurs say, unless you can work on your startup full time, you will never move it along. What are your thoughts on these comments and which approach did you take in starting Zuora?
K. V. – The short answer is there is no one formula for success of a start-up. Having said that, I do have strong views about ‘my’ way – which is by no means original. Startups are successful if there is passion, vision, and commitment by the leadership team to its success. If founders are not willing to commit to their vision by devoting their energy, time, and passion to it, who else will? Would you expect to be married to someone, and have a committed relationship with someone else? This speaks to character and integrity of the founders. Needless to say, I started Zuora after I had left WebEx and was not working for anyone. When I left WebEx, I knew I wanted to start a business, but did not know what that was going to be – but I planned in advance to give myself up to 12 months to figure out what that would be. Like all the best laid plans, in my case, it took 24 months to come up with the idea for Zuora, but I was very fortunate that I was able to go that long both financially and emotionally – and importantly that my family was very supportive as well.
BB: Now as founder of Zuora what are three things from your Webex experiences that you are incorporating into Zuora’s marketing strategy?
K. V. – First is translate a vision into a message that resonates with your target audience. Second is to communicate that message through a variety of appropriate media. Third is to keep your message fresh all the time. This sounds simple, but what it requires is intense effort and investment in building a team that can execute on this strategy well.
BB: A common question that comes up a lot at our breakfasts is finding a co-founder. How did you find your co-founders and do you have any recommendations for those trying to figure this out? Maybe some considerations or requirements.
K. V. – Finding a co-founder is like finding a spouse. You should have a shared vision, and complementary skills, and you have to like each other! In the case of Zuora, I had a technical co-founder initially, and then a rockstar executive who brought much needed leadership skills and management experience to the table. We made sure we were aligned both on vision and values before making the commitment to each other to do our part for the success of the startup. If you have not worked with your co-founder before, then make sure to invest the time and effort to really know your co-founder: I recommend long dinners, breakfasts, lunches, drinks on a regular and frequent basis to ensure you stay aligned on vision as well as on working style.
BB: Well K.V., it was great learning about your entrepreneurial experiences. Do you have any last words of wisdom?
K. V. – My advice for entrepreneurs is to view their startup much like investors do – is the vision big enough, do you have the right leadership/team, both in skills, and in passion, and do you have the resources to commit to its success? Make the effort to have clarity on your own role, both in the beginning as well, but more importantly the role in the future as the company grows and you bring more people along. While personal and business success go hand in hand, roles and responsibilities can change and you are better off driving that change rather than have someone else drive it for you. After all this is your startup, and personal/founder satisfaction is one of the reasons for doing it, while at the same time, realizing that satisfaction can be derived from being in different roles. This may also include stepping aside at the right time – but drive this, rather than let it happen to you.
K. V. Rao Bio
Founder and Chief Strategist, Zuora
K. V. founded Zuora after five years at WebEx Communications where he reported directly to the founder and President with strategic marketing and business development responsibilities and played a key role in the growth of this successful start-up. Prior to WebEx, K. V. worked in sales and customer support at SGI. He started his career as the proverbial rocket scientist (Associate Scientist) at NASA and then spent several years developing products at General Motors. K. V. obtained his Ph. D. in Engineering from Iowa State University, an M. S. from the University of Missouri-Rolla, and a B. Tech from IIT, Bombay. K. V. is a US patent-holder in computing technology.