Showing Weaknesses, Gathering Strengths | Surbhi Rathore at Symbl AI

In part one of our conversation with Surbhi Rathore, she told us about her company, Symbl AI, and their efforts to develop a conversational intelligence platform that can plug in to any business network.

In this second part of our conversation, she reveals the unlikely path she took to creating this company, and she shares some important lessons that anyone starting their own company will want to hear.

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Surbhi is CEO and co-founder of Symbl is bringing to life her vision for a programmable platform that empowers developers to deploy conversational data in their collaboration products and workflows. She co-founded Symbl (previously almost 2 years ago and was part of the Techstars Seattle ’19 class. Symbl raised an early-stage venture round of 1.8M eight months ago.

Symbl used the funding to grow a team of tech junkies to 25 people primarily distributed between India and Seattle. She comes with experience from technical and customer-obsessed roles in both startups and enterprises such as Nevis Networks and Amdocs. Before co-founding Symbl, she worked in the Conversational AI space with a focus on delivering value to Telco users. She is an advocate for Women in AI with a personal mission to inspire more women to work in Data Science. In her free time, she loves to travel the world and think about what problems need to be solved.

Surbi Rathore 0:00
They made, they showed the future, right and that demo. And so it became a little easy for us now to articulate saying that, hey, what you saw that we provide as an API. And that was kind of like a lightbulb moment for us that this is exactly what we need to sell to. This is the exact market segment.

Alexander Ferguson 0:23
In part one of our conversation with Surbhi Rathore, she told us about her company, Symbl AI, and their efforts to develop a conversational intelligence platform that can plug into any business network. In this second part of our conversation, she reveals the unlikely path she took to creating this company. And she shares some important lessons that anyone starting their own company will want to hear. Surbhi, it’s great to have you back again. And now to hear your journey a bit more in your insights of how are you innovating? How are you growing as an as a leader, first time leader of a tech company? Where How did this journey begin for you to say yes, I’m going to I’m going to lead my own company co founded and, and make it happen? How did that begin? And what was the first couple of hurdles that you had to overcome to make that happen?

Surbi Rathore 1:08
I love talking about this, because I’ve spoken to so many people telling them all my problems throughout. So I have spent the last 10 years into building and working with customers on solving problems for software applications in the telecommunication space. And that’s kind of like my background. And last three years, I worked on the conversational AI domain. And this credit of empowering me are even thinking, you know, letting me think about being a founder, it goes to my previous company and dogs. So yeah, my boss, they’re like, he just finally used to call me like, you are the CEO of our small startup here. And I was like, okay, is that? Like, why would I start a company? Like, honestly, I wasn’t the person who has always been thinking about starting the company like I am, I wasn’t that person ever. And I think it was just the opportunity, just like kind of the exposure that I got, okay, like, handle a budget, figured out the team, you know, do your thing. We just need dollars, and let’s, let’s see how we can build this thing. And then my co founder, who was also working on the same product, like he has, he was, he was a part of multiple startups during his entire journey. But he, because he had failed in like, couple of times. So he knew that, okay, like, when I see the right person, I will know it. And we know each other for a long time. So it was just like him convincing me and then Amdocs supporting me together that led me started into the journey. But it wasn’t easy. Like when we started, we were like, we’re going to build a b2c application that is going to help help people take notes. That was like our starting honestly, like that was how we started. And then I met Sramana Mitra, who is in the Bay Area, she runs one by one M, which is a virtual accelerator. And she was like, Are you crazy? left your job, you want to build a b2c platform, you had $0 in the bank, you need to think about how you’re going to support your first step for no server, you’re not getting funded, okay. So just like all of us, and founders who think they’re going to go to Silicon Valley and get that doesn’t happen. So I spent three months then building my network, I used to be in meetups. I was in San Jose at that time. So and I was in India before that. So I went from India to San Jose moved there. And my husband was moving to Australia, Sydney, I was like a crazy time. So three months in San Jose and I focused on building my network, I was like, this is the only thing I’m going to do validate my idea. build my network, I used to do meetups from like, 8am in the morning to like 12pm, sometimes 12am Sometimes, so but that was like a crash course into being a founder. So just the struggle of going to be able to people being persistent in your approach. And you know, like just learning about things, asking questions, being very vulnerable, you know, showing your weaknesses in addition to gathering strengths, being very open to people asking for help, which I think a lot of us and founders like really think about how will we ask for help? Like how can we say can you set a meeting with her you can totally do that. Go to the LinkedIn go and send a LinkedIn and why to anyone possible in the world and say that you are a first time founder you would love to meet for coffee and gain insights no one will refuse I think founders sympathize with founders empathize with founders as much as they can. So yeah,

Alexander Ferguson 4:33
I love your tenacity say I’m just gonna make it happen just make meetings until till something comes from it. For that journey then to come to were able to raise funds, what were some of the, the insights or hurdles that you’re able to overcome in that process? And okay, now we’ve got funding, we’ve got something to go with, that someone else can learn from.

