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PODCAST 129: The Keys to Building and Scaling a Company from Scratch with Vishal Sunak

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Today on the show, we’ve got Vishal Sunak, CEO and co-founder of LinkSquares, a company that applies AI to your contract. With LinkSquares, you know what terms you’ve signed and what agreements your company has made. They sell that product to general councils, operations teams, and deal desks. Vishal and I talk about what it’s like to start a company from nothing and how his experience at Backupify and InsightSquared helped inform the process.

If you missed episode 128, check it out here: How to Unshackle Your Career Growth With a Mentor with Tom Martin

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Show Agenda and Timestamps

  1. Show Introduction [00:10]
  2. Who is Vishal Sunak and what is LinkSquares? [02:00]
  3. Keys to success when scaling a company [10:56]
  4. Major challenges facing a new CEO [19:40]
  5. How to find advisors when you’re a CEO [22:32]
  6. Responding to COVID now and for the future [25:05]
  7. Sam’s Corner [28:45]

Show Introduction [00:10]

Sam Jacobs: Today on the show, we’ve got Vishal Sunak, CEO and co-founder of LinkSquares, a company that applies AI to your contract. With LinkSquares, you know what terms you’ve signed and what agreements your company has made. They sell that product to general councils, operations teams, and deal desks. Vishal and I talk about what it’s like to start a company from nothing and how his experience at Backupify and InsightSquared helped inform the process.

Before we get there, we want to thank our sponsors. We’ve got two sponsors, the first is Sapper Consulting. Sales enablement is easy: all you have to do is create perfectly targeted content, stay informed on email best practices, drive more engagement quarter over quarter, spend less money, and do all of this with less time. Okay? It’s not that easy. Sapper Consulting makes it easier though, because they built Regie. Keep the promise of sales enablement and keep your team doing what they do best, which is winning. Regie uses AI to create inbound, outbound, and even follow-up sales campaigns faster using over a billion rows of performance data across 75 industries. Regie uses your targeting to inform your campaign, decreases the time your team spends creating campaigns, and because the campaigns are structured on email best practices, your email, and your campaign warm-up period will strengthen results. More sales meetings, start creating better sequences faster, go to go.regie.io for more information.

Our second sponsor is Outreach, the leading sales engagement platform, Outreach revolutionizes customer engagement by moving away from solid conversations to a streamlined and customer-centric journey. Check them out.

Now, without further ado, let’s listen to this interview with Vishal Sunak.

Who is Vishal Sunak and what is LinkSquares? [02:00]

Sam Jacobs: Hi everybody it’s Sam Jacobs. Welcome to the Sales Hacker podcast. Today on the show, we’re excited to have Vishal Sunak, the CEO and founder of LinkSquares where he’s responsible for developing strategies aimed at assisting both corporate, legal, and finance teams with the review of their contracts. Vishal works to prevent his customers from having to read each contract one by one. He founded LinkSquares with the goal of building great products to improve how businesses operate. Prior to founding LinkSquares, he held positions in operations and product management at Backupify and InsightSquared. We love InsightSquared. Welcome to the show.

Vishal Sunak: Thanks for having me.

Sam Jacobs: We’re excited to have you. We like to start with your baseball card to contextualize your expertise. We know that you are the CEO and co-founder of LinkSquares. What is LinkSquares?

Vishal Sunak: We’re on a mission to change the way that companies have historically thought about contracts, both pre-signature and after they get signed. When we started the company, the journey was largely about this pain that we felt as a founding team. So a lot of my management team, including my co-founder, we all worked together at a company in Boston, Backupify. We went through an acquisition and we got bought. And during that process we began to learn things we had never seen and heard before, but also felt a lot of pain around what is inside all of these customer agreements we have? We have thousands of these customer agreements that have been redlined and negotiated, there might be a third party paper, we just don’t have the precision we need to answer questions like which contracts have termination for convenience? Or which contracts say you can move this customer’s data to another infrastructure provider?

And it became pretty clear that there was something interesting here, and we really built the company around contract management, the modern company, the modern legal team. And since founding in 2015, we had one flagship product that focuses the AI product, and it’s essentially a very intelligent repository, store contracts in there, executed contracts. And we read them with AI, we extract data, but what you agreed to, so you don’t have to read thousands and thousands of agreements, give you the ability to report on it, hook it up to your Salesforce, get data flowing in there so people can consume it. And then we’ve taken a bigger look at what company we want to be when we grow up, and now we also have a pre-signature tool as well. Companies can use it for document drafting, versioning in a negotiation and also workflow to get it approved. So we’re excited, we stumbled into this journey. I’m not a lawyer, I’m actually an engineer by classical training, and it’s been a fun and interesting ride to work with this community.

