Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I am Akhil Suresh Nair, the founder & CEO of Xena Intelligence, and a proud first-generation immigrant. Xena is an AI-powered eCommerce growth platform that uses data intelligence to automate and optimize eCommerce channels like Amazon & Walmart.
We currently post-revenue with monthly recurring revenue of $15,550 and have also signed contracts with a couple of large Fortune 500 consumer goods companies. Xena has also recently raised a modest sum of $115k for its pre-seed round through a VC fund and an Angel.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I used to have a consulting startup focused on small and mid-sized companies. This was immediately after my graduation from Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I came to the US about 5 years ago when Babson College was kind enough to offer me a scholarship to do so. Being one of the best schools in the world for entrepreneurship, Babson College played a huge role in enabling me to launch a tech startup, which I never thought I would do.
While consulting for small businesses, I realized that there was a big gap in the SMB sector regarding support in eCommerce sales, especially on platforms like Amazon. When the pandemic hit, almost all the small businesses took a big hit, especially in their brick and mortar sales, which forced them to either close shop or invest large amounts of time and money into figuring out the eCommerce space as an added revenue source.
Though I was no expert in eCommerce, I took it upon myself to learn everything there is to learn about selling on Amazon and I also happened to have clients who gave me the opportunity to test out my newfound skill on their stores - a risk which paid off quite handsomely for my clients, and for me.
The biggest lesson I learned was that the growth of the company is directly proportional to the ability to gain clients at a fast pace and show revenue. This has a domino effect on morale as well as attracts good capital - further fueling the growth.
Since I am an experiential learner, I quickly learned the ropes and was built to build a fast-growing business helping small businesses grow exponentially on Amazon and hence give them a lifeline in these trying times.
This experience also taught me that the only constraint in growing my business was the enormous amount of time which was required on my part to ensure the growth of my client’s business, which eventually gave me the idea to build a fully automated software to do all the heavy lifting and hence give a competitive edge to my clients due to automation and AI.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first and foremost challenge was to make sure that my idea of complete automation actually exists already, or if not, can be built efficiently. I realized that there were no products out in the market that did what I had envisioned. Then I reached out to expert freelancers to help me build a prototype of the software which can work with the Amazon backend. Platforms like Upwork and Fiverr really helped identify some fantastic freelance team members early on.
I was lucky enough to find a highly capable developer (who eventually became my CTO) who was able to navigate the complex world of eCommerce SaaS operations and effectively run proof of concept on the client accounts I had access to.
The process of finding the right developer took months of talking to different prospects. I felt that this process was very similar to dating, where you talk to a lot of people in search of the person you have chemistry and could connect most with. At this early stage, one has to go with their gut instincts and perhaps a few rounds of trial and error. I was fortunate to find my CTO in a very short duration of time. This success gave me tremendous confidence in the potential of this product, not just for Amazon, but eCommerce in general across the globe.
Talking of specifics, the initial version of Xena was an extremely simplistic dashboard that showed few KPIs of our clients. We used this as a jumpboard to slowly integrate more features and capabilities as we went along. The true watershed moment came when we onboarded team members who had experience with deep learning. This moment shifted Xena from being just a glorified ecommerce dashboard to a fully fletched automated software that can replace human ecommerce ‘experts’.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching the business was relatively easy for me since I had experience running my own consulting business prior to this. Testing the initial version of Xena was also quite expedited since we already had multiple clients who were willing to give their time and energy into improving our platform, since it was in their best interest to see Xena develop more capabilities. The challenging part was to build the brand from the ground up and let all networks know about the new venture on which I had embarked.
Another challenge was to find the right team - I had learned that it was critical to have the right set of people early on - this could make or break the startup. I was fortunate enough to find a highly capable COO, CTO, and UI developer and this has resulted in the tremendous growth of our modest startup, all of this prior to funding. We had bootstrapped through our revenue so far. As mentioned earlier, platforms like Upwork and Fiverr helped identify some top rated developers and speaking to each of them gave me an opportunity to really know about these fantastic individuals and see who I can envision working with.
Initially, I had used my credit cards, then the revenue started coming in, then we received angel funding and VC funding shortly after. Being an immigrant entrepreneur, I have experienced a fantastic culture in this country that awards meritocracy and hardwork. Hence finding investors who believed in our vision and our capability was just a matter of time. Along with the bash influx, I think the validation that comes with someone trusting their hard earned money on your vision can be a huge morale boost for the founder and the team.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Through my entrepreneurial journey, I have learned that the most important thing for an early-stage startup is the loyalty of early customers. This can only be achieved by building and maintaining strong customer relations consistent over months and years.
I have always been averse to high force sales tactics being used on me, so I resolved myself not to pursue that high-pressure sales strategy for Xena. I truly believe that if there is value in what you do, you will tend to attract the right kind of clients organically. Though in the initial phases, we did resort to cold calling, and though it did yield some very early results, I have been fortunate enough to be in a position to resort to that sales mode.
Our inbound sales flow has been quite robust as a result of our press releases including winning pitch competitions, real customer testimonials, etc. My advice to early-stage B2B startups would be to have patience and really focus on improving the value of your offering instead of wasting time and resources to invest in low-touch sales strategies.
We all are after all human beings and apart from value, I strongly believe that everyone makes decisions based on their gut instinct and this instinct can be brought about through real human connection.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are currently profitable, though we haven’t embarked on intensive marketing spend, which is certainly in the near future. It can get tricky to forecast growth, but this exercise can give us a strong north star and a great motivational tool for the team.
We plan to hit 100 customers by the end of 2022 with an MRR of over $250,000 (up from $15,000 currently).
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Through my journey, I have learned 2 things - timing is critical and cash is king. You may have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t time your execution, it will all go to waste. I have also learned the importance of financial discipline and having an eye on the bottom line, since as an entrepreneur, you are responsible for the livelihood of your team members.
I am also a strong believer in building real human connections over transactional financially motivating interactions.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Some of the media content I consume is given below.
They may not necessarily be related to my startup but I think gathering knowledge from a diverse set of sources that help expand your world view and keep abreast of all the current events. I am also in awe of those individuals mentioned above who started off with just passion and not necessarily with the view of growing enormous followers like they have. This further goes to show that being good and being persistent is usually enough to make your passion worthwhile.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Be persistent, as long as you enjoy what you do and you believe in what you do, no one in this world can stop you.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always on the lookout for great talent at every organizational level. As I said earlier, I am a big proponent of human connections and I’ll be here if you need me.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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