The Fund Founder Spotlight Interview: Surga Thilakan of SalesKen
The Fund is a founder community and early stage fund, by founders for founders.
Welcome to The Founder Spotlight where we highlight the incredible people behind the companies we’ve backed at The Fund. This week the spotlight is on Surga Thilakan, CEO and co-founder of SalesKen, a conversational intelligence platform that helps sales teams improve performance through real-time cues while also reducing acquisition costs.
Learning to sell is a skill that’s a lot like learning to drive a car. No amount of books you can read will compare to the experience of actually driving the car. And the real value is the coach who is sitting by your side giving you advice as you go. SalesKen is the equivalent of a driving coach for sales teams. They don’t just offer analytics of the sales call like other software on the market, they provide cues to help sales reps in real-time. Obviously having a real coach on every call is expensive, so co-founder and CEO Surga Thilakan and co-founder Sreeraman Vaidyanathan built a way to automate this process using speech analytics and Artificial Intelligence.
Surga was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs in London before she decided to go back to India to start a skills training organization where she trained over 20,000 sales representatives, all from low-income families. SalesKen is her second company and in just 2 years they raised $22M in Series B funding led by Microsoft and Sequoia India. Ken comes from the Latin meaning the range of perception, understanding or knowledge. SalesKen has a sage quality, offering knowledge in sales.
What is SalesKen’s “Northstar”?
From a product perspective we are trying to mimic the human brain. There's just so many things that go into your biological intelligence and we're trying to build something that operates with all the complexity a human brain does. From a sales perspective, real-time live assistance is a category creating product. This kind of human-machine interaction that is happening live does not exist widely, so we are looking to establish category leadership for real-time sales intelligence across the globe.
How does SalesKen inspire “customer love”?
We are the highest rated product within the category on G2 - which is a place where everyone goes to buy enterprise software. And if you look at conversation intelligence, we are the highest rated in the category for every quarter since we have launched. We have been number one and our customer love is immense.
What were some of your greatest challenges founding SalesKen?
The biggest challenge we have always faced is finding talent - that A-grade kind of team. This is a deep tech, high innovation product and finding data scientists and engineering talent has been difficult. Frankly, we’ve had to build a lot of it in-house through training, because it didn’t exist yet. We’ve had to go back to first principles, reading fundamental research papers, and then developing this product from scratch. But that’s it, the market has been overwhelming with the response to our product.
What drives you into startup battle day after day?
I think fundamentally I'm a creator at heart. The thing that gives me joy is creating something and pushing the boundary on some periphery of what the world has to offer. I believe that all human life is equal and so my first business was in the impact space trying to reduce the disparities that exist. Education and skills seemed to be a great way to break through all barriers including income, gender, caste, and religion. Empowering people through skills was a way I wanted to contribute to the world. Those answers really led me to SalesKen, which is a great way to augment human intelligence. If I can sell X, then I can sell 10X with SalesKen because it’s doing so much of the coaching for me in real-time. So what drives me into the battle? It’s a deep drive to create and contribute something to the world that overrides everything else.
Do you have any favorite startup focused podcasts or books?
I watch a lot of Elon Musk interviews because I find his scale of imagination is so massive. There's a lot of content about him on YouTube, which is just fantastic. I also like the Andreessen Horowitz blog and I can completely relate to Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers.