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About The Guest
Nihal is an experienced marketer, globetrotter, and Founder & CEO of Qualsights. Previously, he was the Founder & CEO of Georama. Originally from India, he spent his teenage years as an internationally ranked tennis player before coming to the US on a full tennis scholarship.
While at Stony Brook University in New York, he interned at Google. Upon graduating at the top of his class with a BS in Marketing, he joined Microsoft where he spent five years in various marketing and data roles across Search (Bing) and Display, including as Program Manager for the Microsoft Media Network. Nihal combined his passion for technology and seeing/understanding the world by launching Georama, and the Qualsights.
- 00:00 — Intro
- 03:57 — Nihal Advani’s origin story
- 05:04 — Nihal Advani’s first company
- 07:28 — Building in the tourism category
- 09:05 — When developers try and screw you over
- 11:10 — The lifecycle of a company
- 13:09 — Gorilla marketing strategies
- 15:35 — Virtual traveling
- 18:53 — How to pivot gracefully
- 21:03 — Problems QualSights solves for
- 22:46 — How QualSights works with brands?
- 25:23 — The importance of consumer perspective
- 28:00 — Product & tech-led growth
- 31:18 — Product development best practices
- 33:21 — Monitoring the tools people use
- 34:32 — Finding product-market fit
- 40:04 — How to raise money
- 40:53 — Setting business goals
- 42:24 — Using consumer data for business
- 44:32 — Career lessons
- 46:27 — Where do people connect with Nihal Advani?
- 46:59 — What was the biggest challenge Nihal Advani has ever had to overcome?
- 48:05 — Nihal Advani’s mentor
- 49:29 — Nihal Advani’s book or podcast recommendation
- 49:58 — What would Nihal Advani tell his 20-year-old self?
- 50:19 — What does success mean to Nihal Advani?
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What is the Success Story Podcast?
On this podcast, you’ll find interviews, Q&A, keynote presentations & conversations on sales, marketing, business, startups, and entrepreneurship.
The podcast is hosted by entrepreneur, business executive, author, educator & speaker, Scott D. Clary.
Scott will discuss some of the lessons he’s learned over his own career, as well as have candid interviews with execs, celebrities, notable figures, and politicians. All who have achieved success through both wins and losses, to learn more about their life, their ideas, and insights.
He sits down with leaders and mentors and unpacks their stories to help pass those lessons on to others through both experiences and tactical strategies for business professionals, entrepreneurs, and everyone in between.
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Machine Generated Transcript
people, pivoted, worked, startup, company, started, brands, consumer insights, build, qual, product, microsoft, insights, industry, platform, money, consumers, travel, big, hiring
Scott D Clary, Nihal Advani
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Scott D Clary 00:36
Welcome to success story, the most useful podcast in the world. I’m your host Scott D. Clary. The success story podcast is part of the HubSpot podcast network, as well as the blue wire Podcast Network. Now the HubSpot Podcast Network has incredible shows like The mahr tech podcast hosted by Benjamin Shapiro. The Mar tech podcast is all about maximum value in 30 minutes or less. The Mar tech podcast share stories from world class marketers who use technology to generate growth and achieve business and career success on your lunch break. If you like any of these topics, you’re going to love the mark tech podcast. Some of the topics are zeroing in on the ideal product price point. Identifying loyalty plays for smart marketers, finding the line between sales and marketing and SAS extending the lifetime value of your customer. If these are topics that are interesting to you, go check out the martech podcast hosted by Ben Shapiro wherever you get your podcasts. Today, my guest is not Hall Advani. He is the founder and CEO of qual sights. The hall is a product and marketing expert. He spent his teenage years as an internationally ranked tennis player. However, after a college internship at Google, he followed his passion for technology. Upon graduation, he joined Microsoft, where he spent time in various marketing and data roles on high profile teams such as search, or Bing display and Microsoft media network. He left Microsoft combined his entrepreneurial spirit and passion and interest in seeing and understanding the world by launching qual sites, which is an immersive insights platform, they work with Fortune 1000, fortune 500, fortune 100. They help companies understand human behavior authentically and efficiently at scale. So we spoke about his entrepreneurial journey, leaving Microsoft to start his own company, his first version of qual search was actually a travel software company. And it pivoted and he iterated a couple times before he got to qualify. So we spoke about his first version of entrepreneurship leaving Microsoft hiring a dev shops and lessons learned there moonlighting at Microsoft so that he could bootstrap the business, all these great entrepreneurial stories, and some ideas and hopefully insights for you, if you’re going to start your own thing, how you can do it and not get screwed by your dev shop not worry about funding or financing, you’re going to find money, he built out a company properly from the ground up without any outside capital at the beginning. We also spoke about some of the things that qual cites does, which is consumer insights and market research. They do this for some of the largest brands in the world. So some thoughts on consumer insights, how to get consumer insights, how to apply them, some market research trends that some of the largest companies are looking for in consumer behavior. So if you do have customers, if you do have a CPG startup or you have a CPG company, he works with some of the largest ones in the world. So he has some great ideas on what you should look for and how you should be using and understanding consumer data and consumer behavior. Then we spoke about some lessons that he’s learned building qual sites, some of the innovation frameworks that he uses for his r&d teams. Considering the fact that before qual sites there was a couple other companies he built out, although he pivoted a few times, each one of those companies was successful in their own right, so he has a great framework for innovation. We spoke about some product development best practices that have set qual sights ahead of the pack. We spoke about financing and fundraising. He’s only taken on 3.5 million in 10 years. So how did he do that? How did he built his company without much external capital? And then lastly, we spoke about how qual sites achieved that hockey stick growth. How do they find that product market fit and how did they scale? So let’s jump right into it. This is Nihal Advani. He is the founder and CEO of QualSights.
