Linh Ho grew up in the suburbs of Hull, Quebec; a province in Canada. She is the oldest of four siblings and growing up, both her mother and father worked as janitors until they saved up enough money to purchase a coin-operated laundry business. During her teenage years, she would help her father run the business and expand through landing meetings with executives in hotels and finding ways to partner. This experience would stick with her and she would ultimately realize that growing businesses was her passion. After getting her bachelor's in international business management and management information systems from the University of Ottawa, Linh chose to direct her career in marketing. She gained 12 years of marketing experience by working for several different companies before joining Concur in 2012. She would stay with Concur for 8 years and play a critical role in the expansion of the company from 2,500 employees to 9,000. In 2014, Concur was acquired by SAP for $8.3 billion, and Linh would become the Chief of Staff of SAP Concur. In 2018, she decided to leave her executive position at SAP Concur to start conDati with a friend she had met several years prior. Today, she is the Chief Marketing Officer and Co-Founder of conDati; an AI-driven marketing technology company that provides insight and visibility to marketing professionals so they can maximize their ROI. They have raised over $5 million and have acquired Amazon, Adobe, Linkedin, Facebook, Salesforce, and many more as customers. Listen to the podcast to hear about Linh's untold childhood stories, why she moved across the country to join Concur initially, and the night at a bar when the idea of conDati came about.
00:00:00 Linh Ho: So I figured out a way to sell this bouquet for $5 and I’m eight. I don’t speak English. The lady gave me 5 bucks for the bouquet, was very thankful. And I went, “Oh!”
00:00:23 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 Linh Ho, current CMO and co-founder of conDati, an AI-driven marketing technology company that helps marketing professionals gain better insight and visibility into their campaigns so that they can maximize their return on investment. Prior to joining conDati, Linh was the Chief of Staff at SAP Concur. She played a critical role in helping the company expand from 2,500 employees to 9,000 employees and was part of the $8.3 billion acquisition between SAP and Concur in 2014.
00:01:19 Ash Faraj: Linh grew up in the suburbs of Ottawa, Quebec, in a working-class neighborhood with her sisters and her parents. Her parents both worked as janitors throughout her childhood. When she got into her teenage years, her parents had saved up enough money to buy a coin-operated laundromat. That would spark an interest in business that Linh would hold on to the rest of her life.
00:01:44 Linh Ho: I grew up on the Quebec side of Canada, a little city outside of Ottawa called Hull. It is no longer called Hull. It’s called Gatineau.
00:01:55 Ash Faraj: How was that like?
00:01:58 Linh Ho: Well, this is a little bit more like a ghetto. [laughter]
00:02:03 Ash Faraj: Really?
00:02:04 Linh Ho: [laughter] Yes. You had the bars, the strip clubs, two blocks away from where we lived. It was probably not the best neighborhood to live in with little kids, but you make do what you make do. My parents were immigrants. They didn’t have much at the time. So that’s where we spent a lot of our time. For me, my favorite memory of that, though my parents weren’t around much because they worked a lot, my two sisters and I were at the time aged between 6, 7, 9 and we played at the park together a lot. In my backyard, we had some gardens and flowers. I assembled a bouquet, and I was determined that I was going to sell this bouquet to some random stranger on the street. I didn’t even speak English. This person couldn’t speak French, only spoke English. So I figured out a way to sell this bouquet for $5 and I’m eight. I don’t speak English. The lady gave me five bucks, took the bouquet, was very thankful. And I went, “Oh!” [sounds expressing excitement] I put it in my little margarine butter tub, you know, a little piggy bank. But that was my first. Until this day, my sisters laugh at me and joke, “You were eight. You were trying to sell stuff, and you were trying to create your own business. You would have assembled all of our flowers in the backyard and start selling them.”
00:03:44 Ash Faraj: What was the relationship like with your parents?
00:03:49 Linh Ho: As a child we didn’t see much of them. When we did see my father, he was always very stressed. He was trying to provide for the family, right? He had three little girls, like I said, under the age of 9 and a mother as well. That was a lot of pressure and a lot of stress on him. When we did see him, he was always stressed and trying to catch some sleep. We always had to be quiet around the house, so that he could get sleep because he worked overnight, day and also nights. So there was a lot of that. But eventually, as we got a little older, we got to build a stronger relationship with him and had a broader context of why he was always upset or why he was always so stressed. Eventually, it was definitely… I see him as an inspiration for myself. I see him as someone who hustled, worked really hard for the family, and some of that is instilled in me.
