Taking on Tech Titans
How Startups Can Compete with Industry Giants
Few startups set out to compete with the biggest leaders in their respective industry. Even fewer attempt to compete with those leaders who happen to be among the biggest and most influential companies in the world.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, or that success for the challenger startups isn’t possible.
Greylock investor Sridhar Ramaswamy, who co-founded search engine startup Neeva, says it’s more important for startups to think about creating a product that is useful and resonates with people before worrying about whether a large incumbent is doing it.
“Creating a compelling product goes a heck of a longer way than simply worrying about, ‘Hey, is this going to be copied if we are successful?” says Ramaswamy, who joined Greylock in 2018 following 15 years at Google, where he ran the company’s massive advertising business.
But the key is to ensure your product has a strong differentiator, which is exactly how Ramaswamy and his Neeva co-founders positioned the search engine company when it launched last year. The company takes a starkly different approach than its closest competitor by offering ad-free, subscription-based search that does not track users’ internet activity. Given Ramaswamy’s history at Google, he had the unique vantage point to understand every aspect of the business – and how to build something differently.
Additionally, as Greylock general partner Reid Hoffman points out, competition from the big companies isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“If you get so relevant that they’re paying attention, that’s a happy place,” says Hoffman, who recently joined Ramaswamy on the Greymatter podcast to discuss the topic with Hoffman’s Blitzscaling co-author Chris Yeh.
What’s more, says Hoffman, most of the competition comes from fellow startups rather than the large incumbents.
“If you are working on something that tons of startups all think this is a valid area, you have to be fighting through an intense melee of equally motivated people who put it all on the line, work 100 hours, take big risks and other kinds of things, which is far more where your competition normally lies,” says Hoffman.
During the conversation, Ramaswamy, Hoffman and Yeh explored how startups can approach building a differentiated product, to identify different levels of competition, and how large incumbents view the challenger startups.
You can listen to the podcast here, and read the full transcript of the conversation below.
Hi, this is Chris Yeh, the co-author of Blitzscaling, and I’m delighted to be here today with my co-author Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and investor at Greylock Partners, along with a very special guest, Sridhar Ramaswamy, the CEO and founder of Neeva and a venture partner at Greylock Partners.
This is a pretty high-powered conversation, and we’re going to focus today on the very interesting question of how startups should behave when they’re competing with big companies.
So guys, starting off, founders who are looking for funding, maybe from a firm like Greylock, often will hear investors say things like, “Well, what if Amazon or Google or Microsoft or Facebook decided to enter this business?” Personally, I think it’s a lazy question, but I think the founders would appreciate hearing your thoughts about what it takes for a founder or a founding team to say, “I’m going to go after a large, dominant business.”
What does someone need to do or think or believe to take on these giants with competence? Is it market understanding, is it experience, is it a particular set of personality traits? Reid, why don’t you start?
We could spend the entire hour, both Sridhar and I, answering this one question, but I suspect we’re going to have a few others, so we’ll have to be succinct.
There’s a couple of things to open with. So one is, organizations, generally speaking, have the same number of top-line priorities, whatever their size are. So whether or not they are a 10-person startup or a 100,000-person behemoth, it still has a focus at a party.
So one of the questions that you start out with is not Is the company doing this, but is it in their top-line priorities? Because if it’s not on their top-line priorities, a bunch of other things usually apply in startups, so you’re totally focused, you’re using speed, you’re using something else.
Now, that is actually most often the answer. The most common scenario is you are talking about something like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and or Apple. And sure, they have a group somewhere that’s working on it, might even have a deployed product, but that group is not within the main organizational priorities for what’s happening.
Now, if that’s the case – unless there’s some specific thing – it’s usually still a matter of, “Hey, look if there’s a good go-to-market strategy, if there’s a good something, then that works.”
Now, that being said, sometimes it is an area of structural interest. But sometimes, the startup is actually competing with something that’s core business. And if it’s core business, you have to be very good at having a structural answer to it. This is a class concept from Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, that there’s something deeply structural that’s different about what you’re doing.
Because if you don’t actually, in fact, have that structural difference, all of the advantages that an incumbent has can then apply. Whether or not it’s trying to do productivity software with Office, or trying to do e-commerce with Amazon, et cetera. You have to say, “Well, why is it that all of this massive amount of investment, position, customers, retail position, capital, talent, and all the rest, is all oriented in this direction?” Why is your thing radically different? And that can still be done then, but you have to have a deep answer to that question.
And in a sense, it’s so radically different. In some ways, it doesn’t even really count as competition. Because it’s like, “Well, if this is true, then it’s just something very different.” Now, that’s sometimes a little facile, because like in the innovators’ dilemma, it’s the, “Well, I actually have a new technology for doing hard drives, and it’s a totally different kind of thing.” And on that new basis, they’re actually buying a new kind of thing, and they’re not buying the old hard drives.
So that is competition, but sometimes it’s so different, that it counts as something different. And with that, I will hand over the opening question, also, to Sridhar.
Thank you, Reid. I think Reid actually hit it on the nail.
I personally think that most startups should worry first about creating something that’s just really useful that people will pay for, or people will adopt. Yes, they should be worried subsequently about, “Is this just a feature that someone else is doing?” But even in recent times, sure, Facebook copied some Of Snap’s features, Snap is doing fine.
I think having a new insight into what it is that people want and creating a compelling product goes a heck of a longer way than simply worrying about, 'Hey, is this going to be copied if we're successful?'
Remember, you got to be successful, that’s a great place to be. Most companies don’t get there.
That would be my first answer.
The second one is, I think this applies both to startups, but honestly, also to big companies. If they are taking on problems that the other company is really, really, really good at, then they better have a strong differentiating thing.
Of course, we thought a lot about this with respect to Neeva, our ad-free search engine start-up. We thought about the point that, in some sense, they’re [competitors] are not really playing that game. But the business principles are very different. Our foundational assumption is very different. That lets us stand out, it hopefully gives us time to create that rabid fan base of users.
So then you look at other examples, I don’t know, Microsoft Bing Search, Google doing social and so on and so forth. And you go back and look, there is not enough of a strong differentiator. Leads do matter, and companies do need to think about the fact that if they’re going to take on someone that is very good at what they’re doing, what is your special insight? What makes it a strong differentiator?
So one of the two cases generally apply. But as I said, I think it’s in my humble opinion, worrying about the very large trillion-dollar companies copying your idea at each point is like the thousandth priority for most of these companies. That’s not your worry.
I would add to what Sridhar is saying by saying, look, most often … they’re not even battleships, they’re like complete Armada fleets, these massive companies. And if you get so relevant that they’re paying attention, that’s a happy place. Like they go, “Oh, that’s something we should add-in, that’s something we should copy or do.” You’re generally speaking in a pretty strong place.
And so my own approach to how VCs, and as you were saying Chris, a lazy answer, say, “Oh, my God – You might be competing with that big company!” That’s actually, in fact, an advantage to be thinking about it.
Just like many other things that are part of being contrarian: the competition isn't so often the large companies as it is lots of small companies.
So tons of startups all think this is a valid area, you have to be fighting through an intense melee of equally motivated startups who put it all on the line, work 100 hours, take big risks and other kinds of things which is far more where your competition normally lies. If you have a relatively open clean field because a whole bunch of startups go, “Oh, because big company X won’t be here,” that actually gives you an interesting entrepreneurship opportunity and an interesting investment opportunity, both of which require an active mind.
And by the way, you do have to answer the question. Like, how is it you’re going to actually create something new and delightful and magical to make this happen? That has to be part of your investment thesis.
What I’m hearing from you both, is that of course, it’s really important to build something compelling that users are going to love, are either going to pay for or use successfully. But it’s also really important when you’re going up against one of these big entrenched incumbents to have what you described, Reid, as an active mind. To really think carefully about where the difference is coming from, how you’re able to really convert, to turn things over or do things in a very different way so that you’re not competing head-to-head with that big giant problem.
Yeah, absolutely. And part of the question is, when you think about it, is not just think about it in terms of product, which is, of course, relevant, deeply, or service. But also think about it in terms of business model. And also think about it in terms of go-to market. Because each of these things could be the kind of thing which is in that proverbial fruit comparison: apples and oranges. They’re both fruit, but they’re very different in terms of how they operate.
All of these early-stage companies, you’re taking a risk on a bet; a bet of a future market, a bet on what demand will look like, a bet on how this will evolve. But sometimes you’re taking a bet that says, “Okay, this is a way of doing it.
Now, for example, in the very early days of LinkedIn, there weren’t any real comparable products, but the market generally thought it should be a corporate product. So the vast majority of our competitors thought, “Well, who owns the address book of a professional? It’s the company that they happen to be working at.” Therefore, the relationships around it and the natural products that come out of these things are essentially like sales products or other kinds of things. And that’s a Salesforce thing, versus individuals navigating their own life.
Now that’s part of where we were being contrarian ( and then later, correct), on doing it. And that’s a good test for thinking about it, Where is your contrarian thesis? That if you turn out to be right, you have something very interesting.
Now, we’ve been speaking a lot about entrepreneurs who start right from the beginning, knowing they’re going to be competing against one of these giant companies. But sometimes you don’t start off competing against the incumbent. It’s something that happens. You achieve your initial success, which as we’ve described is much to be desired, but then incumbents come in, they start creating copycat products.
For example, when Clubhouse built this social audio product, it got a lot of attention. All of a sudden, here comes Facebook and Twitter and even LinkedIn quickly jumping in with competing products and then ultimately Spotify as well. So as a founder, how should you respond to this competitive effect? You’ve achieved some initial success, but now a large incumbent has said, “You know what, you got a nice product, but it’s really a feature of what we’re doing.” And Sridhar, why don’t you start off with this one?
I mean, I do think this is something founders have to take very seriously: that a feature you do or a whole company that you have, as in the case of Clubhouse, becomes a feature of an existing product. It’s a massive distribution advantage. In the case of Facebook and Twitter, and LinkedIn, they reach a lot of users.
Hindsight is always 20/20. I’ll be the first person to admit it, but to me, it was really important, as Clubhouse was experiencing growth, that it also started doing features that would ensure levels of lock-in, and at least some sides of the marketplace of people and ideas that it was created.
Take, for example, rather than focus all on growth, as Clubhouse was doing, they also somehow were another case of a startup founder that’s trying to do 20 things, so I have a great amount of sympathy for people at Clubhouse trying to do this. They had done other features like, “Hey, support creator monetization.” So all of a sudden, it was not going to be the case that if I as a creator were making actual money from actual people, sure, I can do something in a space somewhere else. But to my loyal followers, they were not going to follow immediately.
So I do think once you get a degree of scale, you have to think about, What are the lock-in mechanisms? How are you bringing the ecosystem along? Open competition is great, but if you want to create value, you have to figure out, What are the things that you can create that are harder to copy? I personally think that Clubhouse stayed in this open model of honing and user growth for just a little too long. I think a dash of monetization done well, even if done imperfectly, would have made this a very different game in my opinion. We’re seeing a lot more of these, I’d love to hear what Reid thinks.
Well, one of the things that Sridhar was highlighting, and I’ll just also highlight before I go into the other points, is that there are multiple elements to what structural differentiation can be. Obviously one of the things we talk a lot about within Silicon Valley is network effects as a differentiator – and there are a lot of different kinds of network effects and things I call strong and weak and much other things, and not all networks have network effects and all that, so it’s sometimes used very loosely.
But they look at that lock-in. By the way, there’s a lot of different forms of that lock-in. There’s a lock-in that can come from growth and speed, there’s a lock-in that can come from engagement, there’s lock-ins that can come from tying the loop on a business model and economics, because if you do that or you tie it to any of the other things that can also be a structural advantage.
Obviously sometimes you want lock-ins that say, “Well, you can command a price point or an operating margin that’s hard for competitors to do.” It’s part of the reason why people like network effects as a way of doing this.