Nihal Advani 04:33
Sure, yeah, I mean, I’ve always wanted to start my own business, right. So in college, I dropped a lot, thought about a gazillion ideas. Every single day I was writing something down. But then I decided I wasn’t ready yet. And I went to Microsoft and said I was an intern at Google said to turn mics up when I graduated and kind of set up kind of learn the ropes, you know, go to a bigger company kind of get more experience on my belt and then kind of start my own thing. So five years into Microsoft isn’t I quit. And it’s kind of funny because we started off being very different from where we are today, we won’t even call the same thing we will call g, Rama. And we will travel startups, I quit myself to launch a child startup. And today, as you know, we call call sites. And we are an insight to consumer insights, you know, software. So quite a big pivot along the way, in fact, a couple of months along the way, but yeah,
Scott D Clary 05:21
why am I so you were you’re like, you’re an engineer, right? That’s you were working at Microsoft, oh, you’re not
Nihal Advani 05:30
a techie kind of guy. But I was never, I wanted to do a, you know, a double major in computer science while I was in college, but I was a tennis player. And so I only could choose one I pick business.
Scott D Clary 05:40
Very good. Okay, so you got so you Okay, so you were in very technical companies, but you weren’t technical yourself. So your non technical co founder? So what was the you mentioned, like qualsites has gone through all these different iterations and all these different versions and whatnot? So what was the first company you started? Why? Why did you go into travel? What was the logic behind that? And how did you feel comfortable jumping ship and going into a company that you’ve in an industry you’ve never worked in before?
Nihal Advani 06:11
Yeah, it was scary to say, I mean, my family has always been a big trouble family, we’ve traveled a lot ever since I was young. You know, we took a couple trips a year, and it was something that was just ingrained in me, I love traveling, even as I grew up by myself and being here. And I just thought, you know, hey, you know, why not combine both my entrepreneurial kind of age as well as my my passion for traveling, and kind of build something that didn’t exist. And so if you think of, you know, it’s honestly, I don’t think it still exists right now. But it’s hard to make money doing that, hence, we pivoted, but if you think of, you know, travel in the space, you’ve got to advisor that’s fantastic. And travel planning. However, it’s fantastic. And travel planning, when you know, where you want to go. So tell you a great amount of things on what to do. You’ve got, of course, you know, all kinds of booking engines and you know, metasearch, engines and stuff. And then of course, you’ve got the social platforms that help you share your trip. But there was no company at least then and perhaps even now, it helps you kind of find where to go really well. It’s Google, it’s your friends, it’s, you know, things you’ve heard, it’s so there’s a lot of this back and forth searching or discussion. And that’s how I find that out is, you know, what other kind of media mediums, I’m sure, but for us, it was a recommendation engine that was built based on high level criteria saying, Okay, I want to go with my friends, I want to go to a place that has adventure and nightlife, I have a budget of x, I want weather why? Where can I go. And so that kind of high level recommendation engine that help people kind of plot things in a map, see where they could go visually, then dig in to see the things to do. And then also look at us as our trademark at the time was planned. Bookshare was really all three things. But with the unique spin being on a, the fact that it was, you know, more like at the higher level of the early stage of the journey, and then be having an all in one platform to kind of do it all in one place. And so that’s the kind of opportunity we saw. And it was really my passion that decided like, this is what kind of drove me to do it.
Scott D Clary 08:04
And when you started this, so you’re building out a recommendation engine, which I’m sure is not an easy task. So even getting started in this walk me through the leaving of leaving of corporate moving into startup. Did you like did you bootstrap? Did you go find funding? Did you have some money saved? You hired a developer? I think that point in somebody’s life is one of the most interesting points because how people tackle it is is everybody tackles it differently. But walk me through your sort of startup journey into this.
Nihal Advani 08:36
So I was quite tricky. I mean, I started off while while moonlighting at Microsoft, right? So my own free time at nights, I would kind of do this. And while I was technical in that, you know, I had done some stuff, even just at Mike’s about Bill like visual basic tools and stuff for Excel. Like I just figured it out. Because I had that inclination. I was still not a coder or like that would code this thing myself. So I had to find people. And so I found a couple folks out in India in the beginning, and then I worked with them. And they were full time on the company. I was part time. So it’s kind of funny now and we celebrate anniversaries. They’re like one year ahead of me, just kind of strange, because it took me a year to quit Microsoft but I funded it myself. So I self funded. It was something I was lucky in my last four roles at Microsoft had got some nice bonuses saved up and so kind of use that to kind of initially fund the business. And then the day I quit. It was basically in 2012. I actually had just raised our first 250 K from friends and family. And that’s what allowed me to quit awesome. And so it was a combination of bootstrapping for a little while building the product on the side and then taking the jump when I had some initial investment so
Scott D Clary 09:41
you didn’t even you didn’t even go for a technical co founder you fully outsourced you hired. How did you not get screwed by the developers that you’ve hired not being a developer yourself?
Nihal Advani 09:51
So interestingly enough, when I first started this very few people notice I started off with a contract like our outsource kind of firm for the first time For months, and you know, I’ve heard good things about them. And they were good in certain ways, but in other ways they weren’t. And so, very quickly, I started to realize that this is moving kind of slow, at least I feel it’s moving slow. So I hired a guy full time directly for a company who was in the same city to go and oversee them and see like, hey, are there gonna be any good? Or do we need to bring this in house? And fairly quickly, we realized, and he confirmed like, No, we gotta bring this in house. And so within three months, I believe it was we switched to kind of having a hole in house operation was my people working directly for me, with people I trust. And you know, obviously, that’s how we avoided any of the challenges that a lot of people fail, sometimes people get lucky. And they do well, with that kind of model. Other times, they have a challenge, because for as a startup, you’re like a tiny kind of fish, right, as if someone’s a dev shop on the other end, they have all of these deals, some of them, hopefully big ones for them. But then when a startup comes in with a small good idea, they’re gonna put they’re typically put their lowest developers on it and not really pay about as much you tend to do, because you don’t make that much money for them. And that’s where we luckily found that quick and switched to having our own fully in house operation, which is what allowed us to be successful,
Scott D Clary 11:06
very,very smart. I’ve never heard of somebody doing that. I’ve heard a lot of people getting screwed by dev shops. I’ve never heard of somebody hiring somebody in the city where they’re at to go, like audit the dev shop. That’s very good.
