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Q&A with Contentstack’s Neha Sampat

December 9, 2020

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds, raised funding, and are now leading successful companies.


Neha Sampat is CEO and co-founder at Contentstack, a leading Content Management System (CMS) and Content Experience Platform (CXP). Previously, Sampat was founder and CEO of Built.io, which was acquired by German software powerhouse Software AG in September 2018. She also founded digital transformation consultancy Raw Engineering, which helps large organizations adopt API-first, cloud-native and SaaS technologies. 

In this Q&A, we asked Sampat about her entrepreneurial journey, lessons learned from her recent Series A funding round, and advice she has for others looking to advocate for diversity and inclusion within their own companies and broader communities. 


 

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Yes. My dad was a serial entrepreneur and my parents ran their own print shop for a large part of my childhood, so I learned a lot from them about what it took to build and run something.

When I was 12, my friend and I started a New Kids on the Block Fan Club. We charged $18 for homemade fan gear we created in the print shop. We made over $1,000 in profit and then reinvested it to create a competitive kids’ Olympics event for our neighborhood. We also started a real-life babysitters club because we were obsessed with the books.

Fast-forward to my early 20s: I had just moved to Silicon Valley and was working in a tech PR firm. My friends and I decided to start our own firm and we ended up representing major consumer technology brands. The impact of Sept. 11 eventually led us to close shop, but my entrepreneurial calling was just beginning.

Since then I’ve built parking apps, launched ventures in wine education, and ultimately found my passion in tech. I’ve since founded three thriving companies, one of which was acquired by German powerhouse Software AG.

 

Q: What inspired you to start your company? What problems were you trying to solve?

While at VMware, I started to get the entrepreneurial itch. I had been yearning to do things at the speed of the market, but large enterprises move at a slower pace. I started to notice the inherent push/pull between tech and business teams and realized there might be a better way.

I left VMware to start a technology consultancy called Raw Engineering that helped companies modernize their technology stacks. This was in the early cloud era–around 2007 or 2008. We ultimately made the shift from a consultancy to a product company with the introduction of three products: a content management solution (Contentstack); an integration platform (Built.io); and a digital transformation solution (Raw Engineering). Ultimately, I spun out Contentstack and sold Built.io to Software AG in 2018, which gave us a little wiggle room to fund Contentstack and focus on growing that business.

Contentstack solves two industry issues: the need for marketing to move at the speed of business and independence of IT, and the need marketers have to treat every customer as their greatest asset.

Our mission is to enable brands to use digital experiences to create customer connections. This includes  the entire range of interactions consumers have with businesses across digital channels, devices and platforms. These experiences don’t just provide a whole new way to consume marketing, content, products and services, they allow businesses to collect unique consumer data that can help further dial-in each person’s individual customer journey.

 

Q: In 2019, only 3 percent of venture capital was invested in female-only founded companies. Did/do you feel welcome and accepted as an underrepresented group in the VC space? 

I’m positive that some subconscious bias exists. We live in a society that has been trained subconsciously to think about the capabilities of men and women differently. I was fortunate to have a proven track record of successfully growing a company from bootstrap through acquisition. However, the larger focus should be put on what can be done to level the playing field and advance female entrepreneurs. 

“Action from the top” matters. Because men remain overrepresented in corporate leadership positions and on corporate boards–as the data show–they hold the bulk of the decision-making authority today. This means that the gender gaps are unlikely to close without broad commitment and active participation by men and women alike. To be effective, the “tone from the top” needs to be accompanied by both action and accountability.

 

Q: What is your advice for other female founders at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys? 

Overall I’d say be crystal clear about what differentiates you from the competition and what marketplace issue you solve. There is a reason customers are drawn to your product or service; understand that reason, communicate it, and grow from there. Also, invest in your leadership team and your legal counsel. There are many areas to be scrappy; these are not it. 

Finally, find or create ways to support other women, whether it’s through hiring or encouraging others to make their own entrepreneurial leaps. Your connections follow you on all your future adventures; nurture them always.

 

Q: What challenge are you most proud of overcoming in your career?

The biggest challenge with being an entrepreneur and running a startup is cash-management and having enough runway. There were a number of months in those early, pre-fundraising days that I elected to forgo a salary so I could pay my employees. In those moments it’s easy to feel like giving up, but the thing that propelled me was that I had to make payroll next month. My team depended on me to deliver–that is the ultimate motivator. 

 

Q: Any thoughts/advice for entrepreneurs in the current economic climate?