And so, all of those things come into how you think about it.
Now, some of it is also a question of what you’re doing. So part of the reason why I was supportive of the LinkedIn effort in this is because LinkedIn doesn’t try to be Clubhouse, which was doing lots of things. And part of the thing that I think you could add to what Sridhar was saying is, Clubhouse could be saying also like, “What are the things that we have gotten this intense traction on? What are the things that resonate? Which communities, which dialogue, which kind of thing, which set of a role in people’s lives or work as they might be?”
And when I was looking at the Clubhouse staff and LinkedIn was saying, “Hey, there’s a space for us to do it.”
For the business discussion, how do we do business better – which is central to LinkedIn’s brand promise, LinkedIn network, LinkedIn identity – I actually thought there were some in Clubhouse, and Clubhouse obviously wants to be everything in audio. But it was actually not broadly in the zone there. And so, Clubhouse could say, “Look, we’re X, Y and Z, and we continue to double down on this, and we continue to grow this.” And even if you thought, “Well, okay, LinkedIn is or is not a threat to this area of our grand ambition.” You could be still doing that because you’re focused on what’s actually growing and what’s actually developing as a way of doing it.
Now, that’s not necessarily the case because Facebook, et cetera, probably has an aspiration to be all audio conversation, just as all picture conversation or all other conversations, so you have a more of a direct thing there, unlike LinkedIn.
On the other hand, of course, you could be saying, “Well, this is the reason why a whole bunch of people adopted us.” And that initial network, that initial group, initial traction in terms of what’s happening, what we need now to do is tie them in.
One could be the economic model that Sridhar was gesturing at, another could be engagement stuff with this particular group, because once you get that engagement, maybe you start getting that form of network effect and then people say, “Well, I go to Clubhouse for this, and I go to Facebook for this other thing.” And that’s the kind of thing you have to look at.
It’s good, generally speaking, when you are the entrepreneur building these things, and you think this kind of competition might be coming. If you ever loosely thought about, “Well, we could try X or we could do Y, or we could do this,” that doesn’t mean you have to have an exact plan, but some maneuverability in case you end up in that circumstance.
It really does remind me of one of the principles we talked about at Blitzscaling, which is the fact that it’s really an iterative process, even if you began with a highly differentiated product. When other people say, “Well, gee, that looks nice, let me try to do something similar.” You have to circle back and once again, iterate and find new means of differentiation, new means of lock-in, as you described, it’s never something where you could just rest on your laurels.
As part of that iteration, one of the key advantages that startups have is focus and speed, and sometimes big companies do that. Especially when it’s some core to the thing that is then the limited set that the absolute top executive rank and CEO is doing. But more often than not, the startup has an enormous advantage here.
One of the reasons why the startup has that advantage, as you put it, is that focus, that nimbleness, and that’s something we sometimes see in the movies. I often joke that everyone really has their view of the world controlled by the movies they see.
And I think it’s ironic that today, we were just having a conversation with the great J.J. Abrams, who has been responsible for Star Wars, Star Trek, and all these other things. And when you think about Star Wars, it’s often the case if you have a rebel alliance that defeats the evil empire or a first order, and that’s something that happens in the movies, but we also see it in real life.
But why does it happen? Why there’s these vulnerabilities? Like what we saw in The Force Awakens. Once again, they build a giant battle station with a thermal exhaust port that’s vulnerable.
So what are some of the ways that startups are able to win these battles? What are some of the things that the incumbents do?
So I guess I’ll start with this one, and then hand it over to Sridhar. I was always talking about focus and speed as a key thing, but especially when they’re not in the short priority list for the overall company. But some of the other things also tend to be risk tolerance: which risks are you willing to take? What kinds of things are you willing to experiment with? Existing businesses have a bunch of customers who demand certain things, demand an SLA, don’t want to take certain risks as a way of doing it. That’s another thing that startups have an advantage on. They’re also capable of trying something that could blow themselves up, like it just doesn’t work, and that’s okay, as part of doing that.
Then the very last one I’ll say before I hand it over to Sridhar is, generally speaking, consumers in the B2C side like the new, they like the underdog, they like it, they’re willing to try it out, they want to give it a shot, they want to see if it could be that thing. And I think that sometimes in those areas, that also gives startups at least an initial experimentation advantage.
To add on what he’s saying, you can look at this from a few perspectives. One is purely at the level of a business model that Neeva has tried to do. Just a dramatically different model, dramatically different starting point that you can see just leads to a different place. But that’s one thing.
Something else also happens but doesn’t come up that often. I think you also have to be lucky to find the right point in time where these kinds of models are actually a problem. And to me, a much more common occurrence is looking at the structure of how a well-placed incumbent operates. And using that to create a new structure or a dramatically simpler structure that addresses a different segment.
So, for example, you know that there are a few companies that are looking at the current state of [Microsoft] Office and the current state of even Google Docs and going, “Well, why don’t they have a sheet under doc and a presentation, and something else, let’s just visualize them as a single thing. It’s not that hard, is it?”
Similarly, Google Docs, of course, ironically, started out because the web was a differentiator. So you could deliver services even faster. Similarly, mobile created opportunities for a bunch of people. So anytime you have one of these structural scenes that a startup can dive into – but you have to make progress quickly enough or the incumbent is going to use their advantage and say, “Oh, nice feature little one, I’ll do that as well.” So I think these are the different ways.
Sometimes dramatic simplifications can also help because you go after a niche, that’s classic innovation, where you go after a niche, much larger market, and boom, in time you take up a lot of it.
So you see Android and even iOS take off in these areas because people basically didn’t think of these as interesting at the time that they came out. But with all the security brouhaha, I will only predict that there will be place for a new, simpler, secure phone that we don’t have to constantly worry it’s going to get hacked. So that’s an example of a scene that we can see and take advantage of.
Wow, this is pretty cool, because now we are actually heading out, for free, potential, multi-billion dollar opportunities. This is the kind of thing you can only get on the Greymatter Podcast, my goodness.
So, Sridhar, you brought up Neeva. And I want to dive deeper into Neeva for a sec, you’ve already referenced it. But what’s fascinating about Neeva to me is that it completely upends and reverses the traditional search engine business model – which, by the way, you helped build while you were at Google. So instead of selling advertising, which is how all search engines have been funded for decades now, you actually provide a subscription to secure a private search. So how did you arrive at this model that’s so counter-intuitive, and how does it help you compete?
So at a core level, my co-founder Vivek and I said we wanted to work on search, we love it. Even though we were very much a part of it, Vivek has had many celebrated launches for search ads. His stuff in the search ads team and the YouTube ads team that we had is the stuff of legends. He was a rock star when he joined after PhD into that team. But we both said, “This model has played itself out.”
The only way, it turns out, you can make money in an ads model if you don’t have increase in users – which is not happening because smartphone sales are flat, or your users are searching more, which is not happening, but it turns out, that’s not one of the hardest things for Google or any search company to change in terms of human behavior. The only way you end up making more money is by charging advertisers more. And they begin to rebel after a while, and the final option that’s left is you can put up more ads. So I think we’re into the final stages of ads monetization for search.
And so, either looking for that special spark, what lets us imagine a product that is dramatically different, that users would love, and that leads us to think about an option that was paid by the users. We think this is the model, because our take was on the fact that it was 20 years in, but the score search experience had degenerated enough, and then the ads model itself has played itself out so much that there is real fatigue with ad loads, ads tracking and all of that. All of these culminated into our idea that Neeva was going to be paid by the customers, and that was going to be the business model.
And honestly, I’ve learned a lot more about subscriptions in the last two years, and I’ve gone back and tied into things like, “Hey, how did Netflix innovate? How did HBO innovate?” These innovators are pretty large incumbents.
And funny story, “How did Costco innovate?” Costco, it turns out, is the ultimate subscription engine. They don’t actually make any money off of the stuff they sell. They make money on your annual subscription. And they have a ridiculous 91% renewal rate year after year. And so that is power to the model.
