Founders selling with deep domain knowledge of the industry gets the first customer
Kamal Agarwala- Founder of La Exactlly Software began his career at the age of 19 (in 1990) as an intern in a chartered accountant firm while doing graduation. He was assigned the job of converting manual accounts into computer accounting using local made accounting software. While doing that he found there were so many basic things that were missing in the accounting software and he understood that there is huge gap between what the user wants and what the software in those days provides. He comes in from a family business and hence entrepreneurism ran in his blood but he did not want to continue his family business and started the software business.
Even though he had no idea about software development he did not want to miss the opportunity and he decided to develop his own accounting software. He analysed the three top accounting products for 6 months and also spoke to the users using them to understand the gap and hence the user requirements. He found out that there was not much of a difference in the functionality of the top 3 packages but found out that the gap was in the way the small business owner will want to see their data which gives them a perspective on how their business fares and began building a software on those lines.
He hired his first team of 3 developers and personally took over the product management, database designer and QA for the first 6 months. He spent his day by going around in the market and talk to the owners to understand their pain points while his developers will develop the software and he will spend time in the night to test and to prepare the plan for the next few days. Since he was in a CA firm, it was easy for him to speak to many clients and especially to their accounts and finance team. He thereby created a solid network of more than 50 such users who were actively interacting with him and also helping him in the development. He intuitively understood the concept of Minimum Viable Product even in those days and launched his accounting software in 8 months and got him to sell 60 copies within six months of the launch.
Hailing from a business family, the early funding was never an issue and he is still bootstrapped company. He had lots of family connections and lots of contacts that he built in the past and also had connects with multiple CA firms , he began reaching out to them and began selling the developed product.
Kamal believes in the sales person having deep knowledge about the product. He says that customers have not bought software from him but have bought accounting solutions. He can talk about accounting solutons and business automation for days together with the business owners and did not bother talking about features but spoke about the challenges of the accountant and the business owners. Since he was from a commercial background he used to discuss how to automate and simplify accounting, optimise stocks, manage outstanding which these business owners did not know how to solve. He gave solutions on how the business owners should use different category for their invoices, Lay out and effective P&L, automate their Order process etc and the business owners loved it.
To begin with he was the only sales man for almost four years. Kamal proudly says that he has never given a product demo but only talks about the pain points. Kamal categorically says that the software with features will come second but the sales persons knowledge leading to building trust is the best reason why people will buy allaying the concern that this is a startup.
Since he was the only sales person, he innovated a way to set up his channel partners. Since he knew that all the businesses depended on their CA and they consulted with the CA for any decision, he went into the CA circles and sold the software to them and installed it in their office and made them use the software to get confidence and the CAs began selling it to their clients.
The entrepreneurs were closed circuit, they met regularly, automation was evolving, people spoke to the other and word of mouth gave him growth. 95% of his initial 200 customers are still with them even after 18 years. Kamal says that focus on retaining customers used to be high on his radar than getting new sales and that has worked like magic with one client referring him to another and business grew. Because of his way of selling, the sales objections were never about the product but about the survivability, scalability of the small company which was easy to handle because of his family having established business in the locality and also gave good references. There were a couple of big triggers that he latched on to sell. One was the biggest resistance to change software inspite of the users not happy with the existing software is the migration of their data from the existing software to a new software. One customer gave them the chance and they worked hard to migrate data and they were successful, now they used this experience and went over to all those products customers, referenced their successful migration and converted many of them. The second trigger was Y2K and since most of the existing packages had Y2K issues except theirs , they were able to get lots of customers signing in.
Kamal talks about one mistake he did, which is expanding aggressively to multiple places without consolidating their presence in a few locations. He however, learnt fast and started fixing channel partners instead of having multiple offices and that helped him to sell better and also keep the costs low. Kamal advice to startup founders – There are three most important things a founder should have is 1) Passion – which drives you to do things you love to do, 2) Focus – which makes you stay on course and not change it for the sake of making quick money and 3) Integrity – will make sure that you don’t cheat anyone as it is a small world and people will get to hear about you soon either way.
La Exactlly Software (http://www.exactlly.com), today has 100+ employees with offices in India (Kolkata and Mumbai), UAE, OMAN, Singapore and Malaysia. They have more than 40000 users which includes includes fortune 500 companies like DuPont, Pioneer Inc., Lyondell Basel, Wuerth, Dubai DEWA and many more. Kamal contributes personally to the entrepreneur ecosystem by being a Charter Member of TiE Kolkata and also being the Chairman of Nasscom ERPC and the Steering Committee for Nasscom 10K startups.
Watch out for the story on how Kamal got his first customer for his ERP product in the next few days