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May 18, 2023

Unveiling the Secrets to Remarkable Valuations with Santosh Sharan — EP 026

Santosh Sharan

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Adam Robinson: With me today, I could not be more excited to have Santosh Sharan: on the show. He has been so transformational to us. If you watch any of my content, I mention him all the time. To give some context to Santosh, his background, I'll do a quick intro because he won't give himself enough credit. He's worked with over 15 B2B companies in various capacities in major operating roles. He joined ZoomInfo after they have been around for eight years and stuck at 7 or 8 million ARR. Within 36 months, they were 100 million ARR., same story, five years of existence, stuck between 5 and 10 million ARR. Santosh joins. Within 24 months, Sequoia led billion dollar valuation, secondary raise, and they've just been on an absolute rocket ship ever since then. And I think what he would be about to say, the question that I'm going to ask Santosh is clearly all of the B2B companies were not this successful but interestingly, they're kind of selling the same thing to the same people. And my question as someone who's been an entrepreneur and been banging my head against the wall for years is, in your opinion, what made the successful teams successful and the unsuccessful teams remain stuck in the mud? Let's just start it off right there.

Santosh Sharan: All right. Thanks, Adam. Great to have this conversation. So, there is no one single silver bullet that I can share. But certainly, the successful teams were offering something that the market needed at that point of time, right? And so, they were aligned to certain market trends, which we'll talk in a minute. So, that's one. And then there were a series of other things that I saw, which I'll get to in a moment. So, if I can take you to the B2B data landscape, so it started with Dun & Bradstreet, which is like a hundred-plus-year-old company, and they completely dominated the data space at one point of time. And with ZoomInfo, they started to provide arguably similar data but to SMBs that D&B wouldn't serve. So, on the back of that, and of course, at that time it was a go-to-market innovation to have a high-velocity sales team that would call like do massive like high-velocity calling. But together, they created a potent mix that the market desperately wanted, right? So, fast forward like a decade, around COVID, the market for the small business data exploded and then there are a series of companies, including Apollo, Lusha, RocketReach, Seamless, and others that took advantage of it.

And then they did something very similar to what ZoomInfo had done, except ZoomInfo by that time had gone public and moved upstream and arguably they didn't want to sell to these. So, again, the market at the lower end became undersold. So, by this time, the go-to-market could be innovated further. So, PLG, a product-led growth using SEO turned out to be a slightly more efficient approach. And selling data at $99 seemed to meet the need of this new and emerging market far better than $30,000 annual sales.

Adam Robinson: Right. So, that was the only option. ZoomInfo had grown into the only option being a 30K annual deal.

Santosh Sharan: More or less. That was the only dominant option. But the market, by selling it at a lower price, the market itself expanded because of this French economist that got a Nobel Prize that say increasing supply increases demand. So, more data and more affordable data increases the number of use cases people can have for the data. So, the market expanded, which I'm sure none of these players realized for a long time that it would be so big but now they can go upstream now that they have a big market. And honestly, trends like these are always there in every market. And I can think of five different ways this can be further disrupted like three more cycles or four more cycles forward. And this is kind of the lesson for all other businesses and market is to identify what is the next iteration and take advantage of it.

Adam Robinson: I love that. It's so inspiring. And I said earlier today that had I heard you say that three or four years ago before I was onto this thing, I probably would have dropped everything and just listened to whatever you had to say and gone after it.

Santosh Sharan: Tell us about the same phenomena that you saw in the email market, which I was inspired by when you mentioned.

Adam Robinson: So, I've been very inspired by the email market. The long story short in the email market is Constant Contact was the pioneer. They started in the late 90s and they actually got a lot of customers, probably 150,000 users paying them $50 a month. If you want to learn about this journey that Constant Contact took and how painful it is in some cases to sell a low-priced SaaS, google Gail Goodman, The Slow SaaS March of Death. It's 50 minutes and it's like amazing. They IPO'd in 2007. In 2002, a company called MailChimp started. They didn't use sales. It was like, you know, there were no phones. It was very much a product-led growth strategy from day one. And they went freemium in 2008. So, Constant Contact's IPO is in 2007 and I think MailChimp, they were very open-minded. Their product was almost entirely self-service. It didn't involve many humans at all. And I think they realized that they could do this massive freemium play and Constant Contact wouldn't have a response to it because all of their executives were heavily compensated with stock options. So, they had to keep raising their share price. And the way that you do that is incrementality, right? You cannot be making exponential plays as this type of public company. So, MailChimp went freemium in 2008.