00:04:56 Ash Faraj: Interesting.
00:04:57 Male Voice 1: I’m just curious because you said you kind of grew up in the ghetto. What was your mindset like at that time? Was it like, hey, I’m just going be here, or is there something better for me elsewhere? What were you thinking?
00:05:12 Linh Ho: I think my parents saw something. They wanted something better for themselves, but also wanted something better for the family. They saved up. They worked hard. Like I said, both of them worked really hard; both as janitors. They saved up enough to move us out of that neighborhood. At that point we moved to Ottawa -- which is the capital city of Canada -- but it’s now, I call my hometown, because that’s the rest of the time that I spent in Canada. Eventually they saved enough to purchase a coin-operated laundromat and I was so excited, running our first business. My father was always an entrepreneur. Even back in Vietnam, he was an entrepreneur to begin with, so he had a little bit of that already in him. He saw that opportunity in Ottawa, bought his first laundromat together with my mom, and then they started that business. Then from there grew his business, and me sort of rolled alongside and helped be part of that business as well.
00:06:22 Male Voice 1: How were you a part of that business? What did you do to help?
00:06:26 Linh Ho: At that point, I was 13, 14. After school, we would go to the laundromat. You’d do your homework there and you help however you can. Eventually, he grew the business to a point where he was doing a lot of contracts for major hotels like the Hilton, and the Sheraton, and others. They expanded the business. It became almost a warehouse where then we were all hands on deck all the time. We were folding towels for the Sheraton. Getting all that stuff ready to get it delivered on time and dry-cleaning as well. You go to any of the hotels now and you get your stuff dry-cleaned. It has to be returned within a day. We had to get that done too, so we were all part of that. As soon as school was done, we were in the laundromat. There I was, 16 years old at this point, and go, “There’s a Sheraton and there’s a Hilton. Why wouldn’t you go for the Fairmont?” I was pretty much partnering with my dad to try and get some meetings with these hotels. These hotel directors of housekeeping and sit down with them and talk about what we can offer. So the fire has always been in me, you know, as an entrepreneur.
00:07:45 Ash Faraj: Before joining Concur, Linh attended the University of Ottawa. Got her degree in International Business Management and Management Information Systems and went on to work for several companies in marketing. By the time she had joined Concur, she had twelve years under her belt in marketing, so she had built great expertise in the marketing arena.
00:08:09 Ash Faraj: Imagine that you’re married and your spouse had just finished building a house in the current city you live in. You have this plan of raising a family and staying in the city. Maybe your family and friends are in that same city. Then one day, your spouse says, “Hey, there’s this really cool job that I’m interested in, but it’s in a different city. It’s across the country. If I get the job, you’ll have to change plans and move to a new city across the country.” Well for Linh, she and her husband moved to Seattle after she had gotten an offer from Concur in 2012. At the time, Linh’s husband had just finished building a house in Ottawa with plans of raising a family there. With full belief in Linh, her husband didn’t think twice about Linh’s career choice. Two years later, Concur would be acquired for $8.3 billion and Linh would go on to become the Chief of Staff at SAP Concur.
00:09:07 Ash Faraj: As you started to grow older, how did you know what to go into as a college student?
00:09:12 Linh Ho: I can’t say that I knew that I wanted what I wanted to do at the time. Certainly, my father had an influence on that. He was like, “Well, if you don’t know what to do, business is kind of a safe bet.” Right? I kind of went along with that. Then when I was in the business, when I was in it, that’s when I knew that I had a passion for computers and technologies. So I did a major in MIS, Management Information Systems. The other passion I had was international aspect of the business and not just the local aspect. I knew there was an international flavor that I was very interested in. Languages was always a passion of mine as well. Study Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and at home we speak a dialect from China, then the French from Quebec and the English as well. I kind of assembled multiple languages as I’m growing up, so the international aspect of the business was interesting to me. I did a double major: International Business and MIS.
00:10:21 Ash Faraj: Obviously, you worked at a bunch of different companies after college and then you ended up with Concur. What was Concur like?
00:10:29 Linh Ho: One of my favorite stories to tell about Concur, when I was interviewing with them, I was working for a company in New York City. Was seven months pregnant when I was interviewing. It was life-changing because when you’re seven months pregnant the last thing on your mind is thinking about moving across the nation, or even doing anything more than just think about going into maternity leave, but I was. I interviewed and I remember turning to my husband. I said, “Hey, they want to fly me out for this full-day interview. If I get this gig, we might have to move. Are you cool with that?” We had a full discussion about uprooting. He had just finished building his house in Ottawa. There was so many reasons not to go anywhere, not just the pregnancy and all that, but he was supportive. He said, “Hey, you get this job, you want it, let’s go!” I got the gig. It was certainly about the people, for sure, that sold me on moving and uprooting and coming out to Seattle. It wasn’t expense management. Really, I’m going to change my whole life for expense management? [laughter]. But it was the people. I got an opportunity to interview with one of the founders, Raj Singh who is just amazing, and the leadership team. Went over there and it was certainly the people that sold me. When I got the gig, I said to Steven and went, “All right. We’re going to pack up. We’re moving.” [laughter]
00:12:22 Male Voice 1: How large was the team at that time when you joined?
00:12:24 Linh Ho: The company was about 2,500 people at the time. This is 2012. This is before the acquisition by SAP and four, five years later 8,000, 9,000 people. The company just grew and grew and grew, going through some growing pains, but that’s part of the business.
00:12:46 Ash Faraj: Do you mind sharing with us what some of those growing pains were?
00:12:50 Linh Ho: I think that when the company is experiencing rapid growth; I think one of the things, I remember vividly, is how do we keep the culture intact, right? We were so proud of the Concur culture. As you grow you’re bringing on people from different organizations with different leadership styles and so that can then dilute your culture very quickly. But I felt we were very good at screening people. It was hard to get into Concur, but once you’re in, you’re in. There was a lot of effort in the people strategy, the recruiting side of things, that help navigate some of that. Frankly, if some bad apples came in, we were pretty quick to sniff them out and they didn’t last very long.
00:13:55 Male Voice 1: What was your position at that time when you first joined Concur? What were you doing?
00:13:59 Linh Ho: I came in to head up America’s Demand Generation. Basically, it’s a field marketing demand gen. The total time at Concur there’s seven years so I had different roles. I went from that and then I moved into a different department, and my scopes of responsibilities went smaller scope of responsibility. Then you continue and then you change role again and then your role expands again. My last gig there was Chief of Staff. By that point, the marketing organization was 450 people maybe, globally? Reporting directly and dotted line into the CMO. Here’s my favorite part too. I got the gig. My start date was December 17. I gave birth and went into labor December 16. I couldn’t actually start right away. [laughter] I ended up going into labor just the night before.
00:15:05 Ash Faraj: We all have that constant fire inside of us that urges us to do something. It’s almost like a sixth sense that we all have. We can sense what gives us energy and what we’re truly passionate about. For some of us it sparks early; like for Linh when she was eight years old selling bouquets to some stranger that doesn’t even speak the same language. For some of us it’s later in life. The fire is so real and it’s so strong that Linh would leave her executive position at SAP Concur to start conDati.
00:15:37 Linh Ho: And then you fast-forward to 2014. I created my own app, like a food app, called Omnummy. When the fire is in there, no matter how long you ignore it, it just keeps coming back. So there’s the app and I had a ton of fun with that. Then conDati, you know, the opportunity came. For me it was time to jump out of the big corporation. SAP is as large of a software company as you can be at, right? It was time. It was time for me. I was itching for something a little bit more. I was too comfortable with the comfortable. I needed to get uncomfortable, so I jumped out. Took a deep breath and here I am.
00:16:31 Male Voice 1: In total you were at SAP for like around 8-10 years?
00:16:35 Linh Ho: More like 8 years.
00:16:37 Male Voice 1: What was maybe one key lesson, maybe a couple of lessons, that you took away from that experience that you took over to conDati?