Sam Jacobs: Just so I understand, you put all your contracts in one place and the AI reads all the contracts. That way, when asking questions, you can easily identify both consistent terms that you always adhere to and then exceptions, and pull those out at lightning speed. Is that accurate?

Vishal Sunak: Absolutely right. Access to that metadata, essentially summaries of what you agreed on. We pull out over 60 pieces of metadata now, everything from single dates, like the effective date, yes, no values, does the contract have termination for convenience or automatic renewal, which is a really popular one and a really powerful term, and then even full paragraphs. So yeah, I mean, that’s exactly right. And then we layer on reporting capabilities and then integrations to send the data that we have into other systems to be enriched and consumed elsewhere too. So, you’re spot on for the AI product, and then for pre-signature products it’s really around document creation and getting it to that final form for signature.

Sam Jacobs: How many people work there?

Vishal Sunak: We’re right around 60 employees mostly based in Boston.

Sam Jacobs: Where are you on your revenue journey?

Vishal Sunak: We are on the scale to eight digits right now, not that far away. And we’ve raised about $22 million. We just completed our series A in Q1 of this year. So yeah, we’re five years old and scaling to eight digits and beyond now.

Sam Jacobs: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up deciding to start and found LinkSquares.

Vishal Sunak: I began my journey in B2B SaaS at Backupify, and got the opportunity to learn the SaaS game from some real experts. Rob May being the founder and CEO of the company, and a great mentor for me. I got into the game there, obviously went through the acquisition, that’s how we came up with the idea for the company. And spent some time at InsightSquared as well, and so I really prodded myself on trying to learn from as many experts as possible, I think has been so vital and so important to my career. And surround yourself with the best subject matter experts. I probably won’t be a CMO anytime soon, but having that kind of conversational knowledge about marketing, about things like dimension, about positioning, about messaging and having that kind of well-rounded startup education, then coupled with the fact that I have a technical background and we’re building an AI product, which is extremely technical, more than I would say the average company has.

Those made a unique blend for me, and a unique mixture and cocktail that when I could take stock of an idea with Chris, my co-founder, to take stock and the passion that we had to go and try to solve this problem, try to do something that no one’s done before, I felt like I was leaning back on a lot of great experience. A lot of great experience working and supporting inside sales teams, a lot of good experience with marketing and marketing ops, a lot of good experience with building products. And I had done that even before I got into B2B software, doing military electronic design, right?

And so I felt like these are serendipitous types of experiences that culminated into the birth of LinkSquares. And made a lot of sense that I felt the confidence that I also have the networking side of Boston, a great, great startup community and really welcoming, and really helpful. Having access to some great founders that had been around the block. Also, there were my angel investors. I felt like it was the right time and felt like we could make this thing a winner.

Sam Jacobs: What’s been the biggest surprise for you? What’s been something that you just didn’t anticipate or a couple of things that you didn’t anticipate?

Vishal Sunak: Being a technologist, I always believed that we could create algorithms that could read a contract and extract data. I mean I just fundamentally believed that it could be possible. Not me personally, but a bunch of smart PhDs and software engineers, they’re the ones that can make it a reality. But I always believe that at the core, I always believe that this problem could be solved through that application technology. I was bullish on that from day one.

Something that surprised me is that we have like 60 employees. And we continue to be in a very competitive startup scene, which is awesome, in a thriving ecosystem here in Boston. In a surprising way, people choose to come take their next career journey with us. And they have so many options, so many great companies, publicly traded venues, startups, and earlier stage than us, and even later stage than us. And so it always feels great when people come and select us as a place they’re going to come spend some time and better their career, and try to do the best work they can. It’s always such a joy and a pleasant surprise.

Keys to success when scaling a company [10:56]

Sam Jacobs: You’ve done this a few times now and now you’re scaling your own company and you’re on the way to, as you say, eight digits. So what do you think the keys to success are?

