SaaS Unicorn Exterro On How it Identified a Massive Opportunity to Create a Global Company

Exterro is a SaaS company that sells subscriptions of its cloud software to companies and helps them use the power of the data without the risks associated with it

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Bobby Balachandran, founder, president and CEO, Exterro started the company from a garage in 2004, along with Ajith Samuel, CPO, Shashidhar Angadi CTO and Karthik Kalani COO. Today, the startup has achieved a valuation of more than $1 billion.

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"When we started the company, we had a big dream…," Balachandran tells Entrepreneur India, as he starts narrating the company's journey so far.

Here is the transcript of the in-depth conversation.

Congrats on turning a unicorn. When you started out, was unicorn a goal?

There was a massive problem area we identified that was relevant to a lot of businesses and entities. The problem set in the legal space was a global one. When we started out, even though we had not yet found our beachhead, we knew that the sector offered a big growth opportunity. This is why we coined the term Legal GRC. The goal was to do something that SAP and Oracle created in the ERP space, but Exterro would do the same in the governance, risk and compliance segment. We have big aspirations and we believe becoming a unicorn was only our second innings. That's where our latest round of funding comes in. We have IPO plans and this means more growth. Exterro is solving a big problem in the market and I'm not surprised by what we have achieved today. We have an amazing team and even though we kind of had to solve many problems along the way, one by one, we had the big picture in mind at all times.

How have people's (employees, family, friends, investors) perceptions changed towards the company after it turned into a unicorn?

Becoming a unicorn was a small milestone as we have bigger aspirations for how much we can achieve. Becoming a unicorn functionally puts Exterro on the map as a company of scale; that it is solving a big problem, and it has stability; and that it has grown through different phases and is ready to move to the next level. We respect this and we've come through a pretty exciting, but not so easy journey. People trust us. People feel they're part of an organization, which has longevity. They also feel Exterro is a company with a very strong vision and is solving a very big problem.

Take us through your journey before the launch.

I have a computer science background. I started my career at Intel and worked and consulted for very large enterprises that have evolved into helping CIOs align technology with business. I had the opportunity to work with multiple business leaders, where they had ideas of automating systems and solving big picture problems in a consistent manner. When we started off, we met with several General Counsels and delved into the legal side of things, we found there was no structured system in place to tackle governance, risk and compliance issues. As businesses started going digital, data volumes were expected to increase.

This was a very expensive, risky problem, which was bound to get worse every day. And organizations were completely unprepared. We knew that technology was very important to solve that problem. So that's when we decided to take this massive opportunity and create a very large global company.

When you have a big aspiration, you want to put together an amazing team of people. Exterro required multiple talents to attack the problem set from different perspectives. I've known my co-founders — Shashidhar Anagadi, Ajith Samuel and Karthik Kalani — for a long time. I have a great deal of respect for each of them.

Can you elaborate on Exterrro's business model and the products/services it offers?

We are a SaaS company. We sell subscriptions of our cloud software to companies, and we have several modules. Every business focuses on the benefits of data. They are just exploring volumes of data. This also creates a lot of risks for businesses. We help companies use the power of the data without the risks associated with it. Our products fall under four main areas — data privacy, cybersecurity compliance, e-discovery and digital forensics.

Data privacy is a big problem for organizations today. With GDPR CCPA, and even the newly proposed privacy legislation in India, it plays a major role in how organizations operate. Organizations need to protect the privacy of their consumers, their employees, and everybody. We provide powerful solutions for companies to automate a lot of data privacy-related issues.

When it comes to cybersecurity compliance, we help companies better protect themselves and if there is a breach, we help them address incident response quickly and effectively. E-discovery is a big part of what we do. Justice cannot be delivered if the key part of any case — the electronic evidence is not properly gathered. We provide significant solutions surrounding e-discovery, solving a problem that businesses spend millions of dollars on for the purpose of compliance.

What are some of the mistakes that you made early on and what were the learnings from them?

I've made a lot of mistakes and whenever I make them, I feel it is an opportunity to learn. It was hard for me as an entrepreneur, since it was the first time I had started a venture of my own. When you have to drive fast and do a lot of different things, we make mistakes. As a leader, I feel that we should have on-boarded a chief revenue officer with adequate experience on the go-to-market side of things. I have always felt that if we had picked a CRO early on, perhaps that could have accelerated our growth.

What was that one moment or the decision that became the turning point for you, or Exterro, to become a unicorn?

There was no silver bullet, but it was a series of different things we had to do, which allowed us to grow. One thing we decided early on was to consolidate R&D in India. That was a hard decision to make, but that was the right one. We really made sure that we hired the best and brightest people, provided an amazing environment for them to innovate and build great products. Today, we have one of the best R&D teams in India supporting a global customer base. Our partnership with Leeds Equity about four years ago was a very pivotal milestone. We made sure that the relationship was going to be synergistic. It has enabled us to fastrack our growth plans. That partnership was a big one, which really helped transform Exterro to what it is today.

How has the pandemic changed the game for you?

Initially, the pandemic was shocking. I remember having a call with my entire employee base around the world when the first lockdown was announced. We knew we couldn't panic and so we decided to focus on innovation. We decided to become intimate with our customers. That was a starting point. We buckled down and started innovating like crazy. We adopted infrastructure to communicate in a remote setup and people got used to working from home, we noticed something interesting. Companies across the world were starting to feel the pain of things not operating efficiently. They had to find new ways to be more efficient, which meant relying more on technology. We saw an opportunity where our solution was starting to become more and more important, considering the number of remote endpoints were increasing. The pandemic was a time for muscle building for us. It was not easy. It was painful but coming out of the pandemic I would say we are in a very, very solid spot.

What's your USP?

We are the only company in the world that's looking at the legal governance risk and compliance problem and data problem holistically. There are a lot of siloed solutions in the market. There are also a lot of point tools. But when you think about things holistically, that's how we do it, that's our biggest USP — an integrated, scalable platform.

Tell us about your team culture.

A strong vision is necessary for any company to become successful. We have a very strong vision of what we want to do and who we are. We take pride in our culture of innovation. We have amazingly talented people and innovation is in our DNA. We have several levels of communication within our teams, to talk about our goals, what we need to do and how we are going to do it. Our team culture is one part of innovation. Our company culture relies on respecting each other and since we focus on solving big problems for businesses, we understand the importance of people with different skill sets complementing each other.

What are three key milestones Exterro has had so far?

The first biggest one was getting our product to fit the market's demand. If you don't have the product-market fit, it is difficult to grow. The second is putting together scalable infrastructure, which includes people, processes and systems, was a challenge. I think we are now in a place where we can scale significantly. The third was to be in a position of financial strength and with the recent round of funding, we have achieved that so we can now focus on going public. We aspire for unfettered growth, so we are very well capitalized, which enables us to take on new opportunities, both organically and inorganically.

Tell us about your future roadmap.

The problem set in the governance, risk and compliance space is a very big one and is constantly evolving. We feel we can solve these problems in the most elegant and impactful manner. We have a very strong, organic pipeline and growth strategy. We also have a very strong inorganic pipeline where, when we think about build versus buy, we can also buy companies who are extremely strong contenders in their areas. We plan on growing aggressively across all areas, both organically and inorganically. Growth and being intimate with customers through this journey are key goals.

Also, we plan on investing more in India as it is a big growth area. Europe and the US have been big markets for Exterro and we plan on investing in these regions as well as other countries in Asia.

Lastly, what motivates you to keep going?

For me, curiosity is a key aspect. I've always been curious about things, how it can be done better, how can we change things, why is it working this way, what are the issues? For me, curiosity continues to grow every day. I don't think I've been able to quench that.