Nihal Advani 11:17
That was destroyed, and I want it, I still wanted to give them a try. And you they also take it back like wait, you’re gonna have somebody come sit with us. And like, Yeah, I mean, either that or we kind of parted ways now. And so they allowed it. And, you know, luckily, we found out that, you know, it was the right call to just move it in house. And I’m so glad we did. You know, we’ve that’s been a major advantage for us now to have our own tech team and have such such a strong tech team.
Scott D Clary 11:41
That argument against the gig economy. For sure, a little bit at least. Okay, so, okay, so you quit after you quit after a year you joined? And then? So what happened with that company? Why didn’t it work out? That sounds like a great idea. You’re right, I don’t even think it still exists. So was it like no product market fit was addressable market too small? What like, what was the lifecycle of that company?
Nihal Advani 12:06
It was the problem was the revenue model per se, right. So we actually at one point, had a couple 100,000 users, we won TechCrunch, a couple times, I mean, we were starting to get kind of known again, smaller, not known known, right. But it was it was in terms of usage, it was growing in terms of platform was really cool, very different, visually, very different results, completely interactive on a map, even back then in 2012. However, it was really how you made money. So of course, if you had millions of users someday you have other types of revenue opportunities, like advertising, but really the core revenue model for us. And as being a Chicago company, not a well, you know, like we we’ve over the course our company raised some money, but not raise too much, you know, so it was not something that we had boatloads of cash that we could go out and market the heck out of this thing. And so we were doing as much guerilla marketing efforts as we could. And if you think of travel in general, the way you make money, unless, again, you’re a big company with lots of millions of users and can do advertising is booking. With booking, you’ve got the experience and bookings in the cracks of the world. And it is a company you know, it’s commodity at this point, like people are always price comparing I’m sure we all do this all the time. And so when you’re looking at even though we were actually behind the scenes working with Expedia, and working with several other API’s, you’re going to have a prices and keep them as low as pretty much anyone had, as a new user who didn’t know the startup and was looking at, let’s say, a $200, hotel room on Jarama versus a $200, hotel room on Expedia booking, they’re gonna pick Expedia, booking more likely because those are brands that they recognized was a brands that they’ve actually, you know, can perhaps have better support and all of those things. And so we were getting a lot of people planning on our platform, but then going somewhere else booking and that wasn’t really working well for us, revenue wise. And that’s why we pivoted,
Scott D Clary 13:45
understood. And what were some of those guerilla marketing things that you were doing that were obviously not spending millions of dollars in ad money? Walk me through some of those and which ones worked, which ones didn’t?
Nihal Advani 13:56
You know, it was interesting, we actually did a lot of social back then this was like early, earlier days of social combat now, and you didn’t have any of the platforms you have now. But Facebook was something we tried, we actually won in travel, we won the best social media, startup and travel award. I remember if it was my skift. We also want cranes, Chicago’s best social media StartUp Award like so we’ve done some interesting things with Facebook, which was essentially we tried a bunch of different types of posts. But what we found was way to kind of get like a daily dose of inspiration was you combine a great, unique picture, right? We had curators that would find these cool pictures and kind of show people but you ask them a trivia question. And when you cut, like we tried so many different variations, different things. But the thing that was very clear, like data was way better was if you ask them a question of like, can you guess where this is, for example, and then show them a really cool picture that inspires them at the same time, the likes and the comments and stuff, the interactions were off the charts. And so that allowed us to get some really nice usage from folks like that, who found us on Facebook and then kind of got to our our platform And then we did other sorts of things as well. But that was I think one of the interesting ones
Scott D Clary 15:04
very interesting. Okay, so as this was growing, but obviously and you won awards you’re in, you got some press ups and PR, but it didn’t really work out. So I can still see though that this is like the roots of of consumer insights, like you’re getting information you’re figuring out. And this is, you know, the quality is not that far away from how it started. Really, if you think about it, like
Nihal Advani 15:28
you think of when you just say it right up front, it sounds like wait, what is my original passion, right? It was all about
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Nihal Advani 16:40
helping myself as well. Right I was I was I was one of the prospective users, but also helping just people in general see and understand the world. Why do you travel? You travel to explore the world right to see other things to new things that explores new things, and also understand culture understand of the humans and behavior and all those kinds of things. And so I always had that passion. And then we pivoted, we actually built a two times to get here. So we had a child startup, then we actually pivoted to virtual travel, which is another thing right within travel before we went to insights. But all of these three things were you know, what is connected by?
