SaaS Founder Interview with Fatima Khamitova, CEO & Co-Founder of Veer AI
Veer AI aims to help retail companies make data-driven decision in an easy and affordable way.
Tony Zayas 0:07
Everybody, welcome to another SaaS founders show, where we have fascinating conversations with successful SaaS founders and hear about their journey along the way. So excited to be here. I’m Tony Zayas joined by Andy Halko.
Andy Halko 0:22
Hey, Tony. How are you doing, Tony?
Tony Zayas 0:27
I’m good. It’s kind of chilly in my house here. So I got a jacket on and got my green for St. Patty’s Day underneath. But…
Andy Halko 0:36
How much beer have you drank?
Tony Zayas 0:38
Oh, you know, start a little earlier than usual to celebrate the holiday.
Andy Halko 0:43
Understandable. So what do we have going on today? What’s our show?
Tony Zayas 0:48
Yeah, we got we got a good one here. So we have Fatima Khamitova from Veer AI. She’s the co founder and CEO. And they’re a marketing AI startup that’s aim to help retailers with their targeted marketing. So pretty cool stuff. Let me bring Fatima on. Hey, Fatima, how are you?
Fatima Khamitova 1:10
Hi, Tony. Hi, Andy. How are you guys doing?
Tony Zayas 1:13
Very good. Thank you. Thank you for taking the time out to spend it with us here today. So I guess I would say just to get started. Tell us a bit about Veer AI, we’d love to hear we’ll dive into the story.
Fatima Khamitova 1:28
Yeah, so we are a marketing, SaaS startup. Our whole mission is to be able to help retailers do all of those things that you know, large retailers like Amazon do all the time at a fraction of a cost. So we all, We all know how much Amazon looks into all of our data, right? Like what we shop how we shop, we get recommendation emails from them all the time. And if you’re anything like me, and you’ve shopped online, and you’ve shopped on Amazon before, you probably have seen those emails where they’re like, Oh, we think you would like these products. So our mission is to give that ability to companies of all sizes, no matter the how much you know, how many millions of dollars they spend on investment on their AI talent and investment and things like this?
Tony Zayas 2:16
Andy Halko 2:17
Yeah, that’s awesome.
Andy Halko 2:18
So tell us a little bit about the origin story. How did you, you know, get into this? What What were you doing before? And then what was that pivotal moment to look at starting?
Fatima Khamitova 2:30
Yeah, so I’ve been in this space for a while I started my career as an investment banker and I really didn’t like it. Like, it was, it was funny because like, I think I like liked it but I liked it for the wrong reasons. And when I realized what I actually liked about it were the things like that had to do with data and with analysis and everything else. And I just didn’t like the business aspect of it or like, what I guess it represented that much. So I ended up like thinking about like back to what my strengths were. And I always love numbers like that math and economics. And I also did languages during my undergrad at University of Toronto, and I was looking at, like all of these things and thinking about what could that be that like, has like some kind of like lies at the intersection of all of it. And that’s how I and then I read this like article that a lot of people who like we’re in data science, like pretty early on when like that term was even coined, which was like the HBR article on like, the data scientist is the sexiest profession of the 21st century. And I’m just reading about what it was, ‘This sounds exactly like all the things that I love about working and I love during school, and like all of that stuff. And I was just like, wait, how can I get, become one. And then I, at the time was living in Europe and was looking into different doing the Master’s or something like this. And then they found out that Schulich School of Business back in Toronto had this problem that basically like taught you how to be a data scientist. So I decided to apply and I got in and I like loved my time there while I was like, I think by what, week four? I was hired by Deloitte, what’s now known as Omnia AI. Their artificial intelligence team back then, it was called something else they’ve like rebranded like 10 times in the last eight years. And like I was hired right away, I started while I was still in school and doing my graduate thesis papers and things like this. And like loved it! I was working in combination of like marketing and data. And that was a lot of the analytics, a lot of those machine learning driven like algorithms and things like this. I ended up going to like a smaller shop, just to specialize a little bit more in those things afterwards. Eventually, like at some point, I think I always had that idea that I wanted to have my own company, I wanted to work at, like I wanted to, like fight like be a founder of a startup. So I think I said I love my job. Like, I was always one of those people who like showed up anywhere. Just I love what I do. Like, I think it’s exciting. And it was very excited to go to work every day. Eventually, I worked at a few startups and like things like this. And at some point, I realized that like, everything that I’ve done so far was always done for these, like, bigger companies. And it wasn’t scalable, and like things like this, which made me think about like, what does it take to build a scalable product? And do I have what it takes to build one? And do I know that people who can do with me who would be so excited about this vision and everything else that we had, and we wanted to, like not only service, you know, like, just like fortune 500 companies, which were primarily my clients throughout the years, like the biggest banks, the biggest retail companies and things like this, but also like, how do you bring it and like level the field between those who are smaller versus, you know, the giants of the industry?
Tony Zayas 5:55
Very cool. So when when did you have the realization that this was, you know, what you’ve launched with Veer AI. Was it something that you know, was needed out there, and that you knew, you can bring it to market?
Fatima Khamitova 6:09
I think, when we launched, like, we just, we didn’t know what to do, like, we had so many different ideas. And I think that’s pretty common for startups to like, pivot and to have those ideas change. And like everything else on like, from what you were doing originally, to what you end up doing, and like things like this, but one of the realizations that, like it was needed was when we started talking to companies and companies were just willing to give us their data. Because they were like, you know, what, you’re doing something interesting. And you have experience, and you know, yourself, like, here’s our data, figuring it out. And like, and when we’re just like, looking like, like my first reaction, which is like, Oh my God, because like, I’ve only worked with like large corporations before. And like, having that moment with them, just like trusting you with their data and be like, here, when like, at a like, large, like, I don’t know, like, I never worked with Walmart, but let’s just put it this way, like with the Walmarts of the world, like for them to give you anything it will take like, you have to jump through like all those hoops and do like all those things and like sign so many like, non, like confidentiality agreements, and like everything else. And there’s just like, these companies were like, We want to like get whatever know what you have. So like, here’s our data, do some things. That’s pretty much I think, was the first time when we’re like, Okay, I think we’re onto something here.
Andy Halko 7:25
What did the product look like back then? Was it more of a manual thing? I mean, we just talked to a founder that talked about how their initial project product was really just people doing stuff? Or, or did you have a set product? and what did it look like in the beginning?
Fatima Khamitova 7:42
So at the very beginning, we just like, gave them like, yeah, it was pretty much people doing stuff it was, was me, it was people, like a few more people who work on tech as well, were amazing, absolutely amazing at what they’re doing. Like it was just us doing like, you know, pivot tables in Excel sometimes. So like, after doing some analysis, and like, just sort of, like very similar to the way the brainstorming process phase would happen at a consulting company during like a consulting project,
Andy Halko 8:12
Fatima Khamitova 8:12
Just like do like a lot of back and forth and be like, does this make sense? Like, what will like if we do something like this, would this be interesting? So like, I think a lot of the first few months went like, a lot of that back and forth with like, figuring out how the data works, how like all of those processes work, because, like, let’s face it, like data like… Data work, in general isn’t easy, and isn’t something that isn’t fast, because you need to build like to build a customer data platform, we it’s not something that you can, you know, operate on Excel and like having like the front end, like, like, no, that’s just like, it’s not how it would work. And like because of that we had to do so much of that extra thinking in that phase. And like being able to, like go back and forth with the clients on like, what that final vision would look like. So yeah, definitely a lot of like, we use the Google Data studios as well to like, our initial dashboards, because before we got like, you know, the designer and the front end people and like being able to actually put the product it. Yeah, it’s day and night.
Andy Halko 9:14
What was that product planning process? Like you like you said, I mean, so many so many founders have so many ideas. And there’s, there’s a lot going on. How did you guys think about what that first product would look like and features and and how do you prioritize different elements?