Literally, a year into it, they said that their user base had grown from 85,000 to 450,000. And so, Constant Contact knew that it was working but they couldn't do anything about it. They just had a 15-day free trial or maybe a 60-day free trial, but they didn't have a response and they had no idea how well it was working because MailChimp stayed underneath the radar for a long time. But in 2000, I guess it was, I wrote this down somewhere in I think it was two years ago, MailChimp ended up selling for 12.1 billion. So, Constant Contact IPO'd for like 150 million. Endurance bought it in 2015 for $1 billion and then MailChimp sold five years later or six years later for 12 billion. Meanwhile, there's the story of Klaviyo, which at the time Klaviyo was starting in 2012, every email marketing company was trying to be very broad and cover all verticals, be a tool for all. Klaviyo, a combination of luck and right place, right time, and incredible foresight, they decided to go very deep on one particular vertical and that was Shopify stores, not even e-commerce. Shopify stores, right? The Shopify ecosystem, we all know what happened there. It went from 10,000 stores to 2.5 million stores because they were just this incredibly dominant product.

So, Klaviyo had this amazing tailwind at their back and what I want to say about MailChimp, which we talked about earlier today was by creating a product that was free for 90% of the market, as you so elegantly put it, they destroyed the ladder that they used to climb to their success as they were, you know, it was like there was no one was coming up behind them with this massive freemium play. You can't be more free than MailChimp, right? That's what I always said because I spent years trying to do things that they weren't going to do.

Santosh Sharan: Right. What's so inspiring about this is ClearView came in and got such a large market share when it seemed like MailChimp had already won.

Adam Robinson: Exactly.

Santosh Sharan: And entrepreneurs would give up when you have a competitor like MailChimp, right? How do you compete with an 800-pound gorilla? So, you see this example like segment after segment, right? So, like Siebel, SAP, Salesforce, and HubSpot comes in into CRM and corporate CRM and bCRM, and like this cycle keeps going on and on. Oftentimes, people go it's like you have to go down to go up. And then the other message we are talking about, what are the things that successful teams do? The other message that's really important to I think some teams internalize, many don't, is that in order to scale, revenue is not equal to scale. You just need like the whole world to know about you. And it's not going to come by going upstream just because you're making $100 million revenue. The world will not know about you. So, you need users. And for that, because users are like a pyramid, you have to go down rather than go up. Eventually, you can go up because that's where a larger TAM is but going down, it doesn't require like a lot of product investments as we saw. So, there are examples in the B2B data which I tap into to draw my inspiration where there have been companies that invested a lot in product and they didn't become half as successful as companies who didn't invest in product but invested in go to market.

So, technology does not equate to success. A product does not necessarily always accrue to succeed. In some cases, it does. I mean, eventually, a team has to do what they are really good at because it's really about scale and it's about differentiation and you get that by being genuine and authentic and sincere, and be true to your strengths. So, if your strength is product development, then that's what teams should do. And then there are a few more that I saw along the way. One thing I would like to add, because it may not be obvious, is because I looked at one industry for a decade. I could almost the 15 to 20 companies that I work with intimately, I could put them on the same benchmark because they were all selling into the same industry and compare why some are successful, some aren't, why some teams are successful and others aren't. And some teams are successful only a little better but not further. And a lot of that goes back into just mindset and human behavior and team and we can talk about that as well and non-linear thinking and exponential thinking and that's so difficult, right? Nobody teaches us how to have the right mindset.

Adam Robinson: Well, so one thing that we were talking about yesterday, which I thought was really interesting was you will get into what the mindset is but you said, "I've noticed that people who are far along in their careers and have had success with this mindset, this flexibility whatever you want to call it, they can do it. And then people who are very early in their careers..."

Santosh Sharan: Yeah.