Scott D Clary 17:15
What is virtual travel? It says this is like pre Metaverse, so I don’t I don’t know what’s
Nihal Advani 17:21
so funny when people talk about I mean, Metaverse is a bit different. But so this is pre Meerkat, pre Periscope, pre Facebook Live, we actually finally got to battle on this this last year, seven years later, where we were the first to kind of do allow somebody to travel somewhere virtually without physically being there. So the way it worked is you had guides, local guides, whether it was actually official tour guides, which we had many, or whether it was you know, just locals in the city or even travelers in the inner city happening to be travel, we allowed them to share their experiences live. So not recorded videos, these were live videos. That’s why it was pre all of like, live is such a big thing now in today’s world. But in 2014, when we were doing this, it wasn’t a thing. And so we basically allowed people to virtually and remotely not just see what’s going on somewhere else through somebody else. But it was all mobile, by somebody who’s walking around in that city. And you could also kind of tailor your experience by saying, Hey, can you turn left and show me this? So can you get to do show me that or whatever it may be? Right. So it’s a very interactive experience. And it was really unique in that our goal was, you know, when we realized, Okay, why we’re why it was hard, we realized the whole financial model would work. And even though we had users and stuff, but then we were like, you know who what are companies in the travel industry that have actually broken out? Kayak was one you know, for years before we started was while they started out a kayak and Airbnb, like a new way of you know, searching for, for stuff. And then with Airbnb, a new inventory source. And we’re like, what can we do if we try to stay within travel, but be truly unique? And that’s what we came up with? We’re like, well, you know, folks, like you and me, we’re privileged in that we have got to see, you know, quite a bit of the world and etc. But there’s so many other folks out there in this world that actually would want to go places but don’t get a chance to go don’t get a chance to go as much whether it’s because of financial reasons, or sometimes it’s logistic or even physical reasons. And so that was kind of that that, that it was super exciting because we were doing something truly incredibly unique. And we did it beyond b2c, we very quickly realized b2c was going to be hard, because we had the same challenges and monta we had some interesting ideas amortization. In fact, Amazon by the way, recently just started a thing that is almost like an exact thing of what we were doing in 2014. It’s kind of funny Amazon travel. I think they’re piloting it in other pilot different things. We’ll see how it does. But point is we had different ways to kind of tip guides and have private tours and stuff like that. But we realized that this is gonna be very strong thing for b2b And that’s where we started to b2b. We work with tourism organizations like state of Illinois State of Michigan with clients of ours for example, we worked with various different hotels for things like site inspections, so going to see a hotel for like an event per se, or even like things like we have worked with a wind farm in Australia. For inspections in the wind farm, so all kinds of reasons we even worked with NASA for virtual field trips for kids who couldn’t go there. And they wanted to go to Nassau, even museums, many museum clients. So it was really unique. And we started to make some money there. But there too, because we had all of these different industries, right, we had tourism, we had government, we had education, we had others, that we were like, This is great. There’s definitely something here we’ve got strong tech, but we haven’t really found product market fit or found that one industry that we can really own. We’re trying to be Jack of all trades. And that’s where we made that final pivot to Paul said,
Scott D Clary 20:32
Okay,that makes Okay, so, but you pivoted the call sites, but you could have just Why did you not just double down on one industry? Why did you choose to pivot? Even like the brand, like the company name? That’s, that’s major?
Nihal Advani 20:45
Yeah. So when we were looking at these, and we were doing a few different things, right, so we’re doing these three different verticals. I just mentioned, this one time, one of our advisors connected us to this other potential investor. And within a day, he gave us a 25k check, because he was like, You know what, I’m a researcher. And I think your, your technology could be interesting for research for ethnography for helping people understand consumer behavior without physically visiting the home. Oh, that’s pretty interesting. So that’s how kind of the idea popped into my mind. And 2017, when we realized, like, listen, we weren’t kind of doing this and just like not going the way we wanted to, but I mean, it was not going bad, but it was not going great. We’re like, we need to figure it out. And we need to kind of hone in on one vertical, we’ve got to defilement startups out of the valley. And in that journey, what we did was like, unlike other start, we were kind of a little bit later stage going to find startups, considering we had a great product and all the stuff, we had some revenue, but we didn’t have the right market. And so we use that program single handedly focused, we took seven different verticals, including insights, being one of them at the time, to then kind of do some real tests and real some real market testing and conversations and a whole bunch of things that they taught us there. To determine what market it would be that we would focus on and insights was thrown into the hat because that one investor ones dropped a check really quickly. And when we did those tests, like we did, for example, email, or not email marketing, but like almost like sales, email sequencing, that’s quite common nowadays. But like automated sales emails to kind of see what message is working and it was a night and day with with compared to other industries, like the insights folks really it was resonating, our message was resonating. We spoke to a whole bunch of industry experts got some more investors. As part of that, like we just talking to people, and they were really excited about what we’re doing. We’re like, there’s something here and they’ve got real money, these CPG companies, for example, in pharma companies are real money, they have a real pain point that we can solve about being able to do research more efficiently and being doing deep research. And that’s how the whole you know, final change game to kind of hone in into into insights.
Scott D Clary 22:42
Okay, so then, okay, perfect. So then that brings us up to the call site. So what so like elevator pitch, what does Paul sites actually do for a company?
Nihal Advani 22:51
Yeah, so what we are is basically a consumer insights platform that allows them to understand consumer behavior, but in a much more authentic way than before, in that these brands can see consumers how they cook or clean or shop or eat while they’re doing it. Now initially, when we got into it, we were doing it live, because we’d build a super strong investigate library technology. But over time, what’s happened is we’ve gone beyond just live people can do a recording that they own time, they can do not just videos, but also photos, audios all these different moments that they can capture that allows brands to basically set up these tasks and activities for consumers to do. They go out and do them at their pace they picked based on for example, their demographic, psychographic, geographic behavior, or data. And once they enter project, instead of going to a focus group, for example, a typical way to do qualitative research was to go into a focus group facility and kind of talk about, you know, certain things. But that was all based on recall, right? It’s like saying, hey, you know, three weeks ago, last week, when he went to the store, what did you notice first, and why you have no memory because you don’t, you know, hold that kind of information. With this. It’s all as it happens, behavior, focus, contextual. And along that ability to capture data more in the moment, it’s all about analyzing the data much faster, because that’s another challenge with qualitative or unstructured data is how do you analyze that quickly. Quant on the other hand, quantitative like surveys are very structured, super easy to analyze and scale called heart through a suite of AI tools, we’re helping that process also be very efficient. And so in a nutshell, we help brands capture that data, analyze that data and present that data all in one place with a variety of different methodologies to get deep and authentic insights.
Scott D Clary 24:26
credible. So then what what are some some learnings that have have you pulled out of looking at doing this research this way? What is what are some things that brands have discovered from consumers that, for example, they wouldn’t have been able to know without qual sites.
