Amperity CEO & Co-Founder: Kabir Shahani

Summary

Kabir Shahani was raised in Kansas City, KS before moving to Seattle in 8th grade with his family.  Kabir was an only child and he witnessed just how diligently his parents worked, which would prove to have a lasting effect on him. A few decades ago, Kansas City wasn't very diverse and there were certainly times that Kabir talks about feeling different, which would also prove to be something that stuck with him. After graduating at the University of Washington, Kabir would go on to work for Avanade, then Blue Dot, Inc., a startup where he would meet Derek Slager, his business partner for the next 15 years. After a little over 6 years of his first startup being alive, it was acquired by IMS Health, and Kabir went on to work for IMS Health as their VP of technology. After some time had passed, Kabir decided he would take some time off and explore what his true passions are. In January of 2016, Amperity was born; an AI-driven technology company that helps people use data to better understand and serve their customers. At the time of this podcast Amperity has raised almost $90M and is expanding very rapidly with offices in Seattle, Denver, and New York.

Podcast Transcript

Note:  There may be errors to this transcript (some funny, some confusing - we used an automated transcription software!)

00:00:00 Kabir Shahani: I remember coming home from a dinner party with my parents -- you know, you guys remember these kinds of things. You’re going out to a family party -- and you come home, and somebody had tagged the house with a swastika on the front of it. It was like this super jarring experience…

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00:00:20 Ash Faraj: Hey! Welcome to the ExecuTalks Podcast. It’s the show that gives you insight to the personal stories of today’s top executives.  In this episode, you will hear from Kabir Shahani, current CEO and Co-founder of Amperity, an AI-driven technology company that helps people use data to better serve their customers. Amperity has raised almost $90 million and has acquired some very notable customers. You want to stick around to the end to hear about Kabir’s unique approach to tackling challenges.

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00:00:59 Ash Faraj: Kabir grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, until eighth grade before his parents moved to Seattle. As you can imagine, Kansas City wasn’t a very diverse city a few decades ago. Kabir remembers a few key discriminatory experiences that would stick with him. As he grew older, he would learn how to use his feeling of difference as a strength. Kabir’s parents immigrated from India and were exceptionally hard-working. When I say hard-working, I mean at one point Kabir remembers them each working two jobs and they wouldn’t stop working on the weekends either. They made sure to instill this amazing work ethic in Kabir from a young age. One example of this is his father enrolled him in community college when he was in sixth grade. The only way Kabir would find a way out of community college is by finding a job.

00:01:58 Kabir Shahani: Both my parents are immigrants from India. Both very hard-working, very enterprising. Had a lot of ambition.

00:02:08 Ash Faraj: They both worked?

00:02:09 Kabir Shahani: They both worked. My dad was always in marketing. He actually started his career working in a laboratory when he first came from India, and one of the guys that used to sell medical equipment to this laboratory said, “Gosh, you know, you’re pretty good at this stuff. You’re an articulate guy. You should come and do some selling.” So he started out as a sales engineer for this medical diagnostics company and then ended up becoming a salesperson for that company. And then got an opportunity to go into marketing at headquarters, which was in Kansas City. My family moved to Kansas City when I was one or two years old. My mom always worked desk jobs; receptionist, or inside sales, customer service, things that were on the phone. And at times, I remember multiple periods of time in my childhood, they actually both worked two jobs at the same time. At one point my dad was sort of doing his marketing job -- which he ultimately over his career built an agency when I was much older and kind of continued that, but -- he was doing both marketing and working for an early-stage company, sort of helping them with marketing. So he was working for these two different companies at the same time. My mom was doing her full-time day job and then also actually getting Indian clothes manufactured in India and selling them to people in the community. Because at the time there wasn’t the Internet, you weren’t doing e-commerce, like it was hard to get those things. People wanted to wear traditional ethnic wear and they just wouldn’t have access to it. It was kind of this idea of work being always on. It’s just kind of what I grew up around. The notion of working on the weekends, or just seeing the blending of work and life, is just kind of been how I’ve always been around. My parents weren’t big fans of this idea of summer. I don’t know exactly, but I don’t think growing up in India they really had summer vacations. It was kind of a foreign concept. When I was old enough to not want to do summer camps anymore and that kind of summer school type stuff, they started enrolling me in community college and I would just audit the class. I did chemistry, biology, physics. I frankly understood very little of what was going on in these classes and was just trying to absorb as much as I could. Fortunately, it wasn’t for a grade, but I was there kind of like just absorbing and learning. It was a way to keep me busy. Then ultimately, I kind of mustered up the courage to tell my dad I’m tired of going to community college because it just didn’t feel very fun. I don’t think I’m learning a ton because I’m not really grasping all of the concepts that they’re going through. And he’s like, “Yeah, no problem. Just go get a job.”

00:05:04 Ash Faraj: [laughter] Yeah, you got to do something!

00:05:05 Kabir Shahani: That’s right. He handed me the classified ads. You guys are too young to maybe remember what that is, but literally job postings used to be in the newspaper. You have to physically look at a newspaper and read job postings.

00:05:16 Male Voice 1: What’s a newspaper? [laughter]

00:05:17 Kabir Shahani: Right, totally! Totally. You know, print out a resume and fax it. I did that whole process early in high school when I was trying to get out of having to go to community college.

00:05:31 Ash Faraj: Did your parents ever feel misunderstood as immigrants?

00:05:36 Kabir Shahani: I think about for them -- and it’s nice now my dad and I have the opportunity to have some of these conversations and kind of reflect on these things together, but -- just how incredibly difficult it was for somebody like him as an immigrant who was very misunderstood and was living in an environment where there wasn’t a lot of diversity in Kansas City, Kansas, at the time. I think there’s a tremendous amount of diversity there now which is really exciting. But at the time, in the early ‘80s or late ‘80s, there really was not. Thinking about the challenges that he went through in terms of his career and the way in which things weren’t really well understood. There wasn’t as much curiosity or interest of other cultures, which I think has changed dramatically now. But at the time this certainly wasn’t there, it didn’t feel like, and then where that showed up sort of  in the society, right? There were certainly times I remember -- and again, I think it comes from a place of misunderstanding. It comes from a place of lack of curiosity, but -- we saw everything from like, you know, the food’s funny. It smells funny. It tastes funny. You can remember some of those experiences as a kid.

00:06:48 Ash Faraj: Some kids were you telling you?

00:06:49 Kabir Shahani: Yeah, you remember that in school. If your mom makes a different kind of sandwich or that kind of stuff. You remember those things. As a kid those are impactful experiences because you feel so different and feeling different isn’t necessarily being a good thing. It doesn’t feel good. Then you have these more extreme situations, like I talked about one recently, where I remember coming home from a dinner party with my parents -- you know, you guys remember these kinds of things. You’re going out to a family party -- and you come home, and somebody had tagged the house with a swastika on the front of it. It was like this super jarring experience, but I think what -- I actually talked to my dad about it somewhat recently. I was like, yeah, what was going through your head there? I thought it was amazing how the next day there was somebody there and power washing it off the front of the house. They just kind of moved through it like a non-event -- What I’ve tried to do as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve had more and more things that kind of make you feel different, how do you use that as strengths, right? How do you say, well my difference is an advantage versus being different is a disadvantage. I don’t know if it’s a human condition. I don’t know if it’s society. But I think, if I can speak for myself, your sort of natural state is to think, well, I’m different that’s not good, right? I think we have this need to, and not everybody does, but in general we have this human need to conform. We have this human need for acceptance.

00:08:08 Ash Faraj: To be liked.

00:08:09 Kabir Shahani: To be liked and to be normal, right? So when you have these experiences that reinforce… Like, wait a minute, why is my house got this swastika spray-painted on the front it and nobody else does? It’s reinforcing this difference. When you use that as a source of strength, I think it becomes a tremendous advantage in the decisions you make.

