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Gong’s Growth Journey: From Single Product to Multinational Success

Mark Lerner:

All right, everybody. Welcome to this episode of the RevAmp podcast. I am very, very excited by today’s guest, a very special guest, Shantanu from Gong, whom I had the opportunity to meet in person a few weeks back. So, we’re going to talk all about the amazing growth of Gong and some of the challenges that Ano has encountered from an operational perspective. Before we dive into all of that, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background, who you are, where you come from, and how you got to where you are today?

Shantanu Shekhar:

Well, thanks, Mark. Thanks for having me. Excited to be here, and it was good to meet you in person a few weeks ago. I’d say I probably talk about my own time at Gong, but even before that, I’ll probably go a few years back where, in a past life, I was a management consultant first. So that’s where I pretty much started my professional journey as a management consultant at Bain and Company. Worked a lot of big enterprise companies, helping them figure out their growth strategy. I feel like I learned a lot in those years just thinking about problem-solving, how to communicate, how to work with teams, and how to drive results. Phase two of my professional life was more just working in big tech. Spent five years on LinkedIn, and back then, we didn’t even have revenue operations as the name of the function. I think there were different functions coming together, but I got a chance to work across different pieces there.

Great learning just how Big Tech has tried to solve the problem of matching and mapping how customers get value while also driving a lot of clear processes and systems around how a go-to-market engine should run. So, it is very good for me there just in terms of learning all of that. And then about, this is about five years ago or four years ago now, when I figured I actually need to go in and learn a little bit more about how to help a little bit smaller organizations work. That’s when I moved into a small company called Nitro, which is about $50 million. ARR helped them drive their revenue operations and was there for about a year when Gong actually launched their EMEA office in Dublin. I had been a Gong customer twice, so it was almost a very, very strong, compelling pool to join them. I’ve been here for the last two and a half years, and I help drive go-to-market operations for Gong across our international markets.

Mark Lerner:

And I think probably everyone who’s listening and watching this episode has heard of Gong. It’s probably at least if not a customer has interacted with Don’s product, but that wasn’t the case not so many years ago. Go has seen. It’s one of the really big success stories I think that came out of the SaaS world, and I think it really got in front of everyone when a few years ago, I don’t remember how many now, gone had a commercial on the Super Bowl, which I think for a startup that was seen as like whoa, right? But Gong went from a single product, mostly in the US market, to a multinational multi-product, the very large company it is today. And so you’ve kind of seen that. I’d love to understand from your perspective when you joined what things were happening in that growth process, how you experienced that, and what some of the challenges you dealt with there were.

Shantanu Shekhar:

I think there’s a lot of great stuff to unpack from what you just said, Mark. Number one, I think Gong was very, very clear about the choices they make. There’s this book on Play to Win, which I really like. It talks about the framework of finding options for where to play, how to win, and eventually, your roadmap and executing it. And if I think about that, literally, to me, what that translates into is ensuring you have the right amount of focus. I think Gong did this really well in its initial days, even when Gong launched, even much before I joined, was really focused on getting its first play and I think really going deep into the US market, really making the, at that point what we call conversation intelligence stick as what the category but also really a product. And I think once that happened, there were three parts that gong some.

And if I think about those three parts, one obviously was going from being predominantly US-driven to an international company. Second, you mentioned going from single product to multi-product. I think it’s also a very interesting space if you are dealing with the revenue tech stack in general because there are so many different players moving across that value chain. And I think going from where we are to now, we’ve added forecast to the product and so on. And the third piece, if I think there’s international this product, but the third really big push, as well as how do you start thinking about your customer set, which segments they are in, and what size they are? And it’s going a little bit broader in that. So, all three have had their own share of learnings and challenges, but Gong didn’t try by focusing first on the smaller subset and then going big.

So let’s pick international first. Let’s use this as an example. And I think a lot of companies have tried this and succeeded in different ways. I think what Gong did really well was being very clear about, again, being focused on the markets you’re going to go into first. And we identify, okay, within, let’s say, Europe and APAC, there are a few English-speaking markets. Let’s start there first because you can translate your product a lot more closely. The way you sell is similar; the marketing requires you to translate. And again, you’re a marketer yourself. You’ve probably seen how you translate copy from market A to market B, so long as it’s 10

Standardized to a small extent, if it’s an English-speaking market, it’s relatively cleaner. And then, what do you think about us? We’ve invested a lot in the product. So we started building all those pieces and creating those waves, and our first focus was the UK. Now, we’re slowly starting to move on to other languages and so on as well. And I think the key there has been a very clear goal but also a very strong cross-functional effort to bring all of this together. And at the heart of it is people, right? If I think about anyone going big internationally, people are key in how you do this right. Because you need to hire a team, you’re transporting the culture; you’ve already got it at HQ into a new location.

Mark Lerner:

And let’s talk a little bit about that. So scaling a team is no feat. We recently published an interview with you, Gong, as a deal hub customer, and I think you mentioned something about a very large multiple increases in the sales team as part of that. So what were some of the key challenges you faced from an operations perspective and just the companywide perspective, and what were some of the things that you did to address those challenges?

Shantanu Shekhar:

Great. So, I think as we scaled, I think there were two big things that happened. The moment you scale, and again, you’re right, we’ve grown a lot where even our European setup, we just launched AMEA in 2022, it’s been about 2021 rather, I’m blanking on the year. It’s been about three years since we did the first big challenge, making sure the people are of the right quality. Second, you want to ensure both your processes and systems are scaling to actually be able to drive to the same piece. In fact, I dunno if you’ve read this book called The Culture Code, and it talks a lot about how to get results. You have to create a culture where people feel that they’re all contributing and working together. It’s actually fun. So, how do you scale that and get drive results? So, on the first one, just to get the people right, we made a very concerted decision about how to start hiring and scaling.

There’s a lot of research done about, ideally, your first international head that you hire outside HQ once; it could be from us to the outside or could be from a different country to another. You hire somebody who’s probably more of a general manager who can make a few sales, a little bit of marketing, a little bit of operation, and hopefully understand the product a bit. Again, I’m probably describing Unicorn here, but we really weren’t hiring that person, and that person was my boss at that point, Wendy Harris. And she really helped build and scale that culture up upfront. At the same time, the second side, I think, mentioned the processes and systems. It’s crucial to get that right because everything is the way we’ve been set up, and I can obviously go deep into the examples of how we coded or also, but if I even take that one level further, the way we set up territories, all of our CRM, everything had been set up to focus on the American market.

We have now started creating pieces for Let’s Go and Sell in the UK, Let’s Start Selling in Australia eventually, and so on. So, as we did that, we had to start looking at whatever worked in the US. Would it work? So there are certain pieces that may translate very easily, but then there are things around the territory size and the actual dollar quota per person. If you start, I mentioned quotes, if you have a process for SLA on how the deal desk operates on a code going through from the time a customer hopefully is going to be signing and you work backward from the end of the quarter, well we had to figure out how to really get admin permissions here where typically you would not have the same lag if you were in the us. So there were so many small pieces we had to figure out, and to do that, one very simple and tactical thing we did was we almost created a tiger team. I know there are people who don’t love that phrase, but I feel that it was very helpful. The Tiger team had representation from finance, operations, and somebody who represented sales as well. And when we got all of that together, we were able to very clearly identify; I wouldn’t want to be able to a blueprint, but a really clean workflow on what happens, when it happens, and who needs to change what from an AMEA lens and just creating that almost recurring views on what’s working, what’s not really helped scale that.

Mark Lerner:

Yeah, that’s super interesting. Yeah, I personally think the photo tiger teamed concept is super effective. I mean, that’s kind of where the concept of deal desk came from. So it’s like you get a bunch of people from cross-functional groups of people streamlines, there’s no broken telephone. So it sounds like you did that there was an established playbook blueprint for the US side, and you brought together a few stakeholders across the ocean to say, okay, this is the blueprint that worked there; what are the inputs that we need to look at on this side and what tweaks do we need to make to make it work here? So, was that like an acute phase, or is that an ongoing project that continuously meets and works on those things?

Shantanu Shekhar:

That’s a good point. So I think there was, let’s say, a higher concentrated upfront effort, but then there’s an ongoing, we almost have a monthly cadence of that still going on because, and again, those topics could vary, right? I’ll give you an example again; let’s stay with that. I talked about the discount or the coating process as an example. When we set it up initially, some of the big challenges we had were the rules or guidelines based on which, let’s say, our deal desk, our finance team, and eventually our CFO approve certain things you’re looking at things like billing terms, contracting terms, what are the pieces just standardized and if there are deviations, what’s allowed, what’s not. And especially in the last two years in the world where we’ve been, you talk to a company about a 30-day time lag between the sign and actual cash being paid out, that makes a big difference.

Or if you’re talking about someone who has a half-hour payout versus an annual payout, those kinds of changes, and what’s in line with what we would say is company policy versus not. So just defining all of that and then at that initial upfront piece, we’re like, okay, so what level of approvals do we parse out to the regions or, in this case, in our office here versus what needs to still be controlled centrally and what’s the impact to try and run that through? But then the recurring pieces that come in is, let’s say, maybe six months after we started selling, we’re like, okay, now we’re selling within Europe. We’ll soon have to sell not just in dollars, but there are customers who want to buy in pounds that potentially customers want to buy in euros. How do we think about that? And if we do currency conversion, what does that mean in terms of the rates that we’re using?

How does it go back and flow back into, again, I’m bringing the connections between the ops team and finance and deal desk is how does it go back to what finance might have on their budget and then how does that translate with the way the pricing team is thinking about pricing and discounting? The third thing that makes it even more complex is that there’s a culture around it. The cultural aspect is as you go to different markets, and again, I’m just giving a very generic example, but you could have certain markets in Europe that are going to always be more price-conscious versus, say, someone in the US or even the UK. So, how do you adapt your pricing accordingly? So those are all topics, some of which could be more structured, and we identify those pieces upfront, but there’s some stuff which we start learning as you start going to market and as you start having your first go and sell. And then I’ve not even gone to the post-sale side, which might have its own challenges.

Mark Lerner:

Yeah, hopefully, we’ll get there. But maybe going down a few levels deeper, some of those challenges of international expansion and as it relates to, letting’s say, the home office that’s in the US and used to a very certain thing when you talk about the structure of a deal, the legal terms, right? You have a very different legal landscape in Europe when it comes to software and things of that nature. And maybe I’m not super fluent in the individual idiosyncrasies of the different territories within the EU or the UK, but I would imagine that there needs to be unique terms and structures of agreements as they relate to those customers. How did that fit into the broader go-to-market across the company, and what was that kind of figuring out?

Shantanu Shekhar:

It’s a very good point because if I think about the legal guardrails for each country, and I think you hit the spot nail on the head there, mark, Mike, which is, I might take that one going to edit this. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, Mike. I think the challenge with legal guardrails and the way each country operates is just so unique. And I think Europe obviously has been at the forefront of GDPR and privacy laws and so on and so forth. We actually ended up doing two things. There’s almost one: How do you define what’s going to happen? Second, how do you enable the team to sell there? So essentially, what I mean by defining is you again pick and choose what top priority markets are, and we actually create documentation around it. So, making sure that if the legal rules within, let’s say, pick a Germany, for example, need you to be compliant on A, B, C, and D, is that the same as what’s happening in us?

What’s different? How are we set up against that and trying to make sure both our legal teams are set up? How do we work with our marketing team again to ensure we have the right information on our website? So somebody from, let’s say, Germany logs in and is able to see that second, you then start enabling the team. I think it’s crucial to ensure that the team starts understanding how to speak that language because, in the end, we are also probably selling to customers who will have teams in the same markets. Our product is so unique because you’re actually then getting access to some very confidential and sensitive potential data. So I would say that was a very strong focus, and I think any company looking to move from the US to Europe essentially, but even most international markets, there’s a lot of time probably spent with the legal team, and I think we were spending almost an hour a week just trying to figure that out.