Surbi Rathore 4:52
I think accelerators really contribute to bridging that gap for first time founders I would highly recommend and We were very lucky to get into Tech Stars. I mean, we applied first time when we just had an idea. They rejected us, obviously. Because we had not had, I should figure it out. And then the second time we got through, we were very excited. And TechStars was just like a whole different journey was like, we felt like we were in like the Howard for startups. But it was great, because we were in this bubble, where we had a full network of people that could help us, every single mentor totally focused on solving our problems. And it was like, there’s this whole team working to solve our problems aren’t just us. So that kind of was a beautiful time, I think I would highly recommend, I think that’s kind of like one particular moment, which changed, changed our entire trajectory, getting stars. Yeah,

Alexander Ferguson 5:51
that timeline of where you said, Then you came and then you were networking with three weeks or so? Did you like first apply? And then you just kept doing networking? Because you didn’t have like, what was that timeline that led to getting in and then things really turning around,

Surbi Rathore 6:03
I was so new, I did not even know how many accelerators out there. This is like a totally new founder journey I’m telling you about, like someone who’s in an enterprise and just like, jumps the ship and says, I’m going to do my thing. So I had to spend a lot of time even figuring out I applied to multiple accelerators, even in the Bay Area did not get through because just because no experience no connections, like not even have spoken to a previous founder before. So it took it took time, but

Alexander Ferguson 6:34
he didn’t let rejection or the failure to stop you. You just kept pushing forward.

Surbi Rathore 6:39
No, I don’t know. It was like a fire. Like you feel the fire when you have it. Right. So I mean, it’s like, it’s, it’s inside you and you’re not gonna stop until you prove to yourself that you can do this. Like, it’s like, how difficult is it gonna be? It’s just like learning a new skill, right? It’s like, it’s like you will you’re jumping from Java developer to let’s say, a no JS developer, it’s pretty much like that. You have to learn a new skill, you have to talk to the right people, you have to do the right things. And you might get there. So I’m still I’m still learning every day. But it’s a great journey.

Alexander Ferguson 7:11
Getting that first client, that first customer, what was that process? Like? Oh,

Surbi Rathore 7:15
my God, that was amazing. It was. Yeah, I was thrilled. We were so we went to the Infocomm Conference, which happened in Vegas, in May 2018. I still remember. And at that time, there was like, Microsoft demonstrated their vision of intelligent meetings. There’s this awesome video that I don’t know if you’ve seen or not. Where people walk in the room, there’s an intelligent device in the center says hello, hello. And you know, Scott’s taking action items and stuff. But that changed the mindset of every single UC platform out there. Thinking about Oh, my God, yes. That’s kind of the future of meetings. It was like they made they showed the future right in that demo. And so it became a little easy for us now to articulate saying that, hey, what you saw that we provide as an API. And that was kind of like a lightbulb moment for us that this is exactly what we need to sell to this is the exact market segment. So yeah, we were my outreach was always through LinkedIn. That was kind of like my bass medium of outreach. I used to use LinkedIn to reach out to customers. That’s that was the only medium and it worked. Because it was very personal. It was like bulk, emailing 1000 people and figuring out what to do. It wasn’t cheap tricks off finding out on Twitter and like dying, some people purposely it was really genuine in outreach. And I think that’s that’s kind of how I got my first customer.

Alexander Ferguson 8:41
How did you identify the right people to reach out to on LinkedIn? Do you already know the exact like, profile within the company you’re going for?

Surbi Rathore 8:50
No. So this is a part of so when I was working when I was working with Tamara Mitra, the one by one M, virtual incubator they call it. So that time she has some courses, which is like, hey, just do like course one to 10. And they have like weekly roundtables where you come in question and discuss and stuff. So it’s pretty scalable model to work with, like multiples and millions of entrepreneurs that are across the board. That’s where I kind of like pitched ideas that this is the person I want to sell. This is what I want to learn. It was a very iterative process of learning. It’s not that I just knew it. Yeah, it took it took us time to understand who’s the right persona and profile and also because we were in enterprises working in product teams. So we knew that if you need to integrate an API in a product team, like who you need to reach out to the product manager

Alexander Ferguson 9:38
you already knew I love I love the example you gave there though, of going back a little bit, going to a conference and using another person’s future tech show, have an anchor point to say, Yes, this is the future we can help you get there. That’s a great way that for us Other people are trying to lead the way

Surbi Rathore 10:02
smoothly. I think startups have even today like we have the hardest time explaining what we do. Just in because sometimes you will be confused with an existing player. Okay, probably you are like that like, no, no, that’s not what we do. We do this. So yes, it is difficult and challenging for every salivating story messaging, so important than I ever given any importance to. That’s, I think the first thing is, if you’re able to articulate exactly what you do in the best possible way, in a differentiated fashion, which is exactly what startups need to do, I think even before you go and identify the problem, or find this perfect solution, do a competitive analysis. And say, what is like how, how will you solve the problem to differentiate yourself? So that’s important.