Vishal Sunak: Just validate what you’re doing, and take more time, take another six months more than you think. I think there’s always that hesitation where you just want to go, “I’m done with where I’m working. I got this idea, I want to jump in.” And that’s all cool. And before you spend time and resources and money, potentially building the wrong product, just get that product right. For us, it was general counsels, and when we started the company general counsel, CLOs, I knew exactly zero of them. And so it was like, how are we going to validate after we got the feeling and got the knowledge, that general counsels were the best buyer of this product that we’re dreaming up, like, “How am I going to get 10 general counsels?”

I’m going to talk to 10 general counsels, 50 general counsels, a hundred general counsels and make sure we’re headed in the right direction, headed on the right vector. Right? And I think that that is a loss, it can be lost along the way where people who are just like, “Man, we’ll just figure it out. We’ll just get going.” And it’s like, if you can just get that restraint just a little bit longer, and it sucks and it’s hard, and you feel like, what am I doing? And the days are long and it certainly felt that way early on the journey. If you can just hold back and show a little restraint, and just make sure that you know you’re building the right thing, especially on the software side, you can definitely get out of the gate faster.

Sam Jacobs: As you were doing market research and focus grouping, and talking to general counsels, did you hear a piece of feedback or a direction for the product that you hadn’t anticipated that is now maybe fundamental?

Vishal Sunak: When we visualized, and thought of what is the problem we’re going to solve? It really lended itself to being this new category, this post signature type of contract product. And talking about folks, about contract management software, we’re like, it’s not a new category. It’s a category that they’ve had some experience with, may have tried to implement some of it in the past, maybe using it already. We were surprised at how little love those tools that may be in the market today, the legacy tools, like how little love they had for them.

It was pretty visceral as a reaction. “Oh man, the implementations are so hard. We’ve been trying to get this thing implemented for a year and it just can’t do it.” And it’s like, it’s all predicated on manual data backfill and entry for these contracts we’ve already executed. And I still don’t believe that there’s technology that can solve this problem of knowing what I’ve agreed to in contracts I’ve already executed. Forget about the ones that execute in the future, I’m talking about the ones I’ve already executed, I’m already on the hook to manage. It surprised us about how the market thought of those products that already existed. It really paved the way for us to think about something new, think about different ways to approach it and come at it from a different angle.

Sam Jacobs: As somebody that’s been in sales a long time, one of the things that you hear when you go to different companies that are selling to different personas and industry verticals. What’s it like selling to general counsels? Were you surprised on the upside? Did it meet expectations in terms of their ability to purchase things, their ability to make decisions, their access to budget? How has been the sales evolution of the go to market motion for LinkSquares?

Vishal Sunak: Thankfully now I have a great sales team filled with great sales leadership. So no one lets me sell that much anymore. But in thinking back to the early days, there was a concept of product knowledge, product awareness and evangelicalism that had to occur. Right? And so when we were picking up the phone and chatting with people, and getting out demos and explaining that we’re thinking about the world differently, this is for contracts that are already executed. Where are you storing them? It was like one out of every five people knew what we were talking about, and knew that storing your contracts on a shared network drive or some cloud based system that is just accessed in the cloud, but it doesn’t have any intelligence.

One out of five people felt like there should be a better way of doing it. And maybe four out of five were like, “What are you talking about, we use Box.” Or, “We use Dropbox and that’s where our contracts are stored.” And they couldn’t get their head around it. So I think there was definitely the education of a new way of working, a new category of a product that they can add. And so I think now over time, what we’re seeing is a lot more balanced, like one out of every three people absolutely know the difference between us and other technology in the market, and that feels awesome. So I think overall the entire market’s doing a good job, especially the folks trying to tackle contract management from this end. Where we started there are others doing it too.

And everyone’s working together, how to educate the market, right. Get out in trade shows, get the word out, get it out on the internet and stuff like that. And so this buyer is, they actually really enjoy it, they’re very straight forward, they are a little bit more conscientious, a little bit more risk averse. And so the use of demonstrations are front of mind, right? It’s also a buyer that necessarily hasn’t been flooded with tools. I think of a modern VP of sales, I think of my own CRO Steve, and how many tools that he has at his disposal. And buying tools is really largely in his wheelhouse, he buys tools all the time. Right? He has his own dedicated implementation and vetting function sales ops.

RELATED: How to Close the Enterprise When You’re Just a Startup

And so when you’re getting on the phone with general counsels 10,000 times in the last five years or whatever the number is, and it’s clear that they are probably the last department inside of a company that really hasn’t taken this big, massive tool implementation type of journey, like a CMO has, or a CRO or VP of sales. And so it’s like, “Well, how are we going to get this implemented? It’s just me, you’re looking at the legal team, it’s a team of one.” And it’s like, “Well you know what? We’re going to take care of you and white glove it.” So I think that was a big learning journey, right? Having come out of InsightSquared, that was the last thing I worked on. The last place I worked before I started the company and went full time.

