Rajiv Lamba: Market Research Expert, SaaS Learning Curve & Parenthood Advice - E150

· Founder,Start-up,Singapore,Thought Leaders,Podcast Episodes English

My advice to founders without a brand name is to think about differentiation, think of a story. What makes your story compelling? Why should I buy from you? How are you different from other big brands? Why should I believe you? That story, I believe, makes a big difference. The more you practice that story and personalise it in less than 30 seconds. That’s something I will tell a lot of founders and even my team when they join from big organisations – how can you sell your story and product in 30 seconds? - Rajiv Lamba

An established Market Research expert and a known face amongst Asian clients, Rajiv Lamba holds an invaluable accumulative experience of more than 20 years in the field of market research spanning across the FMCG segment and with proven records of building ‘Quality Leaders for Tomorrow’

Rajiv founded Neurosensum in 2018 which led to an impressive transformation in the world of market research by combining conventional methods with a neuroscience-based approach. A year later, with an intent of making consumer insights real-time and affordable for enterprises, Rajiv also built an AI-Enabled Customer & Employee Experience Measurement and Improvement Platform called Surveysensum that analyzes customer feedback and any unstructured data in real-time, enabling enterprises to get meaningful insights at an affordable price in no time.

A truly positive person who considers his employees as the biggest asset, Rajiv has pioneered the use of Neuroscience and Artificial intelligence for consumer research in Asia and continues to empower innovative solutions to create customer-centric mindfulness.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey, Rajiv, good to have you on the show.

Rajiv Lamba: (00:32)
Hi, Jeremy, thanks a lot for inviting me.

Jeremy Au: (00:34)
I’m excited to hear your thoughts on consumer research and how you are tackling it from a startup perspective. For those who don’t know you yet, could you introduce yourself?

Rajiv Lamba: (00:45)
Sure. My name is Rajiv Lamba. I’m based in Singapore and run a startup called Neurosensum which was started in 2018. I had my first exit in 2017 in a research firm. In 2018 when we started Neurosensum, we started with neuroscience based consulting to read the subconscious mind of the consumers. What they don’t say, we started understanding through brain-mapping, eye-tracking, facial coding methodology. Over time, we launched one more brand called Surveysensum for people who can not afford consulting services, those who want faster real-time consumer responses.

Jeremy Au: (01:34)
Awesome. How did you start becoming a founder?

Rajiv Lamba: (01:40)
It goes back to 2011, I’ve been in the consumer research for more than 17 years. I joined a small boutique market consulting firm. That was my first experience of a startup. I expanded the company into Indonesia, Vietnam, as well as the Middle East, and exited in 2017. I already knew what a startup looks like, how to scale a startup. I left in 2018. My concept was to bring acknowledgment in the field of consumer research and that’s why we started Neurosensum and Surveysensum.

Jeremy Au: (02:22)
Let’s zoom in on that, did you always want to be an entrepreneur and founder?

Rajiv Lamba: (02:31)
There was no thought of becoming an entrepreneur or founder. One of my friends was running a firm in Indonesia, he invited me to join the firm. I trusted him a lot. I was young, why not give it a try, let’s see how it’s like working in a smaller company. That’s how my journey started. Over time, I learnt a lot in the last 10-11 years and a beautiful journey of entrepreneurship.

Jeremy Au: (03:04)
What was the difference between working at a brand name, large company, and a startup? What did you have to learn and what did you have to unlearn?

Rajiv Lamba: (03:22)
There are two or three things that help you when you work in a big organisation. The first is that everybody knows the name, so it’s not difficult to get business; it’s very easy to pull in revenue, it’s relatively easy to get business. You don’t have to worry about setting up a HR team, a finance team, operations team, and so on. When I went to Kadence, it was a very different story. From a very big organisation to a very small organisation. There, I learnt about setting up the finance department, putting on a sales hat, developing the business and creating the team at the same time. The big difference was that you have to wear multiple hats at the same time. You learn how to multitask. You read a lot you mingle with more people. That’s the difference between working in a big organisation vs small organisation.

Jeremy Au: (04:21)
What did you have to learn in order to sell better?