Adam Robinson: But it's like there's this middle ground where if you have become successful one way, it can honestly become your enemy because you're basically a one-trick pony. You're unable to appreciate the fact that it's never going to come the second way how it did the first way. That's not the way. It's going to come in such a wildly different way. And I just want to talk about the Apollo that I owe stories specifically because I love it so much. It's like these guys were just stuck. You know, their investors, they were venture-backed unless for begging you to sort of go help them out. And the reason they were stuck was they had an inferior product to ZoomInfo, a brand that barely existed at all. I wouldn't even say they had a brand and they were trying to sell a worst product for half the price, you know, 30K versus 15K ACV. And you got in there and basically made a $99 unlimited use to sell against the 30K. And I can see what you're talking about how somebody who's maybe in their mid-thirties or something and had created a company worth tens or like $100 million a certain way might not be open to that type of radical sort of difference that's necessary to do something like that. It's just too crazy. It's too risky. There's too much on the line or whatever. It's too annoying. I can think of a thousand reasons why some people would just not even think about doing that who had it in their minds that they were going to sell with Salesforce outbound 15K ACV to go after the space.

Santosh Sharan: Right. There were other companies along with Apollo that Lusha, RocketReach that kind of joined the bandwagon. They all sold at subscription and did reasonably well as well. But to your point, let's discuss that point, because I really do think this is, in psychology, they call it confirmation bias. It's like if we are successful one way, we keep sort of resorting to the same strategy again and again in order to be successful. And it's not surprising that people with less experience are able to take more risk. And then people with a lot of experience take the same risk but with confidence because they've seen it. But again, some time in between is where one has to watch out and almost unlearn. I think in general it's a good idea to unlearn because what you have learned, right, because every problem is going to be different. What I find odd is most entrepreneurs, they want to copy each other. They want to read a business book and run their company like Steve Jobs to drive an Apple as a metaphor, which is it's not going to help. You need to find solutions that are unique to your own business, that are relevant to the environment you are at. And this market or environment is like a living, breathing thing. It's constantly evolving and changing.

So, in order to do this right so I always feel like creativity happens when your mind is completely free. And free even good ideas or biases really cage your creativity. It is like confirmation bias also slows down your creativity and hence less experience. Sometimes less experience is more than even too much experience.

Adam Robinson: Yeah. A tangent to this is Apollo, Lusha, ZoomInfo, all very successful. I mean, ZoomInfo's been at it the longest but yesterday you said ZoomInfo did it being really good at sales. They have one good product. They have four that are below the average, but they're just incredible in sales. Apollo is really good at engineering and so they're leading with a go-to-market strategy that sort of focuses around that. Lusha is very good at marketing. So, it's kind of to your point, and they're all worth more than $1 billion. They're doing it in completely different ways, right? And if Apollo looked at Lusha and tried to do it how they were doing, it wouldn't work for them.

Santosh Sharan: Yeah.

Adam Robinson: This is really an interesting thing.

Santosh Sharan: Yeah. No. And this is so fascinating because it's the same buyers and it's more or less the same data with just very slight variations. Every team has to really take advantage of what they're good at. And there's room to win with the strengths that they have. And this is a great example of not just these three companies but there are others with slight variations of their strength, of what they're good at, what they're not strong at. Like, ZoomInfo does have one of the strongest sales team in the B2B data space. They could be selling like a security solution and still be tremendously good at it because of their sales team. So, it doesn't mean that their product doesn't work. The rest could be table stakes. So, they have identified their superpower from what I can tell from the outside. So, every team, every company has a superpower. That's why they're doing what they're doing. There's this saying, you win your wars with your strength, not your enemies' weakness. So, it's important to understand what the strength is and not copy, and then leverage their strength to scale, to do non-linear activities because linear, everybody else can do the same thing. So, something non-linear could translate into some brilliant marketing strategies if that's your strength or some brilliant products to get ahead of the competitors, or billion sales workflows, and so on.

Adam Robinson: So, to recap, the teams that succeeded, they had a mindset that was open-minded enough and they thought freely enough to pursue nonlinear growth strategies. And the companies that stayed flat were not willing to do that kind of their own undoing, right?

Santosh Sharan: Yeah. So, I can elaborate further. Also, it's like every team has their own limitations. They only go as far as they can. It's like the S-curves. You need to like have a new S-curve but then some teams are open until so much and then they stop. The world's so big, the market's so big that literally even in B2B data, everybody has room to grow. Every team could be far bigger than what they are. And the reason they don't is really limited to their imaginations, their ability, like you said, open mindset because oftentimes they... So, let me articulate this right. It's like people want outcome to the effort in a straight line, especially in business. They make investment. They don't see outcome in like three weeks, they think that initiative sucks and they move on to the next thing. And as we know, the way this S-curve works is it just takes time but also you get the outcome in a roundabout fashion. Sometimes you're putting in effort because you are putting in so much focus, you end up finding the solution elsewhere than what you anticipated.

And it's important to stay open to that mindset and to really solve problems, like find the root cause and solve it. It's surprising how many times people are just so fixated on their view of finding solution. They block the solution that's right under their nose. And I would contribute that to some lack of strategy because we live in an age of information transparency. Like, every vendor knows what other vendors are doing in terms of best practices. So, they could easily copy from each other and get better at whatever they are lacking with. And yet they don't. It's really because they have very strong ideas based on their DNA of how they want success. It's not just they want success. They want success while churning a certain path. This is where being open-minded really, really helps where you can grasp and absorb best practices from everyone and be really open and humble, and creative.

Adam Robinson: So, we hit in a few points there. Some teams want success in a straight line but that's not the way exponentiality works. It's an S-curve, which we can talk about in a minute. And some teams won't trust themselves and won't trust the unknown, which I think is another thing you were articulating. You also said yesterday that some teams just won't think big. They don't think they have a right to.

Santosh Sharan: Yeah.

Adam Robinson: I can relate to that because with Robly, I felt it was impossible to think big because of just the way the market was set up. There were these dominant players and there were literally a hundred other email marketing vendors that were like 2 to 3 million in revenue just like mine. And there was this one called ConvertKit where a guy who was a blogger made one for bloggers, but I wasn't a blogger, so how am I supposed to? I didn't know bloggers. I didn't know what problem to solve. Anyway, it was a really weird spot to be in. And it kind of, you know, we had this data mining strategy that got us to 3 million, but then I couldn't grow it past there no matter what I tried to do. It really made me question my ability as an entrepreneur. And it was really validating to start GetEmails and to be able to grow that business on its own in the wild. It was like, now I know how to create a product and market it and have it thrive. I still didn't have a license to think unicorn size, really until I watched Dave do it and then you showed up and brought this attitude that the market is so massive and no matter where you start, you can end up at billions of dollars a valuation for a company. It's just not that difficult. You just have to have the right mindset and the right team and you have to forge your own path, basically, which is what I'm documenting right now.

But that was an interesting one, not thinking I had a right to go for it. I don't know whether it was because I didn't think I had a right or I just didn't see the path. Now, it's very easy because I see the path. I mean, it's not totally clear but it's kind of like there's some path through these woods that leads to the other side where there's like a bright light. I don't know what it is yet. We maybe narrowed it down to like three or four paths but there is a path to the other side of these woods and I see the end of it but I don't know. Four years ago, before I started GetEmails, the idea of creating a unicorn, it wasn't even in my headspace. I did not think it was possible.

Santosh Sharan: Yeah. No, we are trained in a way to not believe where we don't see evidence. So, if you think about company growth, it's a direct correlation to personal growth. So, if a company has to transform and become something bigger, all the team members and entrepreneur has to like personally transform. And what that journey involves in terms of personal transformation is really trusting yourself, trusting the team members, trusting into the unknown, the universe that once you embark on this journey, you'll get to the destination, maybe not in a straight line because you don't know the path, right? But in a roundabout fashion, you know you'll find the path, right? And honestly, if other teams have found, there's just no reason why anybody else can't. It's so easy to, I mean, it's so obvious. The market is big and I think you are spot on when you say most teams lack ambition because they just aren't afraid to think big. And in some ways, I feel like doing 10X or doing something much bigger is easier than doing something smaller because when you have a big dream, you attract other folks that want to participate in the big dreams, right? You attract the right kind of talent. You attract people that want to make this a reason for them to live. What says if you're doing something tiny? You're just going to get neglected. You'd rather have a bigger dream that you only attain 50% than a tiny dream that you attain 200% of.