Nihal Advani 24:44
I mean, there’s a tremendous amount of things we work with many Fortune 1000 brands on every week, right multiple times a week on a variety of different projects. I can obviously discuss specific things like you know, new product innovations, we’ve helped launch new products Patients we’ve helped, I can give you an example. Like, there was a brand again, I can’t name names, but fortune, you know, 100 brands that basically had an anti dandruff product that was looking to kind of build, build new innovations to kind of focus on heavy versus like sufferers of dandruff. Right. But they didn’t prior to that they hadn’t kind of distinguish those. So they didn’t realize how a heavy dandruff sufferer versus a light dandruff sufferer perceive their brand or perceive their category, right. And so using our platform, they were able to kind of get into the minds of consumers by having again two groups of consumers one with light one with heavy downdraft and seeing how their flare ups were different. Getting a diary on their day to day over seven days, a variety of different activities on what products they use, how they use them, how often they use them, so on so forth. And based on that understanding, then launch different messaging to the different groups to try and see what resonated well, and based on that feedback, optimize that messaging, and then launch those innovations. So that was an example of how to improve messaging through understanding consumer behavior and perception. We’ve done many things where we’ve had an interesting project, I remember quite fondly as we had, you know, Cyril brand, again, you know, fortune 500, CEO brand, that was basically looking to launch new cereal, but they wanted to kind of talk to kids. And typically, if you do an interview with kids, I mean, there’s legal stuff that parents are on and all, that’s fine. But if I’m a stranger, interviewing a kid, that kid’s gonna, you know, obviously, very likely not be that genuine with me, you’re gonna be shy or nervous, or whatever it may be, because they don’t know you. But with our app, it allowed the parent themselves to kind of sit next to the kid and show them these concepts, and have them react to these new potential innovations. These weren’t even real, they were just ideas on a on an image, basically different kinds of images. And the kids, of course, found it more like like a game, and they were giving their candid thoughts. And it was like beautiful to see. And that allowed them to actually build and iterate on a new product. So those are just a couple of examples where we have many more things that we do even install or post use, like consumption, and so on.
Scott D Clary 27:03
And as you obviously you’re now heavily involved in this industry. So what are some like? What are some trends? Like? what do what do companies actually pay attention to in terms of like, their consumers and the behavior? What matters to companies now? Or what rather, set differently? What should matter? If you, if you aren’t looking at these things, or certain consumer trends? What should you start looking at?
Nihal Advani 27:25
Yeah, I mean, I think as time goes, by more and more companies are realizing how important it is to truly understand their consumer and their customers behavior, right? Not just in the traditional ways, yes. You know, surveys have been around forever. And those are used quite heavily. But much beyond that, because a survey gives you like the what, yeah, but it rarely gives you the why, right? It gives you structured data, scalable data, but it’s not really giving you that much depth and context. So to answer the why, there’s no better way than talking to your consumers, talking to your consumers, or however, as expensive time consuming, you know, painful process, labor intensive. And that’s where our platform comes in, to help you understand the consumer behavior, understand their minds, without Nestle spending as much time and effort because it’s so efficient in terms of how you capture how you analyze that data. And so, in terms of trends, one big one, of course, the last couple years has been the pandemic, right? How do behaviors change? You know, and what behaviors are here to stay post pandemic, now that we are, you know, hopefully seeing, you know, some light at the end of tunnel here, like, what are the behaviors that stick? You know, and we’ve actually done some even internal studies on that, where, you know, the people, including myself, developed all these quirks, like, I still don’t press an elevator button on my finger, always use my elbow. It’s just a thing that’s there as it’s a funny, simple example. But what else do I do? Do I clean more? Right? Do Do people you know, do certain things with their food or whatever it may be different for each industry. But what are these behaviors that are here to say, that we’ve picked up over the last couple of years because things are so different. And that’s a very important thing for for brands to have their pulse on.
Scott D Clary 28:57
I just want to take a second and thank the sponsor of today’s episode. HubSpot. Now, if you’re tired of slowing down your teams with clunky software, processes and marketing that’s difficult to scale. HubSpot is here to help you and your business grow better. With collaboration tools, and built in SEO optimizations. HubSpot CRM platform is tailor made to help you scale your marketing with ease, integrated calendars, tasks, and commenting help hybrid teams stay connected. While automated SEO recommendations intuitively optimize your web page content for increased organic traffic. Ditch the difficult and dial up your marketing with tools that are easy to use, and easy to scale. Learn how your business can grow email@example.com Now let’s I want to I want to pivot a little bit and speak to some of the lessons that you’ve learned in building out the company as well. So this is this is incredibly interesting and obviously this can be incredibly useful for brands but this is something that I don’t think really existed before you created it like I have never heard of another company that does this. So you I understand the how the company sort of came to be, and the story behind the company. But when you’re building something in relatively, I guess, new industry blue ocean, I don’t know what the best word for this particular tool is. But how did you? How did you innovate? How did you how did you r&d this? How did you create this so that it was useful for brands? What’s your process of iterating and improving and optimizing the actual tech behind behind call sites?
Nihal Advani 30:30
Yeah, that’s, I think our biggest strength, honestly, that is our biggest trend. That’s why we’re here today. It’s where and we’ve done it multiple times. And in all three things, we had three unique products that had some, you know, underlying connectivity between them, but completely different focuses and industries. And we still managed to be unique every time and be ahead of the competition. And that’s because, you know, we do ourselves, I mean, we always know we can do more. But when we got into the insights industry, in the door, sales tax back and finance startups, we started to learn and listen to our clients, obviously, we had an idea of what would be valuable. So we kind of started with that, and told them what we had, and then kind of listened. And we put our product out there. We had them, try it. And we listen to feedback very, very, very much. And so we monitor how people are using the platform, but more importantly asked like more than anything else. We’re talking to our clients and encourage them encouraging them to always give us feedback. And we till today, we’re pushing updates to our platform twice a week. So a very fast in terms of how we iterate. And so we’re always improving. Sometimes, of course, there’s these major updates. Other times, it’s smaller ones, but it’s always we’re always kind of staying ahead of the game, always trying to think of what’s next. And a big, big part of that has been really listening to our clients. And at the same time not really looking at competitors, you know, what we try not to do is not looking at what else is out there, right? We actually, this is something I found it has worked at least Well, for me personally, is both times it was industries I had no connection to right. Yes, I had some fashion, but no connection to. But as I spoke to people, right, and in the case of qualified spoken speak to customers, I was not a researcher. But I can glean so much that there’s many times in the future people ask me like, Oh, you must be a researcher. And I’m like, No, I’m not Oh, and I’m just a good listener. But we listen and kind of take that in, but we don’t have the biases, like if I was a researcher, I think I wouldn’t be able to have done this as well. Because then I would have kind of been blocked in some ways of okay, this is what’s normal, this is what’s possible. I had no such baggage with me. And so therefore, I could go into an industry, understand what clients need, and build something because we have a very strong tech team and product is our strength, and then see how it works. And then keep building and then you know, once we had a certain stage look at competition, see like, Okay, where are we compared to the rest. And we were almost always ahead. And that’s really where it was really cool to be able to do that just purely based on customer feedback and our own can ideas
Scott D Clary 32:58
and talk to me about product development. Talk to me about some of the best practices that you’ve implemented, because obviously, product development has been key to your success. And this is something that I’ve, I think you sort of shown again and again, but how do you how do you develop this product so that it does serve the needs of your customers? You said feedback loops are obviously important, but some other good like product development? learnings?