Alexander Ferguson 10:49
So looking forward to going moving forward from here to realize this vision of both the near term and the long term? What hurdles? Do you see you’re gonna have to overcome in order to make that happen?

Surbi Rathore 11:00
Yeah, I think we are doing a parallel work of educating the market and creating the right information flow to tell people the possibilities of using the technology, in addition to making this available. So it’s like, it’s like doing both things in parallel. I think that is like the biggest hurdle for us. So we’re spending. And plus we are a team based in Seattle, and also in India. So we kind of like work, we have been working on like a 24 hour mode because of that, just to make sure that we are as speedy as possible in the market. Because like, you You can’t escape dying, right? So I think yeah, that’s the biggest holder for us to be able to educate and create the need in the market or realize the possibilities that this is a solvable problem, in addition to providing the actual solution.

Alexander Ferguson 11:52
Any immediate thoughts like are this is this is a good way we’re going to be able to educate our market and then create that need that others can learn from?

Surbi Rathore 12:01
Yeah, I mean, I have been really talking to a lot of people in Tullio zero, all these stripe and different companies to understand like, when they started the company, how were they able to do it? And I think, one, I think for API platforms, one very attractive approach is to kind of like either build different sample applications that shows different experiences, or build like an add on Mark, sort of an add on place where you can use us with this, you can use us with that. So that way, people are able to like bridge the gap in their mind, and they don’t have to struggle through where should I fit this in the territory? Oh, yeah, that’s that’s kind of

Alexander Ferguson 12:44
what you’re working on. Got it. I love it. So if people are having a hard time grasping, where where does your product or option fit into, you either build a little bit of an example of an add on of where it could be, or you build a marketplace where others can, they can see it and connect to it?

Surbi Rathore 12:59
Absolutely. And that that delivers immediate value. So all downstream application, like a task management system, if we if they build integration API’s, they can clearly show the value, or we can show the value with them that, hey, every time you commit to doing an action, it goes in your Trello board. So

Alexander Ferguson 13:18
so the faster you can show value that really is the key. as a, as a tech leader, and you’re constantly growing and innovating yourself, what books have you read recently, or audiobooks, or podcasts that have helped give you knowledge and insight?

Surbi Rathore 13:37
I think hard things about hard things, and crossing the chasm. I think these are like my Bibles. Absolutely. I mean, I keep reading a lot of books like hold Dan for product and things like that. But it’s really like, I think every founder, like must read these two books, because they will tell you like the importance of market engineering, which is a concept, which is so unknown to first time founders is really really elaborated. Well, so yeah. I also recently came across a book traction gap, which is, yeah, which is, I think, a good follow on read of Crossing the Chasm. So

Alexander Ferguson 14:19
action gap. Yeah. Okay. Nice. Last question. Last Q, what kind of tech innovation do you predict we will see in the near term and long term, so next year too, and then in the next 10 years or so?

Surbi Rathore 14:35
I think our traditional trajectory of tech innovations has changed because of COVID. Now, because the innovations that we would see in persons are now everything to remote like, how would you support digital certificates in medical, how would you support getting tested for these things from home where you don’t have to go out to the hospitals? Telehealth will have a mass have massive innovation area. I think education will have a massive innovation area. I think tuition fees should be solely. Everything is remote. I mean, it’s free education. Like I think there would be innovation around how to provide free education online to multiple people. I think it would be for good for sure. But yeah, these are some of the things that I’m personally very excited about.

Alexander Ferguson 15:27
Well, thank you again for sharing your insight this journey that you’re on I’m excited to see you realize your own vision and and where you’re where you’re headed. Thank you again, sir, for your time.

Surbi Rathore 15:38
Thanks for having me.

Alexander Ferguson 15:39
That concludes the audio version of this episode. To see the original and more visit our UpTech Report YouTube channel. If you know a tech company, we should interview you can nominate them at UpTech Or if you just prefer to listen, make sure you’re subscribed to this series on Apple podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcasting app.



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