You think about InsightSquared, going straight into sales ops function, these are the people that are chartered with the implementation of this product and getting it set up and getting it running. And so you have to flip the model on its head, I think that was super interesting. And I think thinking about making them successful as an executive, given that the team is usually pretty small. It’s like, how do we do that? How do we make you a winner? Okay. Listen, when someone asks you a question about what’s in, did any of our contracts have X, because we had a data breach or we missed our SLA, or we’re fundraising or something like that, or we’re trying to raise capital and other means, or we’re trying to buy a company.

It’s like, you’ll just know the answer in a matter of minutes and you will not have to say, “Man, I don’t know. I don’t know, I’ve got to get back to you.” And that, I’ve got to get back to you in six weeks, right? That’s unacceptable. So really it took a while to figure out what they believe in. They believe in being the steward of the company, that person that knows the answers, and how do we get them there? How do we get them to that intelligence level, data intelligence level. And that’s been some of the most fun parts about it.

Major challenges facing a new CEO [19:40]

Sam Jacobs: How has your job changed as you approach eight digits? How has your job changed from being the co-founder and CEO of a tiny little company, to now being responsible for 60 people? What are the key challenges, and how has the job description itself evolved for you as the CEO?

Vishal Sunak: just constant backfill of functional areas with more experts. So when you’re a two person company, you’re doing it all, maybe 50/50 down the middle. And when you’re a 60-person company? I have a subject matter expert that runs essentially every department across the board, and it’s been great to be able to take a step back and give it away. I think the greatest joy of doing the fundraising and it’s sensationalized in the world, right, raising capital. And it’s just like, Oh, you choose something great. And it’s like, well, the worst is just beginning, as I’ve always felt to your point about getting new investors and working with them, which I’ve had a great experience across the board, but it’s really the opportunity. You’ve now been afforded the ability to hire more experts and hire people who are like, Hey, you know what we solved, dude I got it?

I got the infrastructure, I got the AWS bill, don’t worry about it. Like my CTO, Eric, he’s like, “Dude, I got it all. Don’t worry about it.” Right? And having that, you pay for that luxury as a CEO. It’s something that you have to earn. I always tell the team, “We’re going to sell our way, and code our way, and ship our way, and market our way, and customer success our way to the next round of capital so we’re afforded to be able to do more with more people.” That’s always how we work. And so I’ve really enjoyed it because I have a pretty good startup education, well-rounded background in product and engineering and marketing and sales. I love being able to go deep with one of my direct reports, really understand what they’re doing, and play more of them, how can I help? What are you stuck on? What can I unblock for you?

And just realize, I probably realized this a while ago, but I’m not the person doing the work anymore. Right? I’m the person who’s hired the person who’s going to hire the person probably to do the work. And it’s been good, and it’s been a great experience to be able to take a step back and oversee it from a top level, but go deep when necessary. I always love that too, so that’s me.

RELATED: Key Qualities of great Sales Leadership w/ Dan Fougere

How to find advisors when you’re a CEO [22:32]

Sam Jacobs: Where do you get your, is it a group of mentors or advisors? How do you find support? What are the resources you build around you so that you can make sure that you can give it more than just an opinion?

Vishal Sunak: Probably go through this list, see if Jason Lemkin has an opinion on it and whether he’s already written something on SaaStr. And I’m a huge SaaStr nerd, and I’ve read a million articles there, and listened to a lot of the episode’s of the podcast, so check SaaStr. And then I have 10 CEOs that I’m tight with, and they’re at text message level relationship, where it’s easy to just say, “Hey man, I’m dealing with something, have you seen this?” Or, “Hey, how did you handle that, when I saw you did this, remember that happened back in the day?” So I have that level, my peer group, then I have my angel investor group and I’ve got some great angel investors, like serial entrepreneurs in Boston that I can go to, folks like Rob May and Dave Balter and Phil Beauregard.

And I can always go there, it’s not my board, it is my preferred stock class, but it’s not my board. And so I feel like we’re peers in a way, and that’s an easy kind of, Hey, I’m stuck on something. And then it’s like, depending on what it is, and depending on what impacts it can have for the company, definitely going to my board. I don’t go to them with every little tiny thing that happens, but with the big stuff it’s definitely like, “Let’s have a conversation, let’s solve this together.” I’ve always found that relationship with my board, and the way that it should be is that like, you’re having more discourse, you’re having more conversation, right?