But we started with, “How do we create a product that delights you? And the only way we could be guaranteed that they could keep doing that, have that as the focus is by saying, “Oh, you make it low cost and how do you pay for it?” It’s still counterintuitive, but there’s lots of indications within the product itself, that you can use this to make a much better experience, and that’s the journey of Neeva. Apparently, this works in an enterprise space, I think the fact that we’re trying this in a core consumer space is also both a challenge, plus a pretty exciting innovation.
Sridhar laid it out (not surprisingly) very well. The thing I would add as an investor is that you look at this and you said, “Well, this had magic and surprise and delight to consumers.” And most people have become so inured on the volume and quantity and all the rest of the advertising, and say, “Oh, it doesn’t really bother me.” But when you get to doing searches, like travel searches, and trying to figure out something about what’s happening, or any of these areas where the advertising model is pushing all the organic below the fold and isn’t really optimizing the organic, it makes you realize that it’s actually, in fact, that the structural model is not as it were on your side. And that’s where you can find magic and delight.
Part of when you’re looking at this – because of the underpinning of the general questions is, “How do you get something that can surprise and delight?” In this case, you want to surprise and delight consumers, but also, by the way, I would apply B2B and enterprise here as well, but in both cases, that’s part of when you go, “Okay, if we pull this off and make it work, like Neeva is doing within a search that’s oriented to you and for your needs, because you’re the payer … And that, obviously, includes privacy and data and a bunch of other things and that, that’s actually part of the reason why there’s a thought that there’s something structurally important here, that a lot of people will care about.
And one of the words that you didn’t say, Reid, but which kept flashing into my mind, as you were speaking, is the concept of trust.
So it feels like what’s happened is the evolution of the advertising model in search that Sridhar has described has gradually eroded the trust that the consumer has, that you’re going to present content that is the most relevant to me. And that’s ironic because, of course, that’s what originally drove Google’s success, which is that its search engine delivered the best results, and its ads were clearly marked off from the rest, and therefore, consumers could trust the results.
And it’s fascinating to me because what this represents is that, yes, there’s all these fancy forms of lock-in that you can describe, the network effects in various strategic forces, but at the end of the day, all of those are based on the behavior of individual users making individual choices about what they’re going to use.
If they decide they no longer trust the product, they may very well be open to an alternative. And that’s where the other thing I think that you’ve done over Neeva is very smart comes in, which is you use one of the key tools that we’ve talked about, in this case, which is freemium. People can try Neeva for free for three months. It’s one thing to ask people to start paying right away, and maybe they decide, “Oh, I don’t want to pay,” and they don’t experience magic. But there’s no reason for anyone not to try it, it’s three months free, you don’t ask for a credit card, and so you give them a chance to develop that magic and say, “You know what, I pay for Netflix, I pay for Amazon Prime, I pay for Costco, and every year 91% all the time, it’s just five bucks, six bucks a month. Why not?”
Chris, you’re showing your background as a marketer.
And for what it’s worth, Chris, the impact especially that I like to think of is always seeing only new things. Nothing, in fact, has been done ever before. But it turns out, this kind of ad model cycles have played themselves out at least three times. The FDA was created in response to actual snake oil salesmen. They were all these mails that used to go out to people that promised these magical cures and the FDA was set up so that people could not promise nonsense.
Similarly, we all remember the time of network TV, where we would watch TV because watching it live was the only option, and then what was a minute of ads became a minute and a half and two minutes and three minutes. Remember, it went all the way up to 22 minutes of programming and eight minutes of ads. That’s when they said, “Hey, we can take a five-minute bathroom break in between every program.” And the DVRs came, and that led to HBO or Netflix. I see what’s going on in advertising today. As a natural cycle where the ads model has played itself out, it’s super aggressive. I think it’s also been increasingly hard to tell what ads are and that’s misleading. And I think that sets the stage for a company like Neeva if we can create an amazing product.
Yeah, and I think part of the trust question is part of why you can trust businesses. You can trust them to be very rational actors of economics. And so when you say, “Well, what the real important thing is that the business is responsive to me.” That’s like, “Okay, well, do you have the ability to be their customer for that?”
And I think that’s one of the innovations; that iterating in terms of quality and search results and the fact that on a bunch of areas where advertisers are paying to get you to pay attention to them, which I don’t know, what’s the search result that matters to you is the kind of thing that Neeva is doing.
Now, what’s interesting when you’re battling one of these larger companies is that there’s two basic approaches that you can take. One is to stay under the radar, and grow in the background until the point at which it’s too late for them to do something about it.
The other is to be loud, or even confrontational. And we can think of examples of that. Marc Benioff, when he first started Salesforce.com was taking out advertisements, and things on the software side and things like that. And I guess the question would be, how do you decide which of these approaches to take? When is it a better idea to stay under the radar and when is it a better idea to pick a fight?
Yeah, I’m middle of the road here. Because I’ve worked at Google for so many years and as such a big part of it. And I have so many of my close friends work there then and work there now and outside. And to a certain extent, I see where Google is today as a natural consequence of the model and not some evil plan that someone came up with. So it’s really important for me personally, that I keep this whole thing respectful, and stay as an option.
But the one thing that I’ll tell you, Chris, is that a startup needs to not be picky about how it gets attention. And so you have to roll with the punches. Do I like every headline that comes out about Neeva ‘going after’ Google? No, but that’s the prize for making sure that people know about the product, but especially in 2021, I am a strong believer in civil discourse, and so we very much stick to that, and I think that’s part of what we expect, even at Greylock. That part is important to me, but I think startups have to take that attention where they go.
Well, I do think that as a marketer, as Reid described earlier, I always tell people, “All attention is good attention unless it involves a perp walk, so try to get attention.”
Well, it’s a bold way to make the principal.
What I would add to what Sridhar said, and I think it’s generally speaking, is that what Sridhar has indicated is the right general way of doing these things. Sometimes, if you have that opportunity, staying quiet, as long as you can, just so you can work out and get the learning curve ahead, that’s great. And then generally speaking, when you go noisy, you go noisy for a reason.
There are some important things, now, as Sridhar was mentioning, sometimes the noisiness is thrust upon you, and you don’t have much choice, and you try to navigate it with integrity and aplomb, as Sridhar has been doing.
You can’t always speak to the results, because you’re like, “Look I’m just trying to say, hey, I’ve got this other idea. Google has this amazing thing, has done all these things. I’ve got this other idea, there’s also a good thing in the mix, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Sometimes you have to tell the David and Goliath story, and sometimes you make that as part of your story, whether it's for consumers or for the market or for investors, or for regulators or for anything else. And sometimes you have to go through the press. Sometimes you have to go bold that way. And in each case, it's a choice.
Got it. So in other words, what you’re going to do is you’re going to sometimes split between these two, you don’t always have a choice, but when you do have that choice, make that choice with an intention in mind, with a reason behind it.
We stayed pretty quiet for the first 15 odd months of Neeva, because we just wanted to focus on creating the product. There was not much reason to talk a whole lot more about it. But once we got out of stealth, it actually didn’t make sense to be quiet afterwards.
And I also was able to take the confusion out of talking to a lot of friends like Reid and Jessica Powell who’s an advisor, used to work with Google, their general feedback was, “Hey, this is going to be positioned as David and Goliath. And no amount of shirking away from it is going to change the story. Go into it, be thoughtful, act with integrity, but take it. Don’t pretend that that’s not going to be the case, that’s the thing that generates the headlines, that’s the thing that’s going to generate the attention that you need to get people to try the product, embrace it.” And so that’s the balance that I’ve been trying to strike.
Exactly. Because the narratives that are out there, are out there. You don’t get to control what the narratives are, but you do get to have influence over those narratives. And it sounds like that’s what you’ve been doing.