Fatima Khamitova 9:33
So we went with like a very, we went with a very open mindset that things will change. It’s sort of how we decided that we will not be the type of startup that is just completely so married to their idea, they don’t want to adapt it to the customer needs. So in that way, like our product changed a lot from like the initial brainstorms. And like what we wanted to do initially, even what was talked to initially to the companies when we were doing it Like, customer discovery interviews are so key, by the way, like a lot of, I find that like after initial idea, sometimes people stopped doing them. And like what I’ve realized within this journey, and we’re only a year and a half old, is that you need to keep doing them all the time. But one of those things was just like, the way we planned the product was just getting the feedback. Every time we got feedback, we were like, ‘Okay, that makes sense’. Like, what if this would look something like this said, but also like keeping that overall vision was really important, because I think that you can just like build everything that the client says that they want, because you don’t necessarily, you can’t necessarily do it as a startup. So you need to keep the vision and like build the most important parts, which is what we sort of did, because some features. Like we knew that without those features, we can’t launch our pilots, we can’t launch the MVP, we can do these things and like for us to be getting to get there was like the most important part.
Andy Halko 11:00
I’m curious about the customer interview, because I think founders and startups struggle with that. How did you go about that? Like, where did you find people to talk to? And how did you know what to ask them or talk about?
Fatima Khamitova 11:14
So it’s, it’s a great question, because I at first, I was just completely lost in the whole thing. And I think I posted I think the very first thing that I did, I posted on my Instagram, I didn’t even post it on LinkedIn, because it was just like I was feeling too embarrassed to do advocacy was, I was just like, I feel like such a scam, at first like to like start doing something like this, when you don’t know what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. I read there’s this organization in Toronto called Mars. And Mars has like a lot of those different toolkits for startups for people who want to start a company. And I ended up doing one of their like, it costed like $40, they have like this online course. So like, if you want to like entrepreneurship, one-on-one or thing, and they talk there, and they give you like the interview guides of how approximately, to build out your customer discovery interviews. So I took that I filled out the questions and there was just a cool man asking these questions, too. So I ended up posting on my Instagram saying that like, ‘Hi, like, Do you know anyone? anyone at all? Who uses Shopify for their like ecommerce? Can you please talk to like, like, can you please introduce me to them? And like, I promise that like, I will not be annoying, I’ll ask some questions.’ They can end it whenever they want to. And things like this. And I think I’ve gotten like four or five suggestions out of it, with people saying that, Oh, I know someone and then someone else was just like, Oh, I know someone else. And that’s how I started talking originally to these people. And it was just like, like, ‘Hi, like, this is like, this is what I’m doing.’ What I found was amazing is that in Toronto itself, like the startup community is so tight, and like a lot of the Shopify store owners operate their stores like startups. So they’re very tech-forward. And they’re very, like, they’re the type of like, people who are the, you know, the first adopters and things like this. So they were extremely excited to give their time to give their data in order to build something new to help someone who’s local and things like this. And I like very much appreciated all of their efforts in that respect. So yeah, so those are the first ones.
Tony Zayas 13:27
How did you, um, you said, when you first you know, posted, trying to get that feedback, kind of felt like, you know, you’re stepping out and doing something, you know, did you have a little bit of sense of like imposter syndrome, when you were getting started? And how did you deal with that?
Fatima Khamitova 13:44
I think that it’s common to have the imposter syndrome, when you’re doing something new, and you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. So I feel like all of these things that you’re doing whenever you’re feeling like every day, running a startup, you’re, in a way pushing yourself a little bit more into that uncertainty, and a little bit more out of that comfort zone. And like everything else, so I feel like it wasn’t like it was such a small step. And I think we can say that on my like, you know, private Instagram account where I only have like, maybe like 500 people that I know, half of them is family. And like things like this and like close friends, you know, childhood friends and like things like this, consider them family. So like, I feel like it was the safest way I could do it. I think the first time I posted something on LinkedIn about my startup was when it got like really scared about it. It was actually it felt a lot more of an imposter syndrome at that moment than it did when we were doing everything else. But yeah, like it was a little bit of like just like trying to do it day by day and like step by step and like whenever I feel like I like whenever I feel not that confident in something I think it’s like super important for me to break it down and like smaller steps. So you’re saying, like, you know what, like, I’m not gonna do the whole thing, I’m just gonna do this post, and that’s it. And then you’re saying, Okay, I’m going to and this is how I did everything from like our first like Instagram posts, it was just like, you know what, like, I’m not gonna hire a social media person, I’m just gonna get someone who I know to, like, build a few visuals for us. And now I’m going to just post one thing of those posts, posted another thing of those places, and that’s sort of like how it like ended up rolling.
Andy Halko 15:28
What did that, that early stage look and feel like for you, as you were getting first customers? Was it really stressful, you know, I like to think about not just, you know, what did you do, but how did you feel going through it? So that first six months of starting this business, you know, what were you doing, but how did you feel about it?
Fatima Khamitova 15:51
I think so first six months of our business coincided with the beginning of like, the end of the first six month coincides with the beginning of the pandemic. So that, by itself added so much stress, I think like, like a year ago, I was sitting in my house and was thinking that, like, why am I doing this? So we were bootstrapped, we bootstrapped the whole time we got some grants from the Canadian government, we didn’t take any funding, we had some offers. And we have some companies that are still interested in giving us some money in the future. But we sort of wanted to like just make sure what we know what we’re doing first type of thing. And like a series on having like a higher, like a little bit like, I was worried a little bit about dilution, but on March, like 17th 2020, I was worried about the fact like, how am I gonna do this? Because I should have been worrying about something like this. And we were just, we have so many because like, we were still figuring out in early stages, we were doing some these initial conversations with those Shopify-based companies, or Shopify using companies. But we also were doing some work with some bigger but more independent brands. And some of them are pretty well known in like Europe, and like things like this. And we, like who actually were paying us money to do those work to do that work. And like a year ago, they’ve cancelled all of these projects. And all of that money that we were supposed to get was suddenly off the table. And I was looking at all of this. And I was just thinking, like, Oh, my God, this is scary. This is so so scary. Like do I need a job? To survive, like the next year, and like things like this, I even like, I think panicking, panicking, applied for one job, I didn’t end up going for it. Because like, things thankfully stabilized a little bit like we, thanks to the Canadian government, we got a number of grants that actually helped us support some of that one of those paid pilots, with European companies actually came through, and they ended up paying us 20. So it wasn’t as bad as it probably could have been. And like things worked out. But it was like, it definitely was a roller coaster off. Like, I don’t know, where the money is coming from and where, how do I support this? How do I make payroll and like thinks that this was a little bit crazy?
Andy Halko 18:26
Yeah, that early stage can be, you know, scary for everybody. And I’ve heard similar stories. And you know, whether it’s a pandemic or not, I mean, it’s, it’s just always a little bit of a roller coaster. You mentioned a team and you talk about us. So what’s the team look like? And, and where did they come on into the business?
Fatima Khamitova 18:48
Yeah, so we have an amazing team. And we’ve got a great CTO who has amazing experiences of being a lead data scientist at Amazon, and him and I actually worked together before, our head of product is also the person that we’ve worked like. In a way I think I’ve worked with, like, everyone who was who’s more or less senior and our team like we’ve worked with, or like studied before. So like we’ve known each other for many years and just happened that our, everything that we were interested in sort of coincided professionally. And in a way, we’ve always wanted to work together as well. Like we enjoyed working together in the past. And we like some of the people that I’ve worked with that I’m working with here like I’ve worked with him like three companies before. So this is like a long term like relationship almost type of thing, the partnership, where we know how everyone works, what everyone is expecting, and things like that. So this was an amazing in that sense like this. This works out so good, because we all have we all know each other’s working styles, and we all work together. We also have a few great Junior employees who are amazing And we’ve gotten through like, you know, that, who just graduated from some of their universities and things like this. And we’re just helping out in every way that they can. And that’s also great. Like, we are taking advantage of like everything that we can, like, we’ve got some, we’ve got a coop student who’s already spending, this is her second term with us. And we want her to come back as well, like, already, like, she’s great. Like, I think that it’s very important to have amazing people you’re doing things with, because when it’s a startup and things like this, and people have to wear multiple hats, and things sometimes go wrong, and things sometimes go amazing, sometimes they go wrong, like that team is what I think makes it and having those people around definitely helped us go through, like, whether that was like, you know, the pandemic, and no one knew what was happening and what we were doing. Or like when things are like, you know, first pilots, like, let’s work a little bit overtime to make sure that these things happen.