Nihal Advani 33:23
Yeah, for us, I mean, we’re always a we’re listening to customers, like we talked about, but we are also monitoring how customers use things to then come up with what’s next. We’re also always trying to figure out how can we do something better, right? For example, if you think of AI over the last few years, it 10 years ago, right? If you try to kind of do what we’re doing today, probably couldn’t do it well, at least the other part A because, you know, maybe the smartphone penetration wasn’t so high and then be in terms of the AI piece that was actually something that is kind of progressed so much over the years. And so kind of keeping abreast of the latest technologies, keeping abreast of what we can do kind of to move the needle every single day or every single week is another key part of this to kind of understand, okay, hey, now that technology is getting better, we can help them take this unstructured data and do this and this and that with it, to actually make it much more fast for them to analyze that data. And we’ve kind of been able to use, you know, piggyback off. You know, for example, a whole bunch of innovations in AI, let’s talk about, for example, NLP has been a big thing. Natural language processing, of course, has continually kind of improved and you’ve got the Big Five, you know, companies kind of working on it. So it’s, it’s rare that you’ll see a young startup that will come out and beat them at the core of AI. So therefore, we didn’t go after the core of AI. Instead, we took all of their core AI capabilities, combine them and added our own flavor and kind of fill in the gaps. And that’s what for example, allowed us to have the best in class AI capability without having to spend billions of dollars that we have So you didn’t have to build it from scratch.
Scott D Clary 35:01
And how do you how do you, you mentioned one thing that was very interesting as well. So the the monitoring of how people actually use the tools that you build out. So how do you monitor them? Is there? Is there widgets that you you build out? Or is it something that you’ve coded, you know, internally that tracks user behavior within the how do you actually how do you actually get that data?
Nihal Advani 35:20
Yeah, we have a bunch of ways to track data with the app to see what’s what’s most popular use features and what’s not, you know, there’s always room for improvement even there. But we have kind of done that. There’s also ways for example, on an app that we track, actually, we have screenshots of how people are using our app. And so we see that starting screenshots actually is like basically videos, but we of course, any private stuff is kind of taken away, like if they’re putting in like an email, for example. But otherwise, it kind of shows the entire flow of using the app. And that allows us actually in two ways, one is if there is a bug, we can check that and say, okay, hey, where did they get stuck? Is this a user error? Is that a bug or something else? If someone complained, let’s say someone reached out about, like, some support question, but it also helps us understand, okay, maybe people are missing this new feature that we have there, or, you know, this can be optimized, and so on. So being able to actually see it, even in those kinds of ways is quite useful beyond just looking at the data. And then
Scott D Clary 36:13
how did you actually as Okay, so now you have a great product? How did you actually find that product market fit? How did you close your first customers recall sites? How did you scale the company? Was it was it pure sales and marketing? Did you go raise more money? And then you reinvested that? What was that sort of what was that process?
Nihal Advani 36:31
Yeah, no, we were very, very scrappy. So 2018, is when we pivoted officially to qualify, we changed the name, I think, even like September 2018. But we pivoted to insights in early 2018. And that first year was honestly all about just getting our name out as much as we could. And we didn’t really have much money to do so. But we were like, reaching out using a network and kind of getting a bunch of calls. And we kind of use those calls against to learn, you know, how our product stack stuff can what else we could do. And in that first year, because we came in as this library technology, when we would show clients, our tech, they would just be blown away they will ever want. We’ve never seen anything like it. But people can be like walking around, and you can kind of see them and kind of being able to be there was like so far ahead, which was good thing, but also a bad thing. Because most of the time, they were very excited. I mean, all the time, they were excited. Most of the time the reaction was, oh, this is amazing. Never seen anything like it. Let me think about the right project. And the next time we have the right project, we’ll get back to you. So what we realized after enough of those folks saying this is amazing. But we have to wait for the right project. We’re like we’re too ahead of the game. It’s something that people are interested in they aspire to. But this is not something that feels niche right now. It’s too far ahead. And so what can we do to kind of really kind of be better. And that’s what we realize is unlike in quant you’ve got Qualtrics you’ve got Survey Monkey, you’ve got big players, including some startups that are doing really well catching up in call. On the other hand, in our industry, yeah, there’s a few startups. But there’s no clear leader. There’s not one company that anyone can tell you as the leader and call me like, wait a second, why do we want to be this live video qualitative ethnography kind of leader where which we already were instantly? Because there was nobody, there still isn’t. But how can we kind of really own core? How can we be the Qualtrics, or Survey Monkey of the qualitative industry. And that’s where that 2018, late, late in 2018, early 2019, we started to build horizontally, and add the recorded videos and the photos and the barcode capture the screen capture all of the methodologies, we knew that were important to have a one stop shop toolkit for any quality researcher to just have one platform because the market is fragmented. You have startups doing one little thing, doing it well, but doing one little thing. And therefore, as a client as a brand, you’d have to actually end up going to multiple vendors to have these deep insights. We said why not have it on one platform, and then there’s all these benefits to mix and match these methodologies in one place, plus have all the AI to help analyze faster. And so we bought like the ultimate tool in learning from customers, even customers who didn’t buy from us or didn’t buy from us yet, when really back in in 2019. And that’s where we started to kind of get more clients pick up and it was all through either just switching outbound calls, which worked really well. We practiced that environment startups, and they taught us that and worked really well. Initially, it’s harder now. Because most people are doing it right. So there’s lot more noise. But we also, you know, got lucky at a couple conferences and events, we met some really solid clients, and then they become my actual clients. And so that’s how it all began. And then of course, it started to snowball
Scott D Clary 39:29
from there, did you? So that’s actually very interesting. So would you actually recommend that to two companies because you almost you, you you built this leading product in a certain niche and then you almost went into more competitive industries, just so it would be easier to sell like it’s almost the the opposite of what most people I assume, would think, Oh, I want to go into blue ocean. I’m a leading product and I’m so innovative. No one’s ever done it before, it seems. So this seems like such a great idea. There’s no competition. So you actually He built out a core set of features that infringe on a whole bunch of other companies that were already in very well established markets. And that’s actually how you got momentum.
Nihal Advani 40:10
It is because we were able to kind of take, for example, an interview, right, and interviewing folks who asked me like, I think those are nice for certain things. But for many of the behavioural insights that we encourage our clients to get to get these deeper, more authentic insights, those are not the right tools at all, that set up platform does offer and is used for interviews and focus groups, but many of those clients are bought in to start with that, where they’re like, Oh, I could use like a zoom or any other kind of tool nowadays, right to like to do an interview, but it doesn’t have research feek features like a back room and all this stuff that they would need. So we beat out the standard tools with that, however, where we really get them is like, did you know, you can analyze this data so much faster without AI? So then they’ll look at it and be like, Wow, yeah, man, this is so much better than my handwritten notes and all other, you know, older processes I should I used to do. And now like, oh, and now like, a couple of weeks, a few months later, did you know that you could also do this without even doing an interior in and actually see somebody cook, or seeing somebody opening a product and unboxing use your product or whatever it may be without having to do an interview because they could do it on their own piece. And you could have many more consumers. So a larger sample size and analyze it as fast because now you know what, yeah, how good it is, they’ll again, so you kind of get them in on where they are, and upgrade them to what the future is that we already had built. And so that’s sort of been our strategy. And sometimes we go that way. Other times, you’ve got companies who are super ahead of the game, and they get the cutting edge stuff, and they’ll come right there. But many of the companies still need they’re somewhere within that spectrum. And so our offering supports any, any company, regardless of where they are on that spectrum,
Scott D Clary 41:44
very smart. And after, after you obviously took this to market. And then you started to build out all these ancillary features that will actually allow you to capture more customers and actually and sell. Did you go and raise more money? Or did you just did you just grow with your own revenue?
Nihal Advani 42:02
No, we did. In the last couple years, we’ve been going down revenue, which is great. But prior to that, yes, we did. So we haven’t in the grand scheme of things. So since 2012, it’s gonna be in two months, it’s gonna be 10 years, which is insane. That isn’t just about 3.5 million, not including the current round, but essentially, so that’s, you know, what we did? So we were very capital efficient. While we’d receive one five years or 10 years, that’s, it’s not very, you know, yeah, exactly. It’s very capital efficient for what we’ve been doing.
Scott D Clary 42:34
Very good. Okay. And where do you where do you want to take this? Like, what’s the what’s the end goal? For you as an entrepreneur, you’re 10 years in, that’s a long time for an entrepreneur. So where do you want to go with it?
Nihal Advani 42:43
Yeah, persistence has been also a big, you know, advantage of ours, you know, it’s been required, of course, and it’s something something I’m proud of, right. But we knew, we wouldn’t have been this persistent if we didn’t know, we want something. And now, finally, the results have shown you know, We’re the fastest growing company in Illinois, we are 22, and the Inc 5000. And things are going really well. We’ve had 20, or 20x growth in the last two years in terms of revenue. Our goal, though, is we’re not you know, we weren’t one of those where I didn’t, if I wanted to kind of try and flip this, we had great IP all along the way that I could have, you know, sold for a decent sum, and at least proportionally, but you know, quite set. But that’s not what my goal was this as money is not been the primary factor. Of course, money helps. And that’s a byproduct, our bigger vision here is to kind of build a product that truly makes an impact in this world, it really is cheesy, but in our industry to kind of really kind of change the way people build, like, I’m all about innovation, right? That’s my biggest passion is is tech innovation. And if we can help clients in variety of industries, help be better innovators, which then in turn helps consumers have better products, that would be the ultimate goal and that success for us. And of course, the byproduct of doing that would result in great value to all of our investors and ourselves. But the primary kind of drivers that
Scott D Clary 44:05
and future predictions for consumer insight trends in the next five to 10 years, how granular are we going to be able to get in terms of what we can understand from a customer like it’s all it’s very, it’s very topical now. Like how much data we can get from people. So where do you think this is going?
Nihal Advani 44:23
Maybe in the future one I’ll disclose more because we have already the next innovation that good is another thing. It’s within Of course, now we’ll we’re not pivoting anymore, but within our industry it is. It’s funny, use the word granularity because that’s the word we use, you know, behind the scenes right now, I still unsettled with it, but it’s just a whole new level. It’s never been remotely seen before. And so we’re super excited about it. But it’s something where unlike, like the Facebook kind of model, right where you have, you know, social media platform and all these users and you get data and then of course the issue right now is How much data are you collecting and then be, are you not getting paid for your own data, and these companies are making millions off of you. Our goal is very different. Our goal is people and we already like people get paid to do this research studies, they get paid quite handsomely, actually, way more than a survey would give you the surveys out, in a sense, this is, you know, people make a significant one money working, you know, on a platform to get selected for projects that is, and so helping people make money for that data. But then sharing data that is not private, per se, it’s like, you know, there’s things that I’m willing to share, because it’s you know, how I use certain products or how I, you know, do a certain activity at home or hire shop for certain products, it’s just kind of understanding my mind and my behavior in a non intrusive way, and making money as a result. And so therefore, I think there’s a capability without going into technical details, there are some really interesting things that are going to come both from us and I think in the industry as a whole, that, take advantage of that and be on the right side of the whole privacy equation, be on the right side of the paying consumers for the data equation. And at the same time bringing value to clients to understand behavior and health sense building better products that help everybody who uses those products.
Scott D Clary 46:11
Sorry about that. I know a few things, a few things to close out just so I want to get some of your your socials and your website. But then I want to do some rapid fire questions as well. But before before we go into that, just some closing thoughts, anything else that you wanted to bring up about qual sites or, or anything that you’ve learned from your experience building out and pivoting three times and all these different lessons floor is yours?
Nihal Advani 46:39
I think the thing I always recommend, you know, younger, I got a lot of help along the way, right? So much advice, so much help. And it’s great to have that. And I think the thing I personally learned and I always like to share is there’s like the three P’s is what I call it, of an entrepreneur of this journey. One is passionate, right? So pick something you’re passionate about. If you don’t, you’re not going to survive 10 years. No, no chance. Right? And and sometimes you need to survive 10 years anymore, right? So that’s important so that you’re excited about what you’re doing. For the long term. Persistence, right, you’re gonna have a lot of things in your way, a lot of ups and downs, you know, we ourselves have, for example, multiple times in the course of this last 10 years, got down to the last, you know, couple $1,000 in the bank, right. And so, you’ll face some really crazy challenges, and some, you’ll get a lot of nose. But you have to stay persistent through that as long as of course, you have a strong belief in your product, and you know, you’ve got something. And then finally, I think the ability to pivot to the third pivot is another important one. Like, there’s rare, it’s rare to find companies today who start doing this. And by the end of their journey stay doing that. There’s almost always some sort of whether it’s a drastic weather like ours, or it’s other kinds of iterations. It’s rare that you start with something you stick with that and so your ability to learn your ability to kind of adapt to the market to sometimes even cannibalize yourself, is gonna be very important to kind of stay ahead of the game. And so those are the three things.
Scott D Clary 48:07
All right, so where do people go and connect with you? All of your social your personal socials or the website? You know, all that stuff poolside socials, any links you want to try?
Nihal Advani 48:20
Yeah, so for me, it’s LinkedIn. You know, so Annie Hall Advani is euro slash new haldwani is me on LinkedIn. And then of course Whitesides has everything called LinkedIn, you’ve got think we’re doing some stuff finally on Twitter. Now, we’re not as active yet. But yeah, those are perhaps the two most easiest ways to find the companies. Right.
Scott D Clary 48:39
Okay, let’s do a couple rapid fire. So the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome in your personal or professional life, what was it? How did you overcome it? And what did you learn from it?
Nihal Advani 48:49
You know, it’s actually one that happened just last year, and it was both. It was actually we lost our CTO this past year. Do you recall that, you know, in May and so terrible time very tragic. I was young. And the entire team kind of went to this. And for me, I mean, for for nine years of the 10. He was my colleague and friend, my first call in the morning, my last column night, and so they were tough. And, you know, the team just really got together. And, you know, we could, we didn’t have much control over what happened. Obviously, we tried everything we could to give him the care he needs, but you know, what had to happen happened. And now we can re energize to kind of do this not just for all of our own ambitions and goals, but also for him. And it’s been amazing to see the team to come together and really have, you know, an additional like driving force behind them and kind of just do this in his honor. So
Scott D Clary 49:46
sorry about that. But I’m glad to hear that the team got through that. Okay. That’s That’s not easy. Especially for you. If you had to choose one person, obviously, there’s been multiple to pick One person has had an incredible impact on your career. Who was it? And what did they teach you?
Nihal Advani 50:06
I’d say for my advisors mean I’ve had many people have impacted me in many ways. But one of our advisors, Mohan Sahni, he’s actually one of the top professors at Kellogg, I think is Associate Dean of innovation now at Kellogg, and he’s been my advisor. So the early travel days, and he’s kind of really helped us. He’s one of those, like, really big thinking, guys, like, I’ll take maybe like a few weeks to come up with something really nice. I’ll start to talk to my buyer, he’ll get it in like two minutes. Like he’ll he’ll get there like, he’s, he’s, he’s like a different level. And it’s just amazing to be able to ideate with folks like that we have some amazing advisors, including him involved and to build an idea from him learn from him. And he’s been really, really generous with his connections, he’s helped us bring on investors, you know, he’s introduced us to investors, introduce us to clients, because he gets so many folks that he will come to him and learn from him. And so I think all around, he’s one of those advisors that has kind of helped us in every way possible. And I strongly encourage startups to, to get active advisors and advisors like that are willing to, you know, pull up the sleeves, we’ll help you.
Scott D Clary 51:09
Yeah, perfect. No, I agree. A book or podcasts you’d recommend people to check out had an impact on your life.
Nihal Advani 51:17
You know, I actually do don’t read for books. It’s kind of funny, too. I mean, I’m very, I have crazy, I work hours. But what I do do is this app called Blinkist, where it’s basically an audio book, but it’s also 15 minutes, you know, eight to 15 minutes. And so using that I do a bunch and the reason why I thought that was really great was Blitzscaling. So
Scott D Clary 51:38
very good. If you could tell your 20 year old self one thing, what would it be?
Nihal Advani 51:45
Quick, faster, start faster. I while I there was a lot of benefits, and I really enjoyed Microsoft, I have great things to say about them. If I had to do it over, I would do it faster. So that would be my, my advice myself.
Scott D Clary 51:59
And then last question, what does success mean to you?
Nihal Advani 52:04
Yeah, I think we covered some of that. But it’s really for me, it’s like I really want to make an impact in this world. I want to you know, build an innovation that kind of helps companies and others. That to me is successful, where we can be recognized for all of our great tech and innovation that helps other companies innovate. That’s the number one driver for me.