00:16:47 Linh Ho: It’s always about the people. Yes, what makes a company is the people, and people strategy and culture is important. I would say that even in an early stage start-up, it’s never too early to think about culture, values, operating principles. That only helps gel as a team. The faster you gel as a team, you form your norm, you storm, and then you first start performing. But the faster you go through that cycle, the better off you are. And so, I would say, definitely the people strategy and the culture side of things.
00:17:35 Ash Faraj: Do you remember your last day at Concur? You remember that day?
00:17:39 Linh Ho: Yes.
00:17:40 Ash Faraj: How was that like?
00:17:44 Linh Ho: It was very mixed. It was mixed feelings. There were definitely some tears and some excitement and some nervousness, all at the same time. I obviously miss the people because it is about the people. The excitement of starting something new. To start from scratch where you don’t have the $100 million budget. You don’t have the 450 people around you in the marketing department, and you don’t have an EA’s help. You don’t have… and the list goes on. You don’t have all these things to dump into a start-up. You’ve got do things by yourself. You’ve got to just figure out something as basic as Zoom. Oh my gosh, I got to log into Zoom by myself. Things like that. You just got to jump right in and roll up your sleeves and do a lot of things by yourself. Certainly, there’s a lot. It was a transition period for me, for sure.
00:18:51 Ash Faraj: Linh joined conDati as a founding member with 18 years of experience in marketing technology, but the story of how the idea even came about involves writing on napkins in a bar at the W Bellevue.
00:19:07 Linh Ho: I met Ken 10 years ago in New York City. Back to the company in New York City. I was head of marketing for that company. We had a partnership with Ken’s former company called SOASTA which was a web analytics company. We had a business partnership at the time. We met at an event, similar to the event we met you, and we just hit it off. We kept in touch over time and it’s been over a decade now. About three years ago when SOASTA was pretty much being acquired by Akamai, he was already on his way out. He already had this next idea that he can do web analytics for IT folks. Wouldn’t this make sense for marketing? And started applying data science for marketing and AI. So he was up here in Seattle three years ago. We were sitting at a bar and literally he was sketching out -- we were at the W Bellevue -- and he’s sketching out on the back of a napkin like histograms and statistical methods to apply. You would apply this to demand gen and to marketing. I thought, oh my God, this is brilliant. Because we could use, we definitely could use, that kind of help to speed things up but also to bring in data into one place and be able to report it when you need it. And the list goes on. So brilliant. Then a year later he came back, and he said, “Okay, I’ve got the team. I’ve got the technology. We’ve got a demo to show you,” and all that. I was so impressed how quickly you’ve just gotten the foundation off the ground. Then I joined him as an adviser, first. Then later on, “Okay, I’m ready.”
00:21:06 Male Voice 1: That was probably one of his tactics to get you in, huh?
00:21:09 Linh Ho: [laughter] Yeah, well. On one hand, these are great. Because on one hand you get to keep a finger on the pulse with a business and how they’re doing and also the team, get to know the people. So everything all came together nicely. Then they needed some help on the marketing front. I said, well, I think I can help with that.
00:21:35 Male Voice 1: What’s your approach to marketing?
00:21:38 Linh Ho: Well, certainly my approach to marketing in a start-up versus a large company is different. Every dollar -- not that the dollars didn’t count over there -- but every dollar here in a start-up, because you’re so lean here, you’ve got to make the right decisions for your dollars and really make your dollar work. I think that for me drawing back from my experience with my father and trying to run a family-run business where every dollar counts as well, and then the humble beginnings, definitely helped with the frugalness of how to spend the money.
00:22:16 Male Voice 1: You got to get creative.
00:22:17 Linh Ho: Right, you really got to get creative. I think the strategy really is that you keep asking yourself what kind of return are you getting for this dollar? What can you tangibly see? Plus, we’re also working in the future. We’re creating something that is brand-new for marketers. AI for marketing is new. It’s not old-school marketing. It’s brand-new. Thinking about how are we shifting and pushing the boundaries of marketing that is different from the past, which is challenging myself as well as a marketer, because we were trying to do something new. It’s hard, but it’s fun. The strategy has to be different to what’s been done in the past, because we’re modernizing marketing, right? You couple that with being a start-up and not having a lot of money, you got to make every dollar count.
00:23:21 Male Voice 1: You once mentioned that the challenge with every-day work in life is that not every day is a good day at the office or at home and they’re so intertwined and impact one another. How do you handle those rough days?