So we’ve been spending most of the day taking on the perspective of the entrepreneur, which is logical, because you’re both entrepreneurs, and, Sridhar, you’re in the middle of it right now. But I want you to also now think about those times when you’ve been operating inside these large companies. And there have been these annoying scrappy startups nipping at your heels, barking like little dogs, trying to take away your business. I want you to channel your stormtrooper now and say, “Okay, how do you think and talk and worry about these upstarts who are trying to take your lunch when you are eating?”
What a setup, Chris. I think that, literally, every metaphor that you used on this setup are metaphors that I would not normally embrace for answering in the first person.
But even having that as an initial setup, what I would say is this: in any company I do work with, including large ones (I’m on the board of Microsoft, LinkedIn, et cetera is), is ask “What’s your investment thesis? What’s the way that you are earning the love, the trust, the attention, et cetera, and what’s your thesis?”
Now, if they’re contending with you for your thesis, then it’s like well, “Can you be better? Can you be better at the quality of product service? Can you be better at the go-to-market? Can you be better at it?” And sometimes it’s a fight and you’re learning from them, and you’re enjoying the fight.
If the thesis is different, then you say, “Well, my general point of view is, let it play out.” If you end up being, “Oh, boy, that’s a lot more important than I thought.” Then you can buy and say, “Hey, let’s add that in because he will show up.” But not to try to dilute your own thesis, your own theory of the game, your own way of saying, “This is the magic that we’re providing to our customers, to our ecosystem.” And so you make that choice actively, and you do not get distracted by what other people are doing other than if they provoke you to say, “Oh, I should change it.” Because they’ve actually clearly demonstrated something of the market that I didn’t really fully understand and hopefully at that point, I can still buy but sometimes it doesn’t play out that way.
I guess what I’ll say, Chris, is that I think the successful companies today – the Googles, the Facebooks, even the Microsofts of the world – have incredibly smart people that have learnt all of the lessons of the ’80s and ’90s. We got an extensive amount of training early on from Eric who had seen this about what kind words we should never say so that we did not attract unwanted attention. And so a whole bunch of words were banished because we knew that would come if these things happen.
But we look very closely at every competitor. I used to run monthly, hours-long competitive analysis sessions where incredibly smart people spent hours telling us things like “How has Facebook done XYZ well? Why did we not do well? Why were they winning? How do we need to change the message?”
So I think these companies still are very, very good at competing, and they do it with real intelligence.
Second, you can’t fight every single thing. There are cases where I will tell my team, “It’s fine, let them succeed. You can’t go take everybody’s lunch. They’re just going to get you into more trouble.” That’s why we’re actually trying to be thoughtful about this. I learnt about how Facebook competed, because I’ve been in conferences with a bunch of tech Facebook heads, product heads, marketing heads and so on after leaving Google, and they were just as scared of Google as we were, often.
And so, I have a lot of respect for how competitive and driven – and paranoid – these companies are. For the first, more or less 10 years of my stay at Google, every time I would meet with a brand new person that joined my team, I would walk around the same Google campus and tell them, “You know, Silicon Graphics used to own these buildings, you recognize the purple.” And I’ll tell them, “There’s a history lesson for you here, don’t get very comfy.”
And I can think to myself that if you’re a startup founder, you’re competing with a large company and you’re thinking to yourself, “Boy, I’m glad that I don’t currently have to worry about Sridhar or Reid spending 10 hours figuring out how best to compete with me.” Although, again, as you point out, there’s a lot of other smart people in those places.
Well, gentlemen, any final thoughts you’d like to share with the listeners before we turn in for the day?
Only in counter to your earlier metaphor, Sridhar and I are now part of the Rebel Alliance, not the Empire.
Fair enough, Reid, I will expect that you’ll have a purple lightsaber, like Mace Windu, and be ready to go.
We love innovation. I’m also an investor at Greylock. We love the amazing companies that we work with. We feel very fortunate that we are still meeting dozens, if not hundreds, of great companies still making a difference. And these are incredibly exciting times.
Well, Reid and Sridhar, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedules to share some of this wisdom with the Greymatter listeners.