It’s not like, “I’m going to do this.” “No, you’re not going to do that.” It’s not about that, we’re all partners on this journey. I may be the founder or the CEO right, they’re also a big part of this journey to enable it. So having that kind of discourse, and it really depends on what we’re trying to solve. And if I follow that chain, then it’s like the pebbles and the sands get filtered out early and the big boulders, with the weight of the decision, fall down to the bottom of the board. And that’s the best way to do it, so that’s how I’ve seen it be really effective.

Responding to COVID now and for the future [25:05]

Sam Jacobs: How are you thinking about the impact of COVID on your business?

Vishal Sunak: We have a nice office-type of company and love that environment. Loved the energy that you get coming to the office, and getting through Boston traffic, both directions depending on where you live, and getting to the office and making that a part of it. So yeah, we’ve been since mid-March, doing the work from home. I think Massachusetts as a state has made a call for how much reopening is left, which is not much more from what they had. And so we understand what the state is doing, which is really important. And then we’re highly tuned into our employee base. We survey them a lot, we ask a lot of questions like, “What’s your work from home situation?”

Are you living in a big house and you have your own dedicated office? Then yeah, you could probably go for another year and a half if we had to. Right? But are you in a bad living situation with lots of roommates and life is eating you alive and you’re having a hard time functioning at home. So thinking about that and thinking where people are at with our employee base and the diversity we have of age, and definitely trying to accommodate them. And I think for the future, I think the model is probably like, you can show up in the office for a couple of days a week if you’d like. And if you’d like to come and you have the ability to come to the office, a lot of our employees live walking distance.

And so I think we’re going to, this fall, continue to monitor what’s going on. But trying to offer flexibility, right? Whether it’s like, “Hey, you know what, I’m just going to work from home pretty much indefinitely.” “Hey, that’s cool.” Or, “I got four roommates and I live in a small apartment and if I spend any more time here, I’m going to go insane.” And so, “What can we do to help?” So kind of like a no answer, but trying to be accommodating there. And I think in the future, I’ve enjoyed spending extra time with my wife and my little girl too, and so it’s been an interesting way to work that I never thought about. So I think it’s a positive thought for us, still being able to connect and keep the culture going, which is really important to us, and do our regular Friday hangout over Zoom now.

Sam’s Corner [28:45]

Sam Jacobs: Hey folks, Sam’s Corner. I enjoyed that conversation with Vishal Sunak, Interesting guy, great founder. And I thought that it’s always difficult to start a company absolutely from nothing, but a couple of key points emerged for me. The first is his emphasis on going slow to go fast, right? Before you launch your new product, before you do anything, yes, it’s good to move fast and break things, as our evil overlord Zuckerberg says, and even Revenue Collective has this value, listen closely, act quickly. So moving quickly and speed is important, but just make sure that you’re lined up on the product and on the market, and on the persona on the ICP before you just go out guns blazing, because you can waste a lot of ammunition shooting at the wrong target. Take that extra time to prepare a campaign, think through your go-to-market, and think through your product if you’re starting a company from scratch.

Vishal also surrounds himself with experts. That’s what he describes as building a team. The job of a CEO goes from doing many things yourself, to doing few things yourself and hiring true industry experts to do those things on your behalf. And that’s the magic of growing a company, that’s why it’s so important. You have to bring in smart people from the outside who can help you and add insight and objective ideas, and input into the team. So the big idea here is just that as you grow, the job of a CEO goes from doing it yourself to having other people do it for you.

And in that context, recruiting and building a company brand, an employer brand, is really, really important because the best people in the world have to want to work with you to accomplish that.

Don’t miss episode #130

Thanks again to Sapper Consulting. Check out Regie, your number one platform to create entire outbound, inbound, and even follow-up sales campaigns. So start creating better sequences faster, go to go.reggie.io.

Also check out Outreach. Outreach is revolutionizing customer engagement. It’s no longer a salad conversation, it’s a streamlined and customer-centric journey. Check them out at www.outreach.io.

If you want to reach me you can, you can email me sam@revenuecollective.com. If you want to join the world’s best leading community for executives and aspiring executives, then take a look at Revenue Collective, and click on apply now. I’ll talk to you next time.

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