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00:08:36 Ash Faraj: Kabir attended the University of Washington and got his degree in Informatics before going on to work for Avenade, a consulting firm that was started here in Seattle and now has over 36,000 employees worldwide. But at the time Kabir worked there, it was just a start-up. Kabir worked for Avenade for about a year and then went on to work for Blue Dot, a small start-up, where he would meet his business partner for the next 15 years of his life, Derek Slager. In late 2006, Blue Dot laid off a large percentage of their workforce, including Kabir and Derek. That would prove to be a turning point for Kabir’s life.

00:09:18 Kabir Shahani: They’re calling me up one day and said, “Hey, if you’re not writing code there isn’t a job at the company.” And so I was sort of forced to be in a position to say, “Well, what am I going to do?” My instinct was not to go and start something. That was the last thing on my mind, actually. I’d just gone through a really entrepreneurial experience and kind of been a part of this start-up that we all had a ton of passion around. It was an incredible product and an incredible team. There was a lot of anxiety and angst on my part around doing something entrepreneurial again. You know, I have to say, there’s a few… we all come into each other’s lives at different times for different reasons. There were a few people in particular that were really influential in that period of my life that kind of helped make that a much easier decision, right?

00:10:09 Ash Faraj: Where did the idea originate? How did you come up with the actual idea?

00:10:12 Kabir Shahani: We spent a bunch of time within a bunch of different markets. I think, like most people that are thinking about going down the path of starting something, you sort of take an expansive view and kind of whittle it down. One of the views we took was -- at the time, I mentioned my dad had been in marketing and then had a marketing agency. So at the time he was running an agency that he was the founder of -- he was sharing with me these challenges that all of his clients were having around what essentially is marketing automation. He just started as, “Hey, they don’t really have a good way to reach customers in different channels. They don’t have a good way to assess the value of the marketing they’re doing,” and sort of trying to encourage me. To say, “Hey, you know,” in sort of like a parental way, “You and your friends should go tackle this. Let me see if I can help you,” and tried to be super supportive. That was kind of the kernel of it. Chris and I then went and had some conversations with his support and help to figure out, “Hey, where is there an opportunity here?” We found that there actually is something here that we should go and kind of unpack. Decided to jump in and built B1 of the product, and lots of, you know… A very windy road to ultimately get where we got with the business, but that was kind of the first start of it.

00:11:31 Male Voice 1: What were some steps that you guys took to find your target market?

00:11:35 Kabir Shahani: One, it was very circumstantial. We found somebody who has the pain and willing to give us a shot. Like, let’s go for it and then see if we go build a market out of it. I don’t think that was necessarily the best approach to finding scale. We could have approached it differently. It’s sort of the first one that said they were interested, and we’re like great, let’s go.

00:11:57 Ash Faraj: You’re just excited to get started!

00:11:58 Kabir Shahani: That’s right.

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00:12:03 Ash Faraj: Kabir would go on to build a company along with three co-founders. After six years of building his first start-up, it was acquired by IMS Health in 2013, a publicly traded global information and technology services company. Along with his co-founder Derek, Kabir would go on to work for IMS Health as their VP of Technology for a little over two years before realizing that it was time to take a break. In May of 2015, he left IMS Health without a plan.

00:12:36 Kabir Shahani: You know I had thought in my head that I was going to go and do this and stay. I was super committed. I’m sort of one of those when I’m in, I’m in. When I’m not in, I’m not in and there’s sort of no in-between. It’s kind of how I’m wired. I remember going through the process of like the contractual commitment was up. I was fortunate that they were really eager to see us stay on course. I remember coming home and talking to my wife. She, to her credit, really advocated for me to take a break. She said, “Look. I know this is appealing. I know that you’re excited about what you’re doing. There’s a bunch of stuff that isn’t you and there’s a bunch that you don’t love.” She was right about that while there was still a ton of stuff I did love.

00:13:25 Male Voice 1: What were some of the things that you did not love to do?