Adam Robinson: Right. Yeah. I read this in a Sam Schwarzman book, and I recently made a video about it. He said something very elegant. So, he wrote this whole book and it was mostly about just the pursuit of excellence. The book's called What It Takes and he had 40 pieces of advice at the end of it. Number one was go for something big. It's just as hard to create something small. So, you might as well enjoy everything that comes from doing something big if you're going to go out there and do something at all, especially the entrepreneur. Anyway...

Santosh Sharan: And just one more point there. You know, going something big, it's just healthy. It's just like spiritual, right, because you're constantly striving for something that's otherwise unattainable. The goal is so mammoth and humongous that every cell, every ounce of your energy, every cell in your body is trying to work with a purpose, right? That's just a better way of living than something that you know you can attain like with a fraction of your energy.

Adam Robinson: Yeah. I completely agree with you. So, a concept that we always talk about is the way to do this, the way to create something really big is to be working on things that can be an S-curve. And then so, let's first talk about S-curves, and then we're going to go into stacking S-curves in this idea but like what's the idea with an S-curve?

Santosh Sharan: Yeah. It's like a universal law. It's just a vocabulary that really helps kind of as you are thinking about initiatives in a business sort of environment. So, in our personal life, all of us have seen some people put in just a little bit effort and then they get immediate returns on the effort. Whereas we are putting in efforts for years and see no results and we're like scratching our head, what are we doing wrong? Whereas other people like get returns in like two months of effort and I don't get in eight years, right? The reason is that this S-curve at the bottom, the way it works is any initiative you just keep putting effort, you get no result until it reaches a tipping point. And then you get all the results, all upfront. So, think about it like a hill. You're pushing something up the hill, and once you reach a tipping point, you can roll that thing on its own, on the other side. So, it's really important to think about like when you are architecting growth, you don't think about like how big the idea is, build a model, and then break it down into what initiatives will get you to that model or get you to that goal. It's as important to have the patience to get to the high side of the S-curve as it is to walk away from that S-curve because at the other end, you can't keep beating a dead horse and expect to have more productive. At some point, there'll be no incremental benefit from that initiative. So, every product, every initiative has a shelf life. So, knowing when to jump off and carefully architecting these initiatives in product engineering, sales, marketing operations, so together they add up to whatever, otherwise intimidating goal we have, I think that's kind of a quick refresher.

Adam Robinson: Yeah. So, the idea is you're doing things that you sort of know. You don't know when they're going to pan out but they have this potential to just catch the right combination of lightning in a bottle at this time and place in the universe and absolutely just rocket ship. And then that too at some point we'll plateau. So, while that's happening, you say that we need to be working on our next one so that it can sort of keep taking you higher. And I love your story about ZoomInfo. There's a couple of things I love about it. One, it's like getting from 0 to 8 million took forever, right? 8 million to 100 took three years. 100 to 500 took like a year and a half. It's like there's a nonlinear path to value in business. And it's almost like it gets easier as you get bigger if you're harnessing all of these powers, which I think is great. And the reason why which are these, you know, which in hearing you articulate them, it makes so much sense. It's like the ZoomInfo is not necessarily trying to do things that increase their revenue. They were trying to do things which made them a completely dominant player in the market, an 800-pound gorilla. And just the way the world set up, when you become that, you get uneconomic returns for everything you're doing versus the people who are getting dominated by you. So, it's this winner take all dynamic that creates the non-linear path of business that is not bound to the laws of physics, which is so interesting. So, financial freedom is another thing that you harp on.

Santosh Sharan: Yeah.

Adam Robinson: I think when you looked at our company for the first time, we were six people, we were generating $600,000 or $700,000 a month. We could basically hire 50 people that day and we still wouldn't have been burning money. And you were like, "You are one of the few companies that has the luxury of being totally financially free, and as a result, you can behave in a way that will be moves that are made not to grow revenue, the moves that are made to create a market-dominating company, which I loved. I've never had anyone speak to me that way, you know?