Now more than ever it’s important to get back to basics and focus on your core competencies. When you win, why do you win? What do customers love about your product or service? Make sure that you are using your “superpowers” to your full advantage and double down on that. This effort will make your future direction clearer and will re-energize your team.  

 

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your own company structure?

Opportunity and community have been embedded in my entrepreneurial pursuits since high school. At Contentstack, this comes through as a relentless pursuit of diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities and thought. We look for talent in “unusual” places and people that might not seem an “obvious fit” at first glance. 

This year Contentstack moved its India office into a prominent local college, embedding innovation alongside learning. Beyond that, we are active in local college recruiting events to share more about our mission and purpose, and to encourage young people–but especially women–to consider a tech/STEM-based career. I am proud that 50 percent of our campus recruiting hires are female, as this effort is helping to increase the talent pool across not just our own company, but within the industry. 

I’m also proud of the Contentstack community we’ve created: We call it a tribe. We focus on humility, gratitude and allowing people to do the best work of their careers. For example, I make it a point to send quarterly hand-written thank-you notes to a cross section of employees, thanking them for an accomplishment, positive attitude, or just thoughtfulness. It’s a small gesture that goes a long way.

 

Q: What are the biggest lessons you learned from raising your last round of funding? 

Last year I embarked on one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life: raising funds for Contentstack. The company was growing exceedingly quickly, but our leadership team knew that in order to capitalize on the market we needed an infusion of capital to scale as quickly as possible. So, we jumped right in and spent the next few months taking meetings with the most reputable VCs across the country. 

A small part of me wondered how the meetings would go. It’s no secret that female-founded startups not focused on female customers have secured less than 2 percent of VC investment dollars since 2014. Despite the odds, we raised one of the largest Series A funding rounds led by a female founder: $31.5 million with Insight Partners as the lead investor. 

I learned so many lessons along the way, but some of the key advice I would share with other CEOs about to embark on this journey include:

  • Envision your Dream Outcome. This includes the amount of the round, your desired valuation and the board composition. But don’t be so married to your plan that you ignore valuable counsel. For example, VC firms counseled us to shift our initial intention to raise a Series A by gaining more traction with a seed round. We did it, and it gave us the additional runway needed to raise a much more significant Series A just one year later.
  • View the fundraising process like dating. Not every meeting will result in a long-term relationship. Picking a VC should be looked at similarly to picking a partner: You should have shared values; an aligned vision; and you should enjoy being around each other. Make sure you can see yourself solving difficult problems together with the board partner.
  • Customer references are precious–hold them close. Contentstack is fortunate to have a stable of customers who are happy to sing our praises. But I realized that I was too eager to share references at every request. Next time, I will require investors to get further along in their own diligence process before connecting them with any of our references and I suggest others do the same.
 

Q: How did you know you were choosing the right investors? What have they brought to the company?

We selected Insight Partners as our lead investor for many reasons. They have a successful track record of helping to scale digital companies and deeply understand our industry. But most importantly we have shared values. They believe that hands-on experience fosters long-term success. We both share the core values of growth equals opportunities. 

Before moving forward with Insight, I had a chance to speak with multiple CEOs who had worked closely with Teddie Wardi. This gave me the additional confidence that we were gaining the opportunity to work with a partner who was pragmatic and would bring operational experience to our board.

 

Q: How has your experience as a founder impacted those around you?

Entrepreneurship is contagious. I caught it from my parents, and I see it catching on with our family members. During the pandemic, my husband and I have spent a lot of time with three of our nephews who have been living in our house and seeing us at work every day.

We are lucky enough to witness them dreaming up business ideas, taking coding classes and more. And this is with the oldest one being only 8 years old. I can’t wait to see where they grow with it.


Neha Sampat CEO at Contentstack headshot

Bio: Neha Sampat (@nehasf) is CEO at Contentstack, a leading Content Management System (CMS) and Content Experience Platform (CXP). Previously, Neha was founder and CEO of Digital Experience Platform Built.io, which was acquired by German software powerhouse Software AG in September 2018. Neha also founded digital transformation consultancy Raw Engineering, which helps large organizations adopt API-first, cloud-native and SaaS technologies. 

Neha is a recognized industry leader, a proponent of diversity and an outspoken advocate for women in leadership. Neha can be found appearing on keynote stages or expert panels discussing her experiences as an entrepreneur, a female leader, or her company’s role in the future of technology. Neha was named in “San Francisco Business Times Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business” in 2017, is a “San Francisco Business Times 40 under 40” honoree and one of “50 Women in Tech Dominating Silicon Valley.” She was also honored as “CEO of the Year” by Aragon Research in December 2018.