Tony Zayas 20:57
Where did you or how did you go about finding those team members, especially the junior team members, because you mentioned most of the senior people, you have relationships, which is awesome. But how did you go about finding the people? The more junior roles?
Fatima Khamitova 21:14
Yeah, so that’s you, um, we got I think we got like a, I think that’s like anyone who builds like, like you obviously, like, if you build a business, anything career, anything like this, there’s obviously a good amount of like hard work that needs to go into it. But it’s also being in the right place at the right time. The one interesting thing that happened with a pandemic is that a lot of the students and recent graduates ended up jobless, and they their offers were cancelled, their jobs just didn’t happen. Some of those firms went bankrupt, and like things like this. So what happened was that we sort of at that time, we’re looking at ways of like getting some help. And we posted a job posting, I think on like, University of Waterloo’s website, and some like University of Toronto websites as well. And we’ve got overwhelmed because like, it was three of us back then. And we got hundreds and hundreds of applications for every job that we posted full of these kids. And I was just looking at those resumes. And I was shocked because it searches like I didn’t like they worked at like Google. And they worked at Tesla. And they worked at all of those. And they had those amazing accomplishments. And all of them wanted to work with us. But they wanted any job to be honest at that point, because they were just so it just such a bad it was such a bad time for them. At the same time, we went like slightly overwhelmed with how much interest we’ve gotten. And like everything. So we got some amazing talent out of that, because they just like, it was a great way for us to get someone actually like because. Yeah, because like they had all of them had like jobs lined up and they ended up going with us because like, the only reason we even got them so fast. And so like, like quickly was because they had their jobs lined up. And then those jobs disappeared. And I think that that like was like just like a crazy coincidence. And like how great those people are like it’s it’s amazing, I would have hired them all back in like, blink of an eye. Like they’re all they were all students. There’s like it’s combination of the network. I feel like the network is always key with like things like startups and things like those. It’s not like you have a lot of budget, you know, like hire a dedicated recruiter. So you end up going in and saying on your LinkedIn, like, look, I’m looking for someone with these skills. Do you know anyone? The other way that we found some of the people were just like through, we’re part of like a few accelerators in Canada. And one of them, like, just they all have job boards. So a lot of the people just say, Look, I know someone great, they worked for me. Like we don’t have the budget for them anymore. If you want someone here’s their resume, and like things like this and even like because it’s someone who was better than like things like this by someone who’s your peer. It makes it a little bit easier to hire them as well.
Tony Zayas 24:09
Yeah, that’s great. Um, shifting gears a little bit. So how have you gone about gaining clients?
Fatima Khamitova 24:18
Yeah, so everything so far has been completely organic for us. We’re actually figuring this out, as I said, like we’re very early stage, we’re literally a year. A year and a half old, I’m sorry. So we’re doing this now the whole thing about like, okay, like we’ve got a lot of leads, who are the introductions, the referrals, things like that. So I’m so sorry. And now what?
Andy Halko 24:46
Fatima Khamitova 24:48
I don’t know. I think I need to bring them.
Andy Halko 24:52
Yeah, we heard you know, that’s the interesting that I found is that you know how that path like we’ve had a lot of our founders start out, and they had to really like hit the pavement, and look and find for those first customers, and then it transitions into organic where people are finding them, you know? Versus others, really trying to start out and like put out a lot of marketing. And they’re never really that, you know, hit, you know, feet to the ground type of company. So there’s definitely a lot of different ways that that organization start when they’re trying to find stuff like that.