Santosh Sharan: Yeah. No, it's like billion-dollar revenue companies don't have the luxury to make investments and decisions even if they are public, even if they have hundreds of millions of cash in the bank. That Retention has. And that because for market dominance, you need to really be willing to say no to a few things, no to even revenue or toxic revenue. Really chase not revenue, but scale. And in order to do that, this point is highly sort of misunderstood. So, I love to harp upon it. Oftentimes the thought is that if I raise hundreds of millions of dollars or billions, go IPO for billions of dollars, I will have more freedom to invest. Sometimes the opposite is true because with that comes a lot of oversight, a lot of, you know. So, this is where like bootstrap companies may even have a slightly better sort of opportunity to dominate the world, dig decisions that could go forward because eventually transformation, like we were talking a few minutes earlier, involves taking risks that has no evidence. It's almost like based on belief in a way. And some of those risks won't succeed. Some of them will fail. So, how helpful is it going to be for a lot of these decisions going to a board or some like decision, some other team to take decision that knows very little about the business and having no evidence to convince them? I think it just slows one down. So, there are some advantages of having excess capital, but nothing beats a profitable company, especially if it can be grown like profitably, which is the case here. I think the kind of trust, acceleration, velocity that can be generated on the back of it with a solid like growth strategy is just unfathomable like far more than some of the alternative approaches.

Adam Robinson: Yeah. You said something yesterday. You said it was like the companies that are capable of doing this, they have the characteristics of being bootstrapped founder-led. They may not actually be that but they're operating that way. So, like Apollo is an interesting one because they were venture-backed but they ended up creating a wildly profitable high-growth model because of what they were doing, this SEO, freemium, not even unlimited in a low-cost sales model that the investors just step back and said, "Guys, do whatever you want to do."

Santosh Sharan: In a way that proves the point that I'm making. And then you mentioned like Jasper maybe in a similar boat in a way.

Adam Robinson: $125 million in the bank.

Santosh Sharan: So, what it does so it's back to the same point where creativity happens when it's unhindered, unrestrained. And there are responsible, super-driven individuals involved. Creativity does not happen when people are just copying others, they're taking instruction from others, or they just want to like, rinse, repeat, and copy. And so, more money does not help, right? Whether you have less capital or excess capital, I think the decision-making framework should be really creative. And the risk-taking framework, I think this is where if you look back, it's like super successful companies are either like this MailChimp that you mentioned, which is founder-led, no investment. All companies that have taken a ton of capital and created a similar environment for themselves.

Adam Robinson: Right. Yeah. I mean, this is also good. So, what else do I want to ask you here? So, I mean, honestly, Santosh, I think that we got everything that I wanted to ask you.

Santosh Sharan: If you have time, I can talk more about this winner take all model, which I thought you mentioned I wanted to comment on. So, we see this model in other parts of life. It's like sportspeople, the best sportspeople get paid 10X everybody else like other sportspeople, right? The best musicians get paid 10X. The best actors get paid 10X to average or even more. Far more, right? For the first time, we are seeing that in our B2B or like business, right, where like there's Salesforce and then there's a whole bunch of other companies that are fighting for scraps, right? And bit by bit, every market segment is getting like one or two or three winners and everybody else is just fighting for the leftovers, right? Now, there are multiple reasons for it. First, there is information transparency because good ideas now they get communicated immediately. So, they get overhyped. Bad ideas get all punished. So, some companies that do well do better than what they expected and then they crush the competitors and so on. So, just to survive, it's important to think about world domination or market domination. There's no other way to exist. And it's far easier with the right mindset for the individuals and the team and this is where you and I keep talking about the mindset, and then the right communication. Because good ideas have to like travel on its own.

More people need to know and sometimes good ideas can be pushed via a unique pricing and packaging. Sometimes it can be packaged as a podcast and pushed sometimes. Yeah. There are many ways good ideas can transmit but they need to be communicated. The world needs to know. And I guess that's what brings the massive scale that you're talking about and create this winner take all model, which I think with everything in play at Retention, I think it's a touchy word but I do think it'll get there. It's a matter of time.

