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Spekit Co-Founder Zari Zahra on Revolutionizing the Way Sales Teams Ramp Up Their Skills

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


Zari Zahra is a Pakistani-American, a Harvard MBA and an experienced product manager. Her previous experience includes building web and mobile apps for such innovative companies as Pandora, SquareTrade, RealtyShares and Rakuten.

Today, she is the chief product and technology officer, and co-founder of Spekit, a platform that is changing the way we learn at work by delivering training, in the flow of work, right when and where it’s needed. Zahra oversees all product and engineering departments, including a team office located in Karachi, Pakistan.

In this Q&A, Zahra shares lessons she learned on overcoming cultural adversity as a female entrepreneur, scaling a company from the ground up, and how to lead through adversity.


What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as the founder of your own company?

People, people, people. I’ll shout it from the rooftops. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that people define the trajectory of iconic products and companies and are the future. You might think startups are about ideas, innovation or technology, yet none of those are possible without people. Building a startup is about who you convince to build it with you. 

How can you find the right people, not just with the right skills, but also with the right culture fit? You need to develop a high-performance team without burning them out. There’s a fine balance to be done there. And it takes a certain type of empathetic but tenacious personality to survive.

 

What is one challenge you have faced as a female founder? What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs in a similar situation?

Don’t undersell yourself. I think that is one challenge that Melanie Fellay (Mel), my co-founder and I faced; we were too realistic. We were too conservative and felt hesitant about painting a vision that was truly big enough or bold enough. I think it’s women holding themselves to that concept of needing to be sure, sure, sure before saying things. Which is not entirely a bad thing to have, but it doesn’t suit the VC funding process.

I think we’ve gotten more comfortable speaking that vision out louder and bringing competence to the table. For example, we (women) will wait to fulfill 80 percent of the criteria before applying for a job, whereas men will apply with 20 percent. Interestingly, we had a VC once tell us, “I think you have a better business than you’re selling.”

 

What’s the main lesson you’ve learned about hiring since you started your company, and what are the most important things you look for when bringing on new hires?

One lesson I’ve learned about hiring is don’t cut through the process.  

It’s very easy to think “Let’s take a chance on this person.” And in the early days of a startup, there’s a lot of that. But as you mature, you need leaders with functional expertise, people who’ve been there, done that, and won. 

Mel and I really cherish that and seek out that expertise, people who have those qualities for the top level because they can teach us things we don’t know. 

So two things: Not cutting the process, and making sure we’re finding high-caliber people and hiring those leaders first. 

 

What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success?

I think grit and tenacity, being able to overcome highly stressful situations, and persevering despite that. 

Mel and I are both co-creators, and we’re okay with being vulnerable and open to being wrong; something that has always been part of critical thinkers’ rationale. Being open to saying you’re wrong. I learned that very early from my mom, and definitely from my dad, too. And I like to think I added to that attribute in her (Melanie), as well. Because if you can’t accept failure, tenfold, then you’re telling the rest of the team that they have to be perfect all the time. They can’t mess up and get better. That doesn’t mean we solved those problems overnight. But at least we know over time, they’ll get better. 

Empowering thinking has been part of how I operate as a manager. I want to work with people who want to be here. And I want to create an environment that they want to come to. To build a product they feel proud about. That gives them meaning. I lost my brother last year, so it’s very important for me that the time we spend together here is as valuable for everyone as it is for our bottom line.

 

What advice do you have for leaders in the midst of the Great Resignation? 

It’s the best time in history to be a leader like me and, in a sense, the data proves it. I’m working with some of the most talented and highly skilled knowledge workers who exist. I think if you’re in software, you’re in it because you like that creative process. 

Given the market we have, with the resignation/reshuffling, we are uniquely positioned and appointed at Spekit to help you invest in your people and create an environment—at this time in history—where they can authentically contribute, and where they want to contribute. 

 

What do you find most rewarding about your experience as a founder so far?

I think it’s the platform. Over time, I have grown to appreciate the value of my speaking up, not just about women in tech and the underrepresentation of women entrepreneurs in fundraising, but also being able to speak out about my depression surrounding the passing of my brother, or my husband of 16 years cheating. It’s when I talk about these things and use Spekit as a platform for discussing deeper issues that touch us all as humans. 

That brings hope to other people, and I know because they DM me afterward. It’s rewarding when you can use the business for more than just business, right? I think that’s really cool. 

 

Do you have any mentors or do you mentor aspiring professionals? Do you feel that mentorship opportunities are important for the future of the industry?

I didn’t have mentors growing up in Pakistan, or later in the U.S. I wish I had. I had no idea. t Spekit, mentoring is almost something we take for granted because the company is 40 percent to 45 percent women, which is unique for a tech company. I like that opportunities for mentorship are getting bigger. It points to a different future.

 

What was the inspiration behind Spekit?

Mel and I worked together at this super-fast-growing startup in the valley. It was a real estate crowdfunding platform, selling financial instruments online. And I was looking at a product, working on the biz-ops side, and we were throwing more people, more money and more tools at the problem, classic growth-mode style. Of course, that didn’t resolve our issues, because there’s this assumption that people will magically know how to use the processes, and keep up to speed with all the changes you throw their way over email. 

When you change the process three times a quarter, and then the market shifts, there’s just so much continuous change in the modern workplace—even more when you’re talking about high-growth tech or any fast-paced, innovative company like during mergers. f you’re not optimizing, you’re probably being left behind. 

We realized nothing was actually connecting those two together. How we report for example, how we chat online, how we communicate, collaborate on Slack, all those things have changed, but how we teach people how to do their jobs is still very old-school. Talk-at-you classroom learning is copy-pasted into the workplace; it hasn’t been innovated for decades. And that’s where the idea of a just-in-time learning platform came from, or as I like to think, the connective tissue to deliver different kinds of training. 

I’d gone through this big crisis and was exhausted and feeling burned out, and I’d just announced I was leaving to figure out what I wanted to do in life. Mel took me downstairs and pitched me this idea she’d had for a while, asking me if I wanted to come to build Spekit. And that’s how it started. 

 

What were some of the greatest initial challenges, and how did you overcome them?

You know how certain things and certain relationships in your life have a snowball energy, right? It was definitely one of those instances, where me leaving (my job) gave me the time to work on building the platform and it started gaining traction, and then Mel quit her job as well. We built on each other, built on the energy we saw in people when we actually shared our product idea. 

I took a Udemy course on Sketch and started designing. The first year and a half I sweated all on my own. We picked up a lot on the way, but we were constantly validating against the market. Mel was out there talking to people. We were out there talking to people and customers, going to conferences, showing them Spekit on my iPad and getting continuous feedback. 

It was incremental and the product shapeshifted alongside where the market is through experimentation and by seeing what sticks in the market. Ultimately, as a startup, especially in SaaS, we want to see what piques people’s interest. We started hitting high goals via mid-market companies, the sales enablement rebel-led teams that were actually super, super, super close to the problem, and getting a different reaction versus the IT team. 

Salesforce admin teams were focused on solving the symptoms of the problem, but that’s not where we’re getting the stickiness,  the most interest from our end users. For companies using us for their sales success playbooks, it’s the contextual embedding of business knowledge that is special to them. 

The next evolution is how can we use this data? For example, how can we insert that piece of information, the new battle card and learning knowledge snippet in the sales workflow when the individual needs it?

That’s the next phase: How do we make it more personalized and relevant—intelligent versus team- and role-based, which is what it is right now. I think there’s real power to that. What do I know about that? What should I know about that? I don’t know; I need to know. How do you expect people to look for it if they don’t know it exists? 

Spekit is uniquely positioned to find that value, so the entire marketing team, all the SDRs, can actually use this set of training materials. There are all sorts of insights we can add to the training and enablement of local market teams by tying it back to the data.

 

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

It’s important to understand the meaning of being a good leader,  to inspire others and to build leaders under you. If you want to see sustainable growth you need leaders growing other leaders. It’s rarely a one result, one-man (or woman) show, right? 

Honestly, more than anything, as a founder, I’ve been burned by not following my intuition, by analyzing myself into a decision. I’ve been learning to trust my intuition a bit more. 

 

What are the biggest lessons you learned from raising your $45M Series B round of funding?

Honestly, firstly that nothing speaks louder than customer love and a set of experienced leaders that can help co-create an iconic company—especially if you are a first-time founder. Second, the right existing investors can make all the difference in the world in helping you figure out how/when/who to raise from. 

Lastly, I think the biggest lesson for Mel and me was really that the right investors are those who have shared hypotheses on how the bigger trends we see in the market will play out. That means they will be able to connect the dots and help make that vision a reality. Brian Murray at Craft Ventures and Victoria Treyger at Felicis Ventures both really fit the bill, and we’re super fortunate to add operators of their caliber to our mix! 

  • Originally published April 21, 2022, updated May 3, 2022