Fatima Khamitova 25:31
And definitely like, I think that it’s important to have all kinds of channels. So we’re getting a lot of organic stuff. And one of the things that we did early on was, we realized that there’s like a big lack of educational component to what we do. So we started. So we started doing retention marketing webinars, where we explain how do you use data, to make sure that your customers actually come back to you. And like things like this. And we, those who are extremely well attended, we had both companies small and big, who are interested in us and in what we do, and in those webinars themselves to help them understand how do they build those long standing customer relationships that are very, like data driven, and data oriented instead of having, you know, the guesswork in there. So that was one of the things that we found like that educational component, that was great, and like very useful, we have another one, if there’s anyone listening who is interested, we have another one coming up in two weeks on March 30. It’s just 1pm, you can contact someone from our team or on LinkedIn, and they will greatly send you an invite for that. They will definitely send you an invite for that. We do that one of the other things like we’re actually just building out a lot of things. So like we’re downloading and like well, like, like, I’m basically building out like with our team, our HubSpot right now, and things like this and doing the leads. And it’s something that we haven’t done before. And it’s one of those you know, as a startup, you always do new things every single day. And it’s one of the new things on my bucket list for the next few weeks.
Andy Halko 27:06
Now, how did you narrow down your target audience? What was their? You know, because I think as founders we we look at, you know, all these different people we can do business with, and sometimes that can dilute what we’re doing, how did you determine who exactly is the best customer for your product?
Fatima Khamitova 27:28
Um, yeah, so I think, I think that that’s incredibly important. Because if you’re reaching out to wrong people, you’re not getting the response that you need, you need to be reaching out to the people who are appropriate for you as a company, the stage that you’re at, and if you’re making it too wide, then the product will be too wide. And like it just difficult to get clients and to get like long lasting relationships that way. So the one thing that we did was like, when we’re doing those customer discovery interviews, we’ve interviewed people who had, you know, like, from like, our smallest, like only making like maybe four or $5,000 in their Shopify house all the way through companies that make like nine digits a year annually, and like things like this, and we like saw that there was such an obvious is such a huge difference in how they’ve operated. Interestingly enough, even like, if you narrow it down, like I found that Shopify companies could operate very differently as well, like some, some people are not making like as much money, it’s like, you know, like, person 100 million dollar companies that like that make 100 million dollars a year that operate more similar to the ones who are like making one or $2 million. And then like vice versa. I’ve also seen, like companies that are $20 million, like making 2020 to $30 million a year. And then they operate the way like, you know, the large retail enterprise would in like some of the ways of their own data science departments, which is definitely not someone we’re going for. So for us, like what we did what we when we were narrowing it down, we were realizing like if this product was useful for someone, like, what do they need to look like? And that was like, one of the things is that, well, they shouldn’t have their own Big Data Science Team, because if they do our data analysis team, because if they do, what we do is not necessary, like not useless, but probably not something that they want to be spending money on police, they already have talent to do those house anyway. And like, we were looking at that and then the other thing that we realized is that if the company is very heavily in the acquisition stage of their business, and not as much in the retention, they just didn’t, he just didn’t resonate with him because that wasn’t the priority for them either. So that was the thing and then we like looked at like and that basically like, cancels out a lot of the people on the lower end in terms of the revenue as a result because they’re just like very heavily focused on like, you know, growing their Instagram and Facebook profiles so that they can get a lot more new customers in and doing their Facebook ads and Google ads and all of those things. The companies that we were interested in were the ones who had those completely automated already. And they have the time to build it to build new things to build slightly more sophisticated things behind the scenes to support their business.
Andy Halko 30:22
I’m kind of curious at a year, year and a half in, how much more do you think you need to continue to learn and hone that target audience and who you really want to, you know, bring in as the best customers for the business.
Fatima Khamitova 30:36
I think we learn all the time, these things, it’s like, it’s a never ending process. I honestly think that it should be a process that every company always undertakes, because that’s exactly how some companies go out of business, because they get too comfortable with their customers with what they do. And they do not think how the world around them is changing and how they’re their customers are changing, and their needs are changing as well.
Andy Halko 31:03
Yeah, good, comfortable in their assumptions, which are not necessarily true.