Rajiv Lamba: (04:25)
I think a lot of things. You learn how to pitch yourself as a differentiated company. When you go to clients, within the first five minutes…even the first minute makes a difference. How are you different from a big organisation, why do they have to choose you? Why should I even talk to you? I think your pitching becomes much sharper. That’s something I had to learn. I had to learn that there’s no big brand behind my back. I had to go and build my own story/products/people/tools that I’ve created or am creating. Second was learning about setting up systems as your startup moves up to the next level. What are the functions of the HR department, setting KPI for HR department, building up a finance team, looking at financial angles, evaluating your own cashflows, balance sheets, cash is king, that’s something I learnt al lot during the startup time. Setting up processes, setting up teams was something I had to learn. Multitasking, I had to learn a lot. While in Nielsen, I was focusing in one area, suddenly, I went to a startup, I had to wear multiple hats, and you had to learn really fast, you don’t have time.

Jeremy Au: (06:00)
That’s interesting. I remember I used to be at Bain and the brand could sell itself. What advice would you have for founders regarding sales without a brand?

Rajiv Lamba: (06:20)
I think my advice to founders without a brand name is to think about differentiation, think of a story. What makes your story compelling, why I should buy from you, how are you different from other big brands, why I should believe you. That story, I believe, makes a big difference. The more you practice that story and personalise it in less than 30 seconds. That’s something I will tell a lot of founders and even my team when they join from big organisations – how can you sell your story and product in 30 seconds?

Jeremy Au: (07:03)
That’s an interesting problem, how do you find that story that you can pitch in the first minute and differentiation. How should a founder think about that, how would you think about it?

Rajiv Lamba: (07:19)
I’ll tell you the way I think about it. When we go to an investor to pitch, I write it down and practice it. You read a lot of books and come up with better stories. You can practice those stories with your friends, you can practice those stories with your current clients to see how compelling is that story. It’s not that my story got perfected in day 1. Even when I started in 2018, it took me 2 or 3 months to perfect my story. What is Neurosensum, can I explain that to you in 30 seconds? That took a lot of time and practice.

Jeremy Au: (08:10)
What are some interesting stories that you have?

Rajiv Lamba: (08:16)
My interesting story of Surveysensum is, when I went to the client, if you have to get consumer insights, how many issues do you have at hand right now, they might say I’ve got 10 issues at hand. How many issues can you go to a consulting company? Only one, because consulting is expensive. What do you do for the remaining 9 issues that you’ve got? Use gut feel? How about if I give you a platform that helps you get responses on a real-time basis at a much affordable price. Just pay 10% of that X-dollar you would pay to a consultant. Does it help you? It sounds good. Immediately, a demo comes out. That’s the way my story has built up over time. That’s one way of doing it. Second way was from uni-channel to omni-channel because every customer is omni-channel. Are you able to get feedback from your customers from your website, app, using a QR code, are you able to collect feedback from your customers from your CRM. Most of the time, the answer is no because not everyone is utilising omni-channel tools. What if I gave you a platform where you can plug into all the channels and the moment somebody comes to your website, chatboard, app, a branch, you can ask a survey and you can look at the entire feedback in real-time.

Jeremy Au: (10:03)
You’ve done both Neurosensum and Surveysensum. What led you to build one and then the other?

Rajiv Lamba: (10:13)
Sure. When we started Neurosensum, it was to read the subconscious mind. The reason was when you ask consumers in Southeast Asia do you like my product, do you like my ad? They will normally tell you a very polite answer. They won’t tell you it’s not good. That’s the culture of Southeast Asia. The idea was can I go beyond what consumers claim – on a scale of 1 – 5, they will always claim 4 to 5 which is very good. Can I read their brain signals, can I read what they’re thinking? That’s how the Neurosensum concept came in. When we pitched it to the clients, they liked it, they started buying it. These clients started asking then to create something which also works in the native languages in Southeast Asia? If I don’t have the money to go to you for consulting, but I still need the consumer research, I still need the feedback, but my budget is limited can you create something to get the consumer feedback. What our clients wanted was in the native languages which means that when customers replied in Bahasa Indonesia, the algorithm should be able to read the entire data which is where the AI comes in, the local NLP. That’s how Surveysensum came into the picture. Clients’ need to do it by themselves. That’s how we started with Neurosensum and Surveysensum came into picture. Some of my clients have been very generous with their feedback and they’re the ones who helped me design Surveysensum, in fact, the entire platform to the entire AI engine.

