From the drawing board – Suresh Shankar, Founder and CEO of Crayon Data

Published August 12, 2020   |   

People and product. Two P’s in a pod. The two things that make a company. Most marketing strategies focus on product marketing. While employer branding is seen as a separate thing altogether. At Crayon Data, we know our people make the product (in our case, our platform happen; the magic starts with our people. So, we thought, why not cover both, our people and product, in a series of interviews that focuses on the best of both worlds? 
Today we’re introducing a new series titled “From the drawing board”, where we highlight stories of star performers at Crayon, who are: closing record deals, delighting clients or making the next breakthrough in data science. We’re setting the stage and starting things on a high note with our founder and CEO, Suresh Shankar. We deep dive into questions around entrepreneurship and talent, and where he thinks the future of personalization and AI lies 

Crayon turned 8 years old two months ago in June 2020. What is your proudest moment in the history of Crayon? 

Suresh Shankar: It’s hard to pick one moment, because every company out there has a series of proud moments over different parts of the journey. But there are two or three that standout for me.   
First, when we pitch for global clients like American Express, Visa, Emirates, who have the ability to pick literally the best technology provider (startup or not) out there, spend months evaluating all the vendors, and finally end up choosing These moments are always special because it is a validation, of being truly world class in what we offer. 
Second, is when we have some incredibly knowledgeable investors come on board the company. One such example is Kris Gopalakrishnan, the executive vice chairman of Infosys, a tech veteran, who built one of the best companies in the world. When he invested in Crayon he told me, “I think you’re onto something big.” 
Third, is how we deal with disappointment and setback. In 2019, one of our biggest clients did not convert our 15-month project into what was meant to be a 7-year contract. At that time, they were our biggest clients and it was a huge blow to the company when they did not renew. But one specific event that has stuck with me till date was when one Crayon (who worked on the project) simply shrugged his shoulders and said “Stuff like this happens, we’ve all been through setbacks.” It really shows us how resilient we are, and that we are quick to bounce back from disappointment. 

What would you say is the biggest strength of Crayon? 

Persistence and resilience are two of my favorite words. They’re also the two biggest strengths of Crayon. We learn surely from setbacks and keep going on from there. I think this is an underrated and undervalued virtue in a lot of startups. Speed and scale are valued in most, but we’ve all seen stories of how other companies and startups have soared very quickly and failed just as fast. Either because the business model doesn’t work, or the financial integrity of the firm is questionable. Building up something slowly and steadily, is an underrated but the most sustainable model.  

 In the past two decades, the industry has shifted from data warehousing to data analytics, and then from big data to AI. Crayon started out as a big data and analytics company. How has hiring evolved along this journey? Are we looking for talent of completely different skills and experiences now? 

As companies evolve, people inside the company also need to evolve alongside it. You need different kinds of people for the different stages of growth. In the early stage of Crayon, we had a bunch of great generals and a group of very talented young people in their late twenties and early thirties. These were fantastic product and engineering people who built the product based on our vision.   
As we went through a second phase of growth, where we needed to find our product-market fit, we needed a slightly different skill set. Talent in this phase needed to be adaptive to client requirements, and also possess the soft skills to interact with them. For example, they needed to be good listeners to absorb client requirements and translate that into our product roadmap. Many of our people (from stage 1) went through that growth and learning themselves, which showed their flexibility in thinking. This was also what led to our success with the large corporations we’ve worked with.  
Now, as we enter the next phase of hypergrowth. We are moving to a ‘rinse-and-repeat’ mindset. Where innovation is still important, but scaling (and ensuring repeatability) is way more important. Innovation in this stage is about questioning “How do we make more happen, but with less effort and resources?” So, I would say it’s not just about encouraging the ‘rinse-and-repeat’ model within Crayon, but also to get people who are comfortable with it to join the firm.  

With your previous company, RedPill, you predicted that marketing will take a turn from a right-brained to a left-brained activity. Which could not have been any truer! Can you shed some light on where you think the future of personalization is going in the next 10 years? 

In 2012, when I started Crayon Data, the world had already taken on a fundamental shift. 90% of data lies outside of enterprises (like banks and telcos) over the internet and other sources. There are massive amounts of data lying in different places, and we still need to bring it together. Even with such proliferation of data, your digital footprint  leaves you more vulnerable to spam than ever. Spam in the past used to be in the form of flyers and mail, then email and SMS. Now, it takes the form of digital advertisements that follow you from one platform to another. 
Today, everything happens at an individual level. Look at social media feeds, Spotify, Netflix and even my mobile banking application – every feed is personalized. This makes being relevant harder. On top of this, there is massive proliferation of choice. So, the question now really is, how do you find the right choice?  
My prediction is that by 2030, everybody in the world will have their own personal concierge. A personal concierge that is exclusively mine and does not answer to a large corporation. My data will stay with me; and I will have full control over my how my data is utilized and who gets access to it. My personal concierge will understand me and my preferences, find things that are relevant and right for me. It will be fully integrated with my life and be able to anticipate my needs in advance, and not be restricted to when I search for certain things. The technological components to make this happen are already in place, but at the moment, no one has mastered the art of making it truly personal 

What is one piece of advice you would give to your younger self 8 years ago (when you first started this company)? 

If there is one thing I have learnt, it’s that in general, when you look back at your life, you tend to connect the dots backwards. However, life cannot be lived in hindsight, it can only be lived forwards. My advice will be the following:  

  1.  What is the story you want to tell for the next 10 years? 
  2. Don’t be afraid to sound wrong or to be told you are wrong. The difference between that and being right, is persistence and time
  3. Over-invest in culture and values because they are far better indicators of success than financial metrics  
  4. Invest in training and coaching people using a common language for the company because that makes the sum greater than its parts. 

To learn more on Suresh’s views, check out these videos where he talks about his entrepreneurship journey and on being resilient: 
IIMPACT2014 : Insi8ht in Ei8ht Personal Stories, Suresh Shankar-Crayon Data 
Suresh Shankar on entrepreneurship and bamboo trees