194: Create Customer Familiarity with Sharekh Shaikh

Sharehk Shaikh, the founder of CleverX, the audience discovery platform for market and product research teams, and the co-founder of Reflow AI, a company that provides AI agents to build and run your HR tasks and workflows. We discuss about the importance of understanding customer needs and building a complete solution, the Create Familiarity Framework, the MVP fallacy and the vision for Reflow AI.

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Create Customer Familiarity with Sharekh Shaikh

Our guest is Sharekh Shaikh, the founder of CleverX, the audience discovery platform for market and product research teams, and the co-founder of Reflow AI, a company that provides AI agents to build and run your HR tasks and workflows. Sharekh, welcome to the show.

Yeah, it’s a pleasure being here, Steve. Thank you for having me.

Well, it’s exciting to have you because you are a tech founder, a multiple tech founder, and you’ve got some really cool technology up your sleeves. So tell us a little bit about your journey. What does it take to become a tech founder? How did that work out for you?

Yeah, it’s been quite a long journey. You know, I was born and raised in a very small town back in India. And at that time, I had no idea I was gonna be a tech entrepreneur or build those companies, but was very lucky to have amazing parents who gave us great education. And I was also very lucky that I lived in four countries when I started my career. So I did my computer science engineering back in India from a pretty good school and was lucky to get jobs with some amazing companies across, you know, different continents.

So I worked in Dubai for many years, worked in Singapore as well, and then moved to the U.S. a few years back. But my last job before starting CleverX was working for Gartner Research, which is one of the largest technology research companies in the world, and had the opportunity to work with really smart people there. You know, understood the world of research, understood the world of how, you know, the trends in technology are shaping how we live, work, and do things in general in business. So that was a very, very fascinating experience.

And I think that was a segue for me to get into building my own company because I saw a bunch of problems in that space and we wanted to solve them. And in the last three years of the company, the company has grown like at least tenfold. It’s been doing incredibly well. We have some biggest names in the world who use our platform to conduct research. Yeah, so overall it’s been a long but a very exciting journey across different places and geographies and meeting hundreds of people along the way.

So it struck me that on LinkedIn the description of the company is not an audience discovery platform but the audience discovery platform. So audience discovery platform. So tell me a little bit about why you feel that this is the platform, how are you different? And what is the problem that you’re solving?

Yeah, so for the audiences here on the podcast, right? I think a lot of people don’t know the scale at which market research happens, especially in a country like US. So close to 50 or $55 billion is spent on just conducting online surveys, be it business to consumer or business to business. And the problem with that industry is the data is very blinded, which means that when you as a researcher, you’re trying to conduct online surveys, especially in the B2B space where you’re spending somewhere around $100 to $200 per successful response, you still don’t have an idea who your respondent is.

And that is a very, very difficult position to be in for a researcher, be it in an enterprise or an end user or a market research company, because when your customer or your board asks you a question, how confident you are on the insights that you’ve achieved, the answer usually is not so great, because I really don’t know who these 100 or 500 people were who participated in my survey, I’m just going on the fact what my panel provider or my other vendors have told me that this is legitimate data.

Market research isn't just about numbers; it's about understanding the people behind the data. Click To Tweet

But if you look at the industry, 40% of fraud happens in every online survey project because of the data being blind. And that is the problem we’re trying to solve. So we are flipping the model completely, where we’re making 100% the identity of your respondents 100% transparent, so you have the trust in your insights. And you also have the ability to even connect and message and talk to every single respondent on your survey. That makes it really powerful for multiple reasons for a researcher, because it not just only gives them the confidence, but it also gives them the trust in their own insights.

And that is the reason we are very, very unique player in this space. I don’t think there is any other company that does what we are doing at scale and in a self-service model because our platform looks very much like LinkedIn, but it also gives you the tools to conduct research in different ways with a very known senior audience.

Very interesting, interesting. So I’ve done something similar for my books when I was researching what would be a great cover, I did some A-B tests and as a company called PICFU, which does this kind of research, and they kind of stratify their audience by age. And I think there are some other, you know, some other criteria. I can’t remember what it is, but I think it’s about consumption of certain products. And I was wondering how accurate that is. And how I could maybe more or less target my research, because I really would have preferred to focus on just my target market, but it was not available, could not be stressed by that much. So I wonder what is it that you guys do differently from companies? And how can you get closer to the identity of your of your audience or responders?

Yeah, that’s very interesting. You mentioned that because the problem that you shared just now, Steve, is the exact problem even for large enterprises. And they are struggling to find the right people who have a certain behaviour or buying pattern or influence to buy multimillion dollar products for business purposes. And it’s difficult for them to find these people. So you can actually locate these people on LinkedIn. The challenge is trust on LinkedIn is very low because of two major reasons.

One, I don’t want to interact with a stranger because I don’t know if like how my data is going to be used. The second problem with LinkedIn is a lot of spam. So you get a bunch of these requests, you don’t know who to trust. Even if you’re serious about like participating in someone’s research work, you don’t have a monetization mechanism. If I convince you somehow to participate in my online survey and promise you to give $100 for it, and if I do not give you those $100 after you’ve completed the survey, you have no one to talk to.

Like there is no way to find out like how you’re gonna get your money back. Right? So those are the reasons which allow our users to have the trust in our platform, because that’s something that we’ve taken care of really, really well. Going back to the point about how do you know about this audience, our platform is very transparent. So you can actually sign up on the platform and search for people by their location, their areas of expertise, by the companies that they’ve worked for before. So it very much looks like a LinkedIn sales navigator with all those different filters. And you get identity of that person.

You also get to see their LinkedIn profile too. So you can actually know that this person is who they say they are, but it goes one level beyond that, where you have the ability to connect with everyone or message them and have a chat with them before you even invite them for a research interview. So your expectations are really met well because you might have five specific questions. Let’s take an example of your book, right? You might say, I have the five options for my book. This is what my book is going to be about.

And this is what I want my users to get when they look at the cover page of my book. And there could be all of those five questions, three questions the person is like really great at, you know, giving you feedback or insights, but they might say like the other two questions I really don’t have knowledge. So you know what you’re gonna expect when you get into a conversation with a person like that. And you know that that entity as well.

So you know like their age group, their age, you know who they are, their senior business execs who care about strategy, and they are the right people who might buy a book or recommend your book to other people in their peer network. And I think that makes it really, really valuable for researchers so that transparency is what, you know, we are known for and the quality of people that are there on the platform, yeah.

Transparency breeds trust in our platform, addressing the challenges of trust and data security. Click To Tweet

Okay, that’s amazing. So we can talk more, we will talk more about this, but I like to also cover this topic of the business blueprint that this podcast is about. And in our prequel, we talked about one of your favorite frameworks called the Create Familiarity Framework, which may be a good segue from what we’re talking about here, about people trusting people that they can familiarize themselves with. So how does your framework, the Create Familiarity Framework work?

I think I remember the first conversation we had even before doing this podcast. It is really, really important for brands or people who have decision-making authority to know a company before they even get into a sales process. What I mean by that is things are not like they were 10 years before when it came to buying or selling a product. People would pick up a phone call, make a call to you in the next 10 minutes, convince you that this is the right product for you. And if you’re convinced, you might go and buy that product.

Things are very different now. There’s a lot of branding and marketing going on. And these people who have had these buying influence or decision-making authority, want to know what does your company stand for, who you guys are. And it is becoming more and more prominent and just not in startups, but other SMB as well, to put their brand out, make themselves familiar, so that the person can relate to you before making a buying decision. There was a study done in sales. Apparently 50% of the buyers have already made up their mind before they take up a demo for a tech company’s product.

So they’re already there, you know, halfway through because whatever they’ve seen about the company, what the other customers have spoken about, or their peers have recommended a particular product or service. So the other 50% is just about validating and making sure the pricing is right. And this product is gonna help me out the way I envision it to do it for me.

And I think that becomes a really, really powerful thing now for companies to create that familiarity through social media, through emails, through PR maybe, to be in front of the right audiences and then get them 50% through that process into the door and the other 50% is a job in a B2B environment of a sales team to get that thing done.

Ok, so I think you mentioned here is to build this awareness. So maybe you use thought leadership to build the awareness you’re posting maybe on LinkedIn and and then perhaps some ads could also help your business. Right. And maybe events as well, where you connect with the audience directly in person. So if I’m starting from scratch and I’m working on LinkedIn and I have a product or a service and I just want to build that familiarity, what should I do? What would be a great template for me to follow?

That’s a very, very interesting question because I have these conversations almost every week with founders who are just starting off on the journey. And the sad or the tragic part of the industry is best products do not always win. And what that means is you will see a bunch of really bad products that have created amazing distribution and have won the market and a best product company probably couldn’t do that. So this is a conversation, especially I have it with founders who are highly technical in nature.

They think if I build a product, people will come and they’ll use my product and they’re going to love it because I’ve put in so much time and effort into building this product. And it is probably right. It could be the best product out there, even though it’s a startup. But customers don’t think that way. Customers want to know who you are, the kind of references you have, and how many times you’ve seen in front of their eyes before I even like talk to you, right? So that trust is a very, very important aspect for businesses to do that.

So just a simple framework, how I would suggest any founder that wants to get that product market fed and be in front of the customers is to first talk to the people one-on-one, have at least 50 of those conversations to know what do they really care about. And then once you know these top three things that most of the people have shared with you that they care about these three things when they are buying a specific product or service which is exactly like yours or similar to yours, talk about that problem.

Talk about those three things that they care about, be it social media, doing events, trying to post ads, if you have some money from your investors or even if you’re bootstrapping or just simple email campaigns. I highly recommend a lot of founders, actually this book, it’s called traction. It has got like amazing framework to think about these things, about what are those channels that you can go after? So for B2B emails and LinkedIn were the best, right? In B2C, it could be influencer marketing, it could be, you know, a mobile app, it could be certain events which are around that particular set of demographics of people.

And I think you need to find out what those channels are, where do those people hang out? How do they interact with each other in their peer network. How do they even discuss buying or, you know, getting certain products between the peers itself? Once you know those things, it becomes really easy for you to go and execute. So just knowing those channels, understanding how much you might end up spending the time and the effort, finding out those two or three channels in the beginning is the most important thing for any startup.

I would even go further to say, finding out that one single channel, at least to reach that 1 million revenue rate is the most important thing to, from a distribution standpoint. Yeah, I believe every product can be put right in front of their customer, potential customer base. Most of the people struggle in finding where those people hang out, or how to put it right in front of them with the right value proposition.

Finding out that one single channel, at least to reach that 1 million revenue rate is the most important thing from a distribution standpoint. Click To Tweet

So, okay, so the steps are talk to people one-on-one to essentially know the three most important things that they’re looking for in your target market. Then basically talk about their problem. So that’s where thought leadership comes in. Talk about how you address the problem. So build up your awareness in this space. And then you can use, you know, LinkedIn events, conduct events as well. I don’t know if that’s really superfluous, this number three. And then research how they make their buying decision. And finally, find the most relevant channel where you can… Is it a channel of communication or a channel of distribution?

I think I would suggest it’s a channel of distribution in the sense, like, how do you sell your product, right? Are you going to use like a social media platform to do it? Is it going to be ads and then someone comes to your platform and self-serves themselves to solve that problem? It depends on the product. Absolutely, like there are products which are self-service, there are products which require a sales handhold.

It depends on the kind of product that you’re selling to the market, but your channel definitely defines where you’re gonna get maximum exposure and people are willing to understand your language and come to your product to get a demo or just have a phone call with you so they can understand better if it’s the right product for them or not. But going back to the summary of things, that is just a random example that I gave, and everything can change in that, right? So for a D2C brand, which is direct to consumer, the channels could be very different. It could be just one channel like Instagram or Facebook.

For a B2B company which sells a product which is over $10,000, it could be, you know, LinkedIn, then a demo and a proper sales process. So it differs based on what your pricing of your product looks like, the kind of customer, are you a B2B product or a B2C product? So those combination combinations change based on where your users hang out. But I think the premise remains the same. Understanding their pain deeply, getting those insights on those top three things that they care about. And that could change by geography as well, right? Like if you’re selling the product in Europe versus in the US, those three things might change. People just have a different way of looking at things.

So again, we are making it a little bit too complex. So just to say, sure. So interview your target market one-on-one to learn about the pain and what they are looking for a solution for. Then maybe number two could be to create a forum around it and then you educate them so that you build up your awareness. And then you figure out how they actually make their buying decisions, so what is the information they need, how do they want to learn about it and then you kind of slide into their buying process so that you provide what you’re looking for. And then you have to find an effective channel distribution, whether it’s events or use a LinkedIn plus demo, etc. So what is the channel that is going to work for that customer group, whether they B2B, B2C, and that’s kind of the framework.

Exactly, yeah, I think that’s a good way to start anywhere. And the most important part of that process is understanding the pain, because the biggest mistake most of the founders or startups make is building something that no one would care about. As well when you’re building things, because you want to change the world and bring something to life, which is way better than what exists today. But a lot of companies go down, even if they’ve raised millions of dollars in their first fundraise.

The most important part of that process is understanding the pain, because the biggest mistake most of the founders or startups make is building something that no one would care about. Click To Tweet

So convincing an investor is very different than convincing the market or the customer. They’re very two different things. And I would go with the latter more. Like raising money is not a sign of success. Yeah, it’s a good milestone to have, it gives you the resources. But the important part is how many customers really care about what you build. They find you valuable, and they’re willing to pay money repeatedly to use your product or service. I think that should be the sole goal for every startup from day one.

And to reach that point, you need to understand them deeply, you know, their pains, their daily life, and what does your product or what your product could do to solve those things on the personal as well as professional lives. So, yeah, that would be the biggest piece of advice I would give across that process. The other stuff is more tactical. You can still get that done with trial and error and you can make mistakes there, but not knowing the problems and then going about it is a mistake.

So, first, understand the pain of the customer. Got it. Now, we also talked about the lean startup approach and MVPs, and you said that you don’t really buy into that. So what is your reservation about lean startup?

That’s a very contrarian view. And I’ve seen it time and time again, people get bought into this idea that they have to create the most minimal product possible. But what is the word minimal? It could mean something to you differently than to me versus your customer. And I’ll give like a bunch of examples you’ve seen in the world with large companies as well. Apple is not the first company. Apple is not the company which launches a product first. It’ll always wait for four to five years to launch a product and it goes and changes the market. Even if Google has launched a product, it did not take off.

Apple comes in and changes everything. And they’re not the first one to get in. So there are examples in not just technology industry, but other industries as well, where the first mover with a minimal product is going to win. That’s not the way it works. So I think people have used that in a wrong context, I can understand that you don’t want to build a lot of stuff because you have very limited resources and time to build something.

But how do you know what is minimal? I think that’s a question everyone needs to ask. What is that one specific job that your product is doing really well? You need to know that from your potential customer base. But people think I’m just going to build something really minimal. I’m going to try and sell, but maybe the customer is expecting something more. And that happened with us, right? In the beginning days, our customers wouldn’t just want to try out the product because they’re like, if something goes wrong, I’m going to lose revenues from my customers.

So we had to give them a pretty decent product that could do a lot of things because they wouldn’t buy without it. But if I would have just said like, oh, there is no market here because my minimum viable product doesn’t, you know, solve the problem for them, we would have left that market and we wouldn’t have reached where we are as a company. So in certain scenarios, you’ve got to go beyond minimal to solve a problem for a customer. And that philosophy, so I’m not completely denying that MVP, building MVP is a completely wrong approach, but we should be aware of the fact that some industries, some products will not work on MVP approach.

So basically the MVP, whatever that is, has to be able to solve the problem. It only solves the problem halfway through. It’s not very well. It has got whatever problem the customers have. It has to be a complete solution, even if it’s a simple one.

Even if it’s a simpler solution, it solves only one problem. Your customer has to tell you what is an MVP, not the other way around. You can’t tell your customer, this is my MVP and you should use it. And if the customers don’t buy it, then you’re going to blame the market. I don’t think that’s the right approach there. I think if you have enough information about your customer, what do they care about?

And if they need like four features in the product to feel complete, to get their job done, you’ve got to do all those four features and not just rely on saying, like, I’m going to build one feature, use my product for this. You can go to another company to do those other three things. Maybe the customer doesn’t want to go and use two different products. They just want everything in one product. So knowing that, like, inside is so valuable and important. And I think that’s where a lot of companies fall into this MVP fallacy and end up putting in six months of building an MVP and it doesn’t work. And they quit in nine months and they blame the market.

So they are building an MUP, a Minimum Unviable Product.

Yes, in a way, but in their head, they’re thinking it’s an MVP. And I think just understanding what is the MUP versus MVP is a really, really important distinction here.

You’re embracing my terminology. Great.

Yes, I am.

So before we wrap up, you launched a company earlier this year called Reflow AI. So AI is a hot topic and there are different permutations of it. What does Reflow AI targets doing or does?

So, you know, my first company is doing incredibly well. We are a CDJ startup, multiple revenues and multiple millions in revenues now. And I thought I should, you know, do another company with a friend of mine. We know each other for a few years and he just had a last exit. Reflow is essentially a co-pilot for HR. It’s a personal assistant for HR teams to do certain tasks. So the idea is that we are at the cusp of a technology that understands natural language to a certain degree and can give you an output based on that.

So you would be in a position to write to an AI what you want to get done, and it should go ahead and do those tasks just like your virtual, very intelligent assistant. And I think that’s the vision we have for that company. And we are starting off with the HR space now, but long-term we might want to look at it working as an assistant for, across different business processes in an enterprise. So yeah, it’s going on well. We have a pilot base of customers that is going to be launched in mid of November. And we are excited about that. Yeah.

Well, that’s very exciting. So, Sharekh, if your listeners would like to learn more about your firm’s CleverX and Reflow AI, or they want to connect with you, where can they find you?

I think the best way would be to connect with me on LinkedIn. So I’m not on any other social media, just not a social media person, I guess, but LinkedIn would be the best way to connect. So my spelling of my name is Sharekh, S-H-A-R-E-K-H. And if you put CleverX there, Sharekh CleverX, I think I should pop up in the first search results. So yeah, happy to connect with anyone, answer if people have any questions around how to go about starting a business, or just to think about their go to market strategy. Happy to do that.

So listeners, if you have questions around, you know, researching new product opportunities, building up the awareness in the customer’s mind about you and then finding the right delivery channel to to actually convert those customers, then reach out to Sharekh or check out his businesses, CleverX, Reflow AI. Sharekh, thanks for coming and sharing your insights and your kind of contrarian thoughts on MVP.


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