00:13:27 Kabir Shahani: It was less about like anything to do. I think companies of that scale, there’s a different set of things you got to do. The company was going through an extraordinary amount of change and transformation which I do love and is really exciting, but also creates in certain roles… there’s politics, there’s the culture, there’s things that just maybe aren’t as… for the time of kind of where I was, but I felt… Like I said, I had such a strongly positive experience that my inclination was to stay the course. I appreciated that she was able to hold the mirror up a little bit and say, “Hey, let’s think about this a little more holistically. Would taking a break be useful and valuable for you given that it’s been eight and half years of a hundred miles an hour?” At the time we were trying to start a family and that was super important for both of us. Just having the time together to be able to hit the reset button on life and think about the next chapter. It felt like a good time to be able to make that transition. So, I left without a plan, honestly. The idea was let’s take a break. Explore things that give me energy and the things that give me passion, whether that be being a founder or not. At the time, my instinct was actually that probably I wasn’t going to be a founder again. That wasn’t the thing that I was really driven by. I still am not. Being a founder isn’t super important to me. The quality of the environment is super important to me. The quality of the team and the problems you’re solving are super important to me. The impact that you have on your customers and the people that work in your organization are super important to me. It turns out you don’t have to be a founder for any of those things. My inclination was more to figure out ways in which I could have impact. Ways in which I could be intellectually fulfilled. Ways in which I could see opportunity created for everybody that was involved. There’s many forms that that can take.

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00:15:45 Ash Faraj: So how did the idea come about?

00:15:46 Kabir Shahani: We knew we wanted to do something together. We knew that there was a bunch of fun stuff we could go tackle together. Sort of being “founders” wasn’t like number one on the list, or probably even number 3 or 4 on the list. This opportunity -- as I mentioned, as we were kind of engaging with folks that spent a lot of their time thinking about the future, like venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs who have built incredible companies that I’m fortunate to be around. Spending time with these folks became this really intellectually, stimulating experience to start to interrogate these different problem domains -- this was a problem domain that we just kind of started to interrogate. And part of what we expected to find on the other side of that was, oh, there’s a company doing this and they’re probably doing a really good job. Or maybe there’s an early-stage company that we could be helpful to that is already doing this and maybe bring our skills and perspectives to that company. It turns out neither was the case.

00:16:50 Ash Faraj: The problem domain, during that time, was that something that you were specifically passionate about? Or was it just a problem that came up and you’re just passionate about solving problems in general?

00:16:59 Kabir Shahani: Yeah, yeah. That’s a good question. I wouldn’t say I’m passionate about solving problems in general. There’s a certain bar for me personally, in terms of the quality of the problem and the impact of the problem. I think in this particular case, it was the perfect intersection of, one, it was an area we had some exposure to. If you go back to our last business, we were having to deal with customer data to be able to help customers get value from the marketing automation platform. We did have a lot of experience and perspective around the problem domain, and then the other one is it happened to intersect with the excitement of the consumer world.

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00:17:53 Ash Faraj: At the time of this podcast, Amperity has raised almost $90 million, has about 160 employees, and has acquired some very notable customers. High-performance teams are typically a result of high-performance founders and leaders. Kabir has a very unique and intentional way of thinking through challenges.

00:18:15 Kabir Shahani: I think what I’m trying to do a much better job of,  especially, in this journey in general and my own personal journey, and the growth that I’m trying to do is -- and the team here has heard me talk a lot about this recently --  is controlling the six inches between our ears. The idea of a super painful day or a super happy day is I think kind of flawed in itself. Because, I try to ask myself, “Hey, going back to your urgent and important thing, there’s going to be more complexity every day. There’s going to be more challenges. The nature of the problems are going to be harder. The challenges we’re facing are going to be harder and more complex. Our ability to attack those challenges, our ability to lead through those challenging times, are the things that are going to be the difference between being a massive, globally, impactful company or not. It’s a long way of saying you can’t let the highs get too high and the lows get too low. That’s something historically I’ve been very bad at. I’ve lived in the high highs and the low lows. My own personal journey is, well, that all starts right here. How do I stay super focused on being intentional about what I’m thinking. One of my favorite kind of sayings from a world-famous athletic coach, Trevor Moawad; he always says, “What you think impacts how you feel and how you feel impacts how you behave.” Making that connection to be super intentional and thoughtful about it. What is it that I’m thinking right now? How is that thought making me feel? When you don’t have intention around that then you operate in high highs and low lows. When you do have intention around that and you actually can control how you feel, regardless, and how it [indiscernible] ultimately how you behave. And again, it’s not something I’ve been historically great at, but it’s something that I’m super excited about because I think that’s the difference between scale and not.

00:20:21 Ash Faraj: What are the most common challenges you face at Amperity?

00:20:25 Kabir Shahani: You know there’s been plenty of challenge. There’s been plenty of, and I can say existential, what feels like existential crises. Where it’s like early days, the product doesn’t work, can’t get it to scale, right? And then the product is in an extraordinarily highly performing place today. Well, how do you create repeatable go-to-market. How do you create value for customers fast enough? I can give you examples on both sides where we crank on getting deals done versus when there’s a dry spell. Where we deliver extraordinary results for our customers very fast versus when we feel like we’re not doing it as quickly as we want. It’s about staying focused on what that objective is independent of what’s happening on that given day. Look, self-doubt is real. Self-talk is real. All that’s noise, and you’ve got to -- I think as an entrepreneur, as a founder, or even honestly working in an organization like these whether it’s Amperity or another early-stage, fast-growth company that mindset is fundamental. Being able to -- not get caught up in the highs and the lows and just stay focused on the mission. And not be questioning, “Is this the right decision? Should I be doing it or not?” That’s all noise and doubt that has to be cleared because you can’t perform when you’re in that mind space.

00:22:02 Kabir Shahani: I have this fascination, or developed a fascination, when I took some time off in really understanding why great athletes can perform at these extraordinary levels. What makes great athletes great? I was really fortunate to go spend a bunch of times with these folks. I went and sat down with Bobby Wagner and Doug Baldwin, Russell Wilson and Cooper Helfet, a good buddy of mine who now works at Amperity. I actually sat down with a bunch of these professional athletes, and what I found was that their mental toughness was actually significantly better than even their physical toughness. Their mindset and their intellect is so high and that controls everything. Being able to translate that now, and I think a lot of what we’re trying to do in Amperity, how we translate that into the business and how we translate that into the business world. Because if we can bring that same level of mental discipline, the performance that you experience is extraordinarily higher.

00:23:06 Ash Faraj: Obviously, you’ve achieved a lot of success in your life this far. What would you say the achievement that you’re most proud of is?

00:23:14 Kabir Shahani: I wouldn’t say a lot. I’ve got a lot to do. I would say I’m really proud of the commitment to learning. I think one thing that, if I share like personal achievement is I think pretty consistently despite my great days and my terrible days, people will say my capacity to evolve and change and learn. That to me is like the fuel of life. Like this idea that I’m willing to get better. I’m willing to learn. I’m willing to grow versus there’s a destination. To me what makes life really interesting is that there isn’t a destination. You can grow and learn every single day, and you can get better every single day. To me that’s an achievement in itself. I think that’s a mind shift that I probably made a number of years ago. I’m super proud of that and just that journey.

00:24:27 Male Voice 1: We want to wrap this up with a “Finish the Sentence” Game. Are you ready? The first one is: in my opinion the most important life skill is…?

00:24:37 Kabir Shahani: How you treat other people.

00:24:38 Male Voice 1: The one thing I dislike about my job is…?

00:24:42 Kabir Shahani: When people can’t work together.

00:24:43 Male Voice 1: In a start-up, I think speed is more or less important than durability?

00:24:49 Kabir Shahani: More.

00:24:50 Male Voice 1: When I’m considering partnering up with another person or business, some dealbreakers for me are…?

00:24:56 Kabir Shahani: Values. Value misalignment.

00:24:59 Male Voice 1: The worst advice you’ve ever received…?

00:25:02 Kabir Shahani: Oh! The worst advice I’ve ever received? Someone once said to me, and I should be careful about being too specific here, somebody once said like, “Hey, it’s okay to ride in third gear for a while. You don’t have to always be on sixth gear.” I just didn’t like that advice.

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00:25:30 Ash Faraj: Thank you for tuning into this episode. If you enjoyed listening, please subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Please leave a review so we that we can better serve you. Take care, dream big, and we’ll see you next Monday.