Jeremy Au: (12:07)
It’s nice that you’re working off customer feedback. In building these two, how does your day work out?

Rajiv Lamba: (12:23)
Sometimes I have to juggle between both the brands. Thankfully, I came from a consulting background so building Neurosensum was not that tough for me. Building the team was relatively easy and became profitable for us within six months, but with Surveysensum, it took time because I’ve never created a SAAS before. With a software as a service, I had to learn a lot and interview a lot of people, I had to get a lot of mentorship and network a lot, building up the tech team, the digital marketing team to get lead generation, that took a bit of time. Learning about different domains from what a tech team does to what a data scientist does to what a digital marketing team does. What are their KPIs. That took a lot of time.

Jeremy Au: (13:31)
That’s an interesting transition for many founders. How did you go about learning how to build this new approach?

Rajiv Lamba: (13:44)
Learning, to me, has always come by doing. When I was developing Surveysensum, I set up the Neurosensum team in Indonesia after which I went to India for 5 or 6 months in 2018. I wanted to build a tech office in India. I started interviewing tech people, data scientists. Once I did more and more interviews, that’s how I learnt how a SAAS product is build and scaled. It was reading a lot of books, growth hacking, multiple SAAS books, listened to a lot of podcasts, did a lot of interviews. My learning became much faster because I was doing multiple things at the same time. At the same time, I was lucky I got the right team for Neurosensum so that I could spend more time in India.

Jeremy Au: (14:48)
Any challenges in re-skilling from consulting to SAAS building?

Rajiv Lamba: (14:55)
Yes, of course. Right from building the product itself was very challenging and testing it with the clients was challenging. I think once your product is perfected, you should have 20-25 good use cases before you even think of scaling up. I think the biggest challenge for Surveysensum was finding the right market. I went to SMEs with Surveysensum. I suddenly realised there are many other players. My approach changed and I started going to the larger enterprises. Going to them is a slightly different ballgame from a digital marketing perspective. For bigger enterprises, you have to have many more features, but I found in Southeast Asia the revenue is far bigger. It takes time to convert them, but once you convert them, you convert big.

Jeremy Au: (16:44)
Could you tell us about a time where you had to choose to be BRAVE?

Rajiv Lamba: (16:48)
Time where I have to choose to be brave. I think it goes back to 2011. I was in Nielsen, the life was going good. I created a good name in the organization but from those days from a Nielsen Comfort zone I’ll call myself at that time to move to a very small boutique called Kadence International. That was a big decision for me. I didn’t know how to run a boutique. I didn’t know how I can be successful in that boutique and leaving a good comfort zone to go to startup where I had to learn everything to kind of wear multiple hats from being a salesperson to bring HR person, finance person, you name it. So, that was a big, big move that I did in my life and I think that was possibly a brave decision at that point of time. Yeah, and second brave decision possibly was I could have chosen to be in Kadence after we sold the company. I was a very good paid CEO at that time. Again. Second point was when I started Neurosensum possibly I think it has just gone into the black now that you want to create something new and different you always want to make an impact. I wanted to change the way market research happens. I wanted to bring technology. So that was, I think, second brave move in my life.

Jeremy Au: (17:55)
How did you make that first decision to leave Nielsen?

Rajiv Lamba: (18:07)
I talked to multiple people; friends and family, my immediate boss too. She said you’re young and it’s a risk worth taking. You don’t know where you might end up. To be honest, if I had talked to 20 people, 18 of them would have said no. Only two of them said yes. One of them was my immediate senior, the other was my wife. Not everybody will be there with you when you want to take risk. Thankfully, I made the right decision.

Jeremy Au: (19:00)
Those are two interesting people. Normally wives say yes, sometimes they say no. Your boss. Would you recommend people thinking about leaving the company to talk to their boss about it?

Rajiv Lamba: (19:16)
Why not. If their boss is charismatic. If you’re close to your boss and your boss has the ability to see the future. My boss was somebody like that. So, if you got a boss that you can relate with, please go ahead.

Jeremy Au: (19:41)
What was that like?

Rajiv Lamba: (19:50)
I went to my boss one day and I said I got a decent offer. Do you think I should join? It’s in the field of market research and my boss asked why I want to leave. I said I’m getting too much into my comfort zone and want to try new things and rise up the ladder faster. Staying within organisations, I will move slowly. I wanted to get to the top of the curve faster. Then we discussed the pros and cons. She convinced me. That’s how it happened, Jeremy. The only disadvantage at that time was that startups were not known as startups so you can’t get funding from VCs. Luckily everything turned out good.

Jeremy Au: (21:41)
If you were a boss in Nielsen, would you tell your subordinate to do a startup?

Rajiv Lamba: (21:55)
One of my employees did that in the previous company. The individual said boss, I want to start my own firm. Can I just go ahead? Even in Neurosensum, one of the employees came to me and said I’ve learnt a lot here and I want to do my own startup, can I go ahead? I encouraged, I said why not? I advise my employees if you want to go out there and take risks, go out there and take risks. My advice was be very clear what you want to build, how are you going to change things? Being a copy is not going to help you. Cutting price will help to a certain level. What you bring is something I encourage my team to often think about.

Jeremy Au: (23:00)
You also talked to your wife about it. How would you recommend founders go about approaching that conversation?

Rajiv Lamba: (23:17)
I think it depends on how comfortable you are with your partner perceives risk taking. I told her the risk would be for two years and we had to be careful about our expenses for two years. I told her if nothing works out, I can always go back to the bigger organisation. Thankfully, it worked in my favour. But when I moved from Kadence to Neurosensum, it was tough. Going back to zero. But this time, it was not that difficult to convince because we had money in the bank to survive for the next three/four years without any paycheque.

Jeremy Au: (25:03)
What was it like because you also talked about building a family?

Rajiv Lamba: (25:09)
Building a family. How many kids you want to have is the biggest decision you have to take. We wanted to have a daughter and give her the best quality education that we can. As an individual, I never wanted to have three kids not being able to afford a great quality education. Second, balancing your work with your family is very important. I may not be able to give time to friends at times, but I will definitely give time to my family.

Jeremy Au: (26:07)
What advice would you give to founders who are planning a family or for parents who are thinking of becoming a founder?

Rajiv Lamba: (26:22)
These are two different questions. The first – be ready for the tough ride. Startup is not a bed of roses. Be ready to bootstrap until you can get the funding. Ensure that your family is comfortable with the tough ride. Have that conversation to ensure that you are able to do that. Be ready to slog 14 – 16 hours a day. Beyond that, whatever time you have left, spend it with family and give them priority before anything else in life. For founders who want to become parents. Definitely go for it. There’s no happiness in the world that compares to having your own kid. Some people think when I’m more successful I will have a kid. But the definition of making more money never ends. The definition of success never ends. If you love kids like I do, go for it. To a large extent, it also helps you to switch off.

Jeremy Au: (28:27)
Amazing. Wrapping things up here, if you could travel back ten years in time, what advice would you give yourself back then?

Rajiv Lamba: (28:38)
I think I would have sacrificed more of my salary to get shares. When I made my first exit, I remembered that everyone mattered a lot because when you make an exit, that’s when you understand that every one person matters. I just wished I could have taken more salary cut. Fight for shares not salary. That would be the biggest advice. Also, believe in minimum dilution. I’m not somebody who will dilute the company just like that. Sometimes I see founders raising more than what they need to raise.

Jeremy Au: (29:53)
Amazing. I would like to summarise the three big themes I got from this. The first is thank you so much for sharing about your journey from Nielsen to founding Neurosensum and Surveysensum and talking about those different transition points and the second one is, thank you, for sharing how you made a decision to get from point A to point B, right, whichever that was which was how you got the courage to move and change and talk to your boss, talk to your wife about leaving Nielsen as well as thinking about why you’re building Neurosensum, but also how you went on to build Surveysensum as well. So just really interesting to hear your thought process for each of those stages. And lastly, thank you so much for this unexpected, but very joyful conversation about parenthood and being a founder because it’s a tough trade off that lot of folks are thinking about all the time and so I think it’s really good to hear your advice that children are happiness and if you want to have children then just go for it, and I agree with you quite a bit. So, thank you so much, Rajiv, for coming on the show.

Rajiv Lamba: (30:52)
Thanks a lot, Jeremy, thanks for inviting. It was an absolute pleasure to be on your show, I loved every moment of it.