Mark Lerner:

That was definitely where I was thinking because so fast forward a little bit, a gong went from this single product company, which was their call intelligence, expanded to a suite of products. And again, as you said, inherently, the product handles some data, things like that, that is very much more scrutinized, let’s say, in the European market and elsewhere. So, how has the introduction of those products been as you scaled? What were some of the inputs and challenges around being the international node during that launch and then from just supporting the go-to-market? What was that like?

Shantanu Shekhar:

Absolutely. I think the move from a single product to a multi-product is probably one of the biggest litmus tests that any company goes through because you’re essentially creating a second company within that company. And I think that’s something I’ve seen in a couple of places before as well. But if I pull it back to Gong when we launched, we were playing in this, and I’ll just draw out a value chain on the customer lifecycle. Let’s say we were talking about players who are in the initial prospecting space but in the middle, I’m calling it qualifying and close, where Gong was essentially on the initial conversation intelligence product. And then I’ll almost say there’s this entire piece around post-sales on the right. At the bottom of all of that is how you report, forecast, and work through that.

This entire value chain has, and I’ve not even gone to marketing tech stack because I know you’re very, very familiar with it, but if I think about in this bucket, there are thousands of systems, and the challenge that we’ve seen is a lot of these systems have been converging, and a lot of customers don’t even know how system A or product A is different from product B. So that’s market where we, and if I go back to two and a half, three years ago when we started moving across that landscape, you’re stepping into. So I think the three biggest challenges that we had to keep in mind while doing that, I think the number one piece, a very, very operational piece I’m coming to is how do you ensure that we have a skew which is set up and you’re able to figure out all the different elements and pieces that come with it because your pricing model might be different.

And I’ll just give you a very detailed example there. The way we priced our core product versus the way we priced our forecast product. Thankfully, in our case, they were both SaaS products; there are companies who’ve tried it, with one being SaaS and the other being consumption, which can be challenging. So, just making that decision clear, when that pricing comes in, do you start having bundles? How do you price that? So those are all very specific pure-related questions. And then for us trying to make sure that we can time how we build a skew on Salesforce, how do we connect that with everything on the CCP indeed Hub in this case and being able to then enable the team on how to use that was let’s say that was the first thing. The second big challenge, and this is more from just a product functionality perspective as well, is how you ensure that when you’re bringing two products together, you still want to maintain the same brand salience, which is part of the same product or the same company.

I believe Gong has done really well, but there are companies where you might bolt on a separate product, and there’s no connectivity between the two, in our case, one integrated workflow. So, you then see the benefits from a consolidated workflow perspective. The third big piece, which I think is a question that is even more pronounced in today’s world, is how do you ensure that you’re investing enough for growth in the new product while ensuring that you’re continuing to feed your core? That is very simple; it could be a simple budgeting problem, but it’s also a very strong resourcing problem. What percentage of time is everybody on the team going to spend keeping the lights on for the core product versus adding to it, or how much? So those are all things that are fun to answer from here. But I would say those are just three high-level pieces. There’s so much behind me behind that, there’s a lot of, I’m getting all of that right?

Mark Lerner:

Yeah, I go back to the way you described bringing on a new product after having a core product. I know you and I are both dads; it’s like the first thing that comes on, you have your first kid, and you bring them up, and then you bring home a new baby, and you want to make sure that you still give full attention to your firstborn, but you have a baby that needs help growing. So there are a lot of challenges with that. And we just had Father’s Day here in the US, so I guess that’s fresh on my mind. 

Shantanu Shekhar:

Happy Father’s Day

Mark Lerner:

As well. So I think somewhat of a kind of shifting the focus a bit here, but in order for Gong to have done what it’s done and done it so well, there needs to have been a certain level of flexibility and agility, right? There have been a lot of headwinds over the last few years that we’ve all seen, and especially with rapid growth, there’s often a need to be quick and efficient in implementing changes or processes. So, how important is being agile in your core focus and the team that you work with, and what part does it play in your strategy?

Shantanu Shekhar:

Great. So I think being agile is super important, and I think, again, I’ll bring rev ops; I think there are really two cores. One is making sure from a process side you’re set-up, and the second is from a system side; now we’ll go deeper into it. From a process side, I think having a very clear roadmap was very helpful. Again, we have a fantastic team in the rev ops team globally, and we’ve almost had a program management function set aside whereas you were launching multi-product, as you’re doing different things, we actually had somebody whose core focus was, okay, let’s get this right, let’s align all the different functions, need to work on it, let’s figure out what the problem is. If there’s someone who’s working on, let’s say, the CPQ change, somebody who’s working on enabling the team, there’s somebody who’s working on working with marketing on pricing, how do you bring all of those pieces together?

How do you work with the new product team within products? So that, I think, just building sounds very, very simplistic, but building those work plans, those timelines, those tasks, and sub-tasks that helped keep us in check and in line and ensure that we were going towards a certain end date. And that was super helpful. And how, again, do you communicate all that? The second piece, from a systems perspective, is that to be agile and nimble, you have to be almost ruthless in terms of what systems you have and what systems you don’t need. Because again, I love the analogy you got: if you have two kids, how do you ensure that you’re finding enough time and resources for both? It’s exactly the same. If you have to have X number of systems, are they actually adding value, or are you taking away value from yourself?

And in terms of being nimble and agile, and again, it was great that we have obviously deal hub, our CPQ; we have a few specific pieces we’ve picked in and work around that again with Gong and, let’s say, at the core of our tech stack. So, having that level of confidence in how we are set up is ensuring both our nimbleness and agility as a team. But the unintended consequence of having a very, I would say, reliable and working tech stack is this ensures we get less noise from our sales teams, and then the more efficient and effective the sales teams are, the less time you’re spending in fixing pieces and that gives us more time back. So that’s helped us be agile in a certain way as well. And again, I think our enablement team is really world-class, and that’s helped us really drive all of that together.

Mark Lerner:

Awesome. So in the last five minutes we have here, we talked a lot about Gong and its growth up until today. What do you think are some of the lessons learned through this journey and what’s the next thing?

Shantanu Shekhar:

I almost think of most; you can see I think of framework and three points quite often, but to me, the people, there’s the strategy, there’s a process, and finally, results. And I think if I think about that very simple thing about the learnings we’ve had on the people side, to me, talent is always my number one operating priority. If I think about it from my own, the way I approach it. But I think Gong has done it really well, where we’ve ensured we’ve hired the right people, especially as we’ve gone from one product to multiple, gone international, and gone across segments. I think that’s one very important learning to have. I think second, from a strategy and customer perspective, we’ve always been very, probably seen this as well as our customers, but I think we are very, very customer first the way we think about things and being able to really spend time in the last year, I’ve spoken to about one 50 plus customers myself, just trying to understand and learn how they have been doing it.

It helps their similar persona as me, but getting a chance to help that customer feedback feed into your strategy and being very, very focused on a few things done, I think, has been huge from a process standpoint, just having a very clear roadmap of what’s coming and then the results have been pretty much an outcome of those three pieces. So, if I think of what’s coming next, I always think about how Gong had been doing AI before AI became cool. It’s interesting that we talk about so many different new AI players coming in, but that is a very complex problem to solve in most cases and through our core product. And we’ve pretty much been, let’s say, the first real sales AI player. So, I’m very excited about a few things that we’re working on to continue that piece forward and the way we can help drive more efficiency as well as effectiveness for every seller out there. So that’s something I’m really looking forward to.

Mark Lerner:

Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. Is there anywhere the folks at home can maybe learn a little bit more about you, follow you on socials, or learn a bit more about Gong somewhere they can go?

Shantanu Shekhar:

Thanks, Mark. I think the best place for Mark is LinkedIn for me. Again, as an ex-Linkin employee, I’m very active on LinkedIn and very happy to connect and help share what I can even about Gong. I think we have a good team, and marketing’s focused on LinkedIn, so I think LinkedIn is a good place to work. Awesome. Can I turn both?

Mark Lerner:

Yeah. Thank you so much, and look forward to seeing you again soon.

Shantanu Shekhar:

My pleasure, mark. Thank you so much for it. Bye-Bye.