00:23:34 Linh Ho: First, I’ll just say for me, whether it’s at home or at work, I do find refuge in yoga. For me it’s getting myself to the mat and just showing up on my mat. That helps me with the connection with myself and connection with my breath and my breathing, my whole self. That’s definitely helpful. Obviously hug your children. That’s always --
00:24:02 Ash Faraj: -- What if you don’t have children?
00:24:04 Linh Ho: -- What if you don’t have children? Hug a loved one! [laughter] Yes, hug each other. -- But really, when you think about it, whether it’s at home in an argument with your partner or spouse or something at work. One of the things that I’ve learned too is your ego is directly proportionate with your suffering. Whether you’re suffering at work and you’re pissed off at work because -- I don’t know you got demoted, or something got taken away from you, or someone is playing politics and they got you, whatever it is -- when you’re suffering and you have self-reflection and you look at yourself and you go, is it my ego? Am I suffering and I’m pissed off because of my ego? What happens if I leave my ego aside? How will I feel? Right? I think for me when I show up on my mat and you start self-reflecting and meditation, things like that, it helps to recognize what is ego? What is causing you to feel this way. You know the saying, you put your oxygen mask on first before you help others. If you don’t take care of yourself, how are you supposed to help others? Right? [laughter] So this first and then you can help others. But if you can’t do this and you don’t know why you’re out of balance, or why you’re pissed off at the situation, and you don’t have that self-awareness then it’s just going to perpetuate and that’s not serving anyone.
00:25:47 Ash Faraj: What do you feel most excited about in the next five years?
00:25:52 Linh Ho: 2020 arrived and January 1st for me was “shake off everything that happened.” All the bad vibes or all the bad energy that happened in 2019 because there were some and then there’s some good things as well. We’ve turned the new decade. For me it’s less about five years but the next decade, you know, what’s there to come. If there’s something that you really want to go do, just go do it. For me, when I think about what my father did, if you really want something stay focused. Don’t get distracted. Work hard and go get it, right? I’m applying that for my 2020 and the decade to come. For example: yoga training, teacher training, something I’ve always wanted to do. That’s been on my list for ten years. You know what, timing is working perfectly right now. I’m not traveling much. I can just knock it out. Let’s get that done. I want to take my children abroad. Give them an experience abroad. I want conDati to be successful. When you start applying yourself in that way of how badly do you want this? If you really want it, and you really apply yourself for it, then there’s no excuse to not win it. You show up to win. For every aspect of my life, how I see it going into 2020 and the decade to come, is show up to win. Don’t show up half-ass, like show up to win.
00:27:37 Ash Faraj: I freaking love that.
00:27:39 Linh Ho: And go for it.
00:27:41 Male Voice 1: We want to wrap this up with a quick, fun ‘Finish the Sentence’ game. The first one is: in my opinion, the most important life skill is…
00:27:53 Linh Ho: People skills. Be kind. Genuine, authentic self. Foundation for trust and trust is universal. It really is a universal currency, whether it’s a business or a personal relationship. If you got that foundation, then that will serve you well.
00:28:19 Ash Faraj: Got to save that one, “Trust is a universal currency,” as a quote.
00:28:23 Male Voice 1: There you go, yeah, exactly. Second one: the one thing I dislike about my job is…
00:28:30 Linh Ho: It sounds terrible, but I don’t have enough time to grab lunch and I hate that.
00:28:37 Male Voice 1: Third one: the hardest thing I’ve done in business is…
00:28:41 Linh Ho: Is having to let people go.
00:28:45 Male Voice 1: The fourth one: when I’m considering partnering with another person or business, some deal breakers for me are…
00:28:52 Linh Ho: Trust. They break the trust, it’s hard to come back.
00:28:55 Male Voice 1: Fifth and final one: the worst advice I’ve ever received is…
00:29:00 Linh Ho: Gosh! These are tough! Advising people to fire people and it’s going against your own judgment. Then you got to make your own call. But the worst advice would be, yeah, you got to fire that person. For me it’s, no, we got to still give that person a chance and give that person -- in a situation like that where it’s happened and I would fight for that person -- a proper chance before you cut them loose.
00:29:37 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.