Adam Robinson: Yeah. We have a nice start, that's for sure. You know, this kind of like product-led growth, hundreds of thousands of users or whatever, I'm particularly excited about that right now. It's a different product because we can't do it with our original product. So, we wrote down yesterday kind of the habits that winning teams must form to unlock exponentially. And there were four categories of them. One was the need to have massive, relentless ambition. One category was they needed to have this experimental mindset and then the next category was they needed to cultivate a positive mental, physical, and spiritual energy. And then the last was they needed to understand these unknown rules of the game. So, I want to rocket through the ambition part. The ambition in the experimental mindset, I think those are somewhat self-explanatory. It's just your view is you should pursue 10X initiatives. You should move much faster than you were planning on moving. You should pursue excellence no matter what you are doing. And then this mindset of being wildly experimental and not being attached to literally anything and just constantly be thinking in a way to where you're trying to invest in things that can be these S-curves, I think positive mental, physical, and spiritual energy is also work-life balance.

You have love in your, you know, the physical. The unknown rules of the game are what's particularly interesting to me. So, you say things like it's not a zero-sum game. We talked about earlier, business outcomes don't obey the law of physics. Ten miles takes ten times what it takes to travel one mile in the real world. 10 million ARR does not take ten times the amount of effort as 1 million ARR. This is such a great, great saying. And a corollary is people dramatically overestimate what can be accomplished in one year and dramatically underestimate what can be accomplished in ten years, especially if you're operating in these ways. So, there's another thing you say, which I would like you to elaborate on. "You're defined more by who you say no to than who you say yes to." What does this mean?

Santosh Sharan: Yes. I think all of this goes back to our ability to create something massive is so easy if you just unlearn a lot of things you learned. So, I think a lot of us are very compliant in nature, right? We like having hyper-focus in what we are doing, like hyper-ambitious but hyper-focused, right? That involves saying no to a whole bunch of things, saying no to revenue like I don't see... Most companies are willing to say to all kinds of revenue, say yes to all kinds of revenue. Like, if it's slight adjacent to what they're selling, why would they say no to? But then the impact on the business in the long run of that extra revenue is just not what the scale they are aspiring for. So, the more people say no to things, so like when you're hiring, you run into a candidate that is like somewhat good enough but not totally exciting where everybody's like, "Hell, yeah." With my observation is most teams will say, "Yeah, let's just hire," even if it's not super inspiring, right? But what we are doing in the process is every step we are compromising. I think that's not the stuff 10X is made of.

So, the more we focus, the more we say we really want this kind of revenue and take a stab at it. And if you don't get it, we change experiments. We run new experiments until we get it. But the character of strong teams I would say is formed by the more they can like come to consensus or decision on what they're going to say no to, like draw a line and that line should be harder. Most teams don't have that line.

Adam Robinson: Right. Something jumped into my head. I read this book on Jeff Bezos, and apparently in the beginning, one of his lines was, "Every person we hire has to be better than the last person that we hired."

Santosh Sharan: Yeah, I love it.

Adam Robinson: It's sort of the same thing. So, another thing you say is all fear is imaginary and perceived.

Santosh Sharan: Yeah. Yeah, totally. I mean, it's unbelievable. Even successful teams, it's just unbelievable and honestly, annoying sometimes, where all of us are living in the shadow of some fear and some risk like what-ifs like this happens. And all fear is just a fabrication of bad chemical soup in our brain, right? Like, it's not real. It's just parts in a brain and then we are taking decisions based on those fear. So, you mentioned earlier, like cooperation is so much better than competition, and yet business rules are completely based on competition. Most business studies or management studies are inspired by military principles, which is totally based on competition. So, it's like in order for one company to win, maybe some other companies have to lose or their competitors have to lose. But my theory is the market is so big and it keeps evolving. I see that in B2B data. I see that in CRM. Everywhere, right? By providing a good solution, you increase the time of the market. It's not that it was a fixed size and there are three competitors. So, in order for me to grow, others have to lose.

So, this creates kind of an environment which is not favorable to this kind of like positive mindset that we are talking about, which is healthy not just for the team, but the whole company and susceptible to rapid transformation and growth, both for individuals and companies. Fear and like risks or perceived risks are like one of the number one killers of good ideas. So, I think we need to live in a world or in a perceived world of abundance where the game is played fairly and you can win the game by pursuing excellence, by being just better at it than everyone else. Not by sabotaging some people or hoping that your competitors, like lose and make some mistakes along the way or making sure that your customer doesn't get stolen by your competitor. If you're so good, why would you have to care about any of those? Focusing your entire energy and just being like immensely good at your game is, I think, what this mindset is about.

Adam Robinson: Right. I think that's a pretty good place to wrap it up.

Santosh Sharan: Great. Love this discussion.

Adam Robinson: Thank you very much, Santosh, for coming on. You don't really do, I mean, you don't really publish much content online, do you? Like, there's not really a place to go to learn more about you, is there?

Santosh Sharan: No. I am taking some inspiration from you. So, hopefully, in the long run, it might rub off. I might be using more content. But I would love to share, well, wouldn't it be great if every company just manages to find a way to create an environment of positive space for their employees and investors? It's just such a healthier way of living than the current. Yeah. You and I should talk about it so we can do it.

Adam Robinson: Well, we're currently trying to memorialize all of this wisdom in a book or a pamphlet or some sort of written work that hopefully will be done in six months or so, maybe less. So, we don't know what the title is. We don't know how you're going to find it yet, but when we put it out, we'll put it in the show notes, and you can definitely learn about Santosh there. All right. Well, thank you very much. And we're out.


When B2B companies find themselves trapped in a cycle of stagnation, one name stands out: Santosh Sharan.

Santosh is the president & COO of, the Co-CEO of ContactOut and a current consultant and advisor for me at He has worked with more than 15 B2B companies in major operating roles, including helping ZoomInfo grow from $8M ARR to $100M ARR and helping grow from $10M ARR to a $1B valuation.

Today, Santosh is here to unveil the invaluable lessons entrepreneurs can glean from his extraordinary journey, including the transformative mindsets that distinguish companies bound for mediocrity from those destined for remarkable success.

You’ll also hear Santosh discuss the dangers of success-induced confirmation bias, why entrepreneurs need to embrace S-curve growth over linear growth, and how to hack your thinking to orient away from fear and into an abundance mindset.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

✅ What entrepreneurs can learn from businesses that have gone from stagnation to explosive growth.

✅ How expectations of linear growth can create a limiting mindset.

✅ The 4 four categories winning teams must form to unlock exponential growth.

✅ The No. 1 killer of good ideas — and how to avoid it.

Key Takeaways with Santosh Sharan

  • 00:00 What can entrepreneurs learn from businesses that have gone from stagnation to explosive growth?
  • 05:21 The business model MailChimp used to grow from 85,000 to 450,000 users in one year.
  • 11:01 Why "technology does not equate to success" — and what variable to focus on for scaling instead.
  • 14:14 The catch-22 of how success can kill creativity and throttle growth potential.
  • 18:45 How Apollo, Lusha and ZoomInfo each leverage their superpowers to create success in different ways.
  • 21:20 How expectations of linear growth can create a limiting mindset.
  • 24:25 The correlation between company growth and personal growth.
  • 30:34 Understanding the universal law of the S-curve and how it applies to both success and stagnation for a business.
  • 35:21 Why raising billions of dollars can actually reduce a company's freedom to invest.
  • 40:54 How the "winner-take-all model" has made its way from sports, music and movies into the B2B space.
  • 43:47 The four categories winning teams must form to unlock exponential growth.
  • 46:19 Why who you're saying "no" to matters more than who you're saying "yes" to.
  • 49:00 The No. 1 killer of good ideas — and how to avoid it.

Santosh Sharan | How Confirmation Bias and Early Success Can Be Your Enemy

Santosh Sharan Tweetables

  • You're defined more by who you say no to than who you say yes to.” – Santosh Sharan
  • “All fear is just a fabrication of bad chemical soup in our brain. It's not real.” – Santosh Sharan
  • “You'd rather have a bigger dream that you only attain 50% of than a tiny dream that you attain 200% of.” – Santosh Sharan
  • “Creativity happens when your mind is completely free.” – Santosh Sharan
  • “Eventually, a team has to do what they are really good at because it's really about scale and it's about differentiation and you get that by being genuine and authentic and sincere, and being true to your strengths.” – Santosh Sharan


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