Fatima Khamitova 31:08
Tony Zayas 31:13
Fatima, I was gonna ask, so as a founder, who do you lean on? Ask questions, bounce ideas, you know, get suggestions. You know, you’re always learning and you’re dealing with all different types of challenges. As you progress. What does your network work in that regard?
Fatima Khamitova 31:33
Definitely. It’s, it’s a great question. I think one of the first things that I do, it depends on the type of question. Like, everything product wise, and customers wise, we first discuss with the team. And that’s very important thing that we just like, talk about this and see if anyone has any ideas, if it’s, if it’s something that I might not see in something that someone else sees, I think it’s important to resolve it internally first. The other things I, I have some great mentors, some of them run their own SaaS startups and things like this, and they’ve gotten there, four years, five years ahead of us, in terms of the funding they’ve raised with embrace their series, say some of them already have raised their Series B. And they have that vast experience of like telling, you know, like things like, these are the lawyers that you want to call if you have these type of issues. These are the accountants that you want, because they do X, Y, and Zed, and they will help you with this. And not, because those are the things that you probably aren’t anticipating now, but they will happen down the line. And like, they’re like in terms of those like strategic and both strategic and tactical decisions, I find that those people are the best because they know it, they’ve done it, they know even like things like down to like, Oh my god, there’s like this, like investor you need to talk to them. And like calling like things like this and doing things like this, it was just incredible. And like having them in my court was so useful, like, even to the point of like, you know, like, I was very nervous before my first pitch on stage. While those were thing, like, back when those were a thing, and one of my mentors that truly like she was just Okay, give me a call. And I gave her college as a pitch me, do it right now. And he like, did it and she was just like, Okay, this is too long. You need to like shorten it, you need to add like a point like this in there like at first, like you need to have like, like, she was just like, send me your script. And I will like change it. So I did that I sent her the script, she changed, like change that was resolved. The next day. I like pitched on stage and everything else. It went great. We had some like, like, I still talk to some of the VC companies that I’ve met that day. And like everything, and it was just a really good experience that was that good because of this person’s help. And I think that’s like that’s why I also do the same thing. I tried to give back as much as possible. I talked to founders all the time. I have when they call me and ask me for some advice for the things that I know how to do I like I’m happy to like always get feedback to help navigate certain things and things like that. It’s I think it’s an entrepreneurship can feel lonely, especially if you’re the one who’s responsible for a lot of those business and legal decisions. And having that network of people who you can rely on is one of the things that I very much both take pride in that we have people like this and also like try to participate and give back as much as possible.
Andy Halko 34:41
What’s been the biggest challenge that you think you face so far in the business?
Fatima Khamitova 34:47
I do think that it was the pandemic. I think that it just screwed up a lot of things like for given that we are a SaaS Business, primarily services were not primarily only services retail companies and retail businesses being affected by the lockdowns and things like this was a, like it was it just created a lot of this additional mass. It’s like, will retail like, how will retail look? Right? How will what will happen to it and they were in biggest retailers themselves were just so stressed out when they’re happening. It’s like, well, like supply chain like break like what if like my, like manufacturers can’t, like operate? What if they can’t ship stuff? What if the shipping companies fail, and then you have like this like, like, domino effect of like, never ending anxiety about the retail industry when moment damage happens and the pandemic hit. And like everything else, and it was just, and then it went when we started going into the second wave and the second, like the stage of lock downs. And we were launching our product at the same time. And I was just like a big mass because everyone was just like, like, we don’t have time, we need to spend time on like figuring out how we’re going to be delivering Christmas, and doing like Black Friday when it’s completely online. And we can’t open our stores. And now was a whole like new set of problems and issues that we had to deal and navigate and like being able to accommodate and actually like switch gears a little bit and go into a little bit more of the supportive and educational content and a little bit less than sales and a little bit less than pushing like you see me this software right now, no, you don’t need this software, you need to figure out your problems. First, you need to stay in business. And then we can do our software to help you grow that business even more. So I think being able to be empathetic in that situation. But in general, the biggest, the biggest hurdle was COVID.
Andy Halko 36:43
So that’s how you overcame that challenge is really like you said, being more on the empathetic side and focusing on education rather than the hard sale at that moment, even though you may have, you know, really needed to drive sales that try and, you know, get your company going.
Fatima Khamitova 37:00
Exactly, exactly. And it was just something that was also that advice that I was given, like I sort of had that feeling as well as I play. And I talked to other startup owners who were selling to retail, but they were also selling like me on the software side of things rather than helping their know, the supply chain and logistics and fulfillment happen. And everyone who I knew took a step back at that time. And it just it felt like a logical decision, not just a logical decision. It also felt like the best decision at that time is you don’t want to be pestering someone about something that did not care at that particular moment when that their first and foremost priority is to stay in business.
Andy Halko 37:41
Yeah. What about going forward challenges? I’m always interested, what do you see over the next year is a big hurdle or challenge for the business?
Fatima Khamitova 37:52
I think in general scale abilities and interesting one for all of the SAS businesses because you want to be growing at a pace that makes sense. And you’re but you also need to accommodate everything else from the software to like other things. So one of the things that we’re working on internally is being able to expand that like how many clients we can have. And like things like this to make sure that our software doesn’t fail when we you know, on board if we onboard like 10th, 15th, 20th client and like things like this. So that’s, that’s a big one. And then how do you accommodate for that scalability from a business perspective as well, because you have to actually have people that make sales and then you have to have, like, we’ll have to hire Customer Success person because we, at the moment, everyone wears a little bit of a customer success hat but like, how does it look in like, half a year, that’s should be very different because we will be scaling.
Tony Zayas 38:47
So what would you say are the big plans over the next year, you guys have planned out?
Fatima Khamitova 38:54
the big plans is to get like to get as many clients as possible while keeping the growth to like both sustainable levels and the same time being able to give the best results we can to our clients, like we want them to use the product and to know that they’re actually moving forward with it, that their business is moving forward with it. And they’re better for it.
Tony Zayas 39:19
Into more of a focus on marketing?
Fatima Khamitova 39:23
Yeah, definitely, like more focus on sales and marketing and being able to like just accommodate the number of clients that we’re looking for.
Tony Zayas 39:33
What has been your approach like what are some of the marketing tactics and channels that you’ve focused on?
Fatima Khamitova 39:41
Well, one of the greatest one for us, which we’re exploring more and more like we’re so new and all of these things as well, ight? So like one of the ones that we’re looking at is being able to and which was great to partner with other organizations that have those companies as members like our clients, our target clientele members, and being able to offer like things like webinars and educational materials, free consultations on the state of their data in the state of their data driven marketing and things like this to those clients. So like, we’ve got a bunch of calls coming up with a few company with a few of these organizations where we discuss what would make most sense for their, for their members, and how can we deliver that and what would be what would that look like? And like things like this, and being able to do that, like the one that we have coming up is with a fashion zone in Toronto, which is an incubator, specifically designed and tailored for the fashion and retail companies. And they have a ton of great companies that reside in the fashion zone and have resided there for a while. So doing it with them, this means that we can get a lot of people who are either can be our clients right now or might be our clients in the future. And like being able to teach them that this is the way that they need to be thinking about awareness, like what retention marketing is, what data driven marketing is, how can you segment your customers using data and why it’s important. And like things that this, which I believe is a big aspect of any SaaS company, any B2B company where you’re doing something, like you need to educate as well as you need to sell and you need to do your product.
Andy Halko 41:29
That’s one of the biggest challenges, I think, you know, any founder, you’re starting out a business acquisition of new customers. How do you determine the tactics and the approach that you wanted to go after? Was it, you know, kind of internal discussion using mentors, hiring folks? You know, is it kind of an agile test approach? You know, and that’s always the big like, Oh, we’ve got to acquire customers. And I’m just more interested in like, how you came to the path that you’re headed.
Fatima Khamitova 42:03
So what we, what I realized was that in during some of the sales calls that initial sales calls that we had, especially when we ramped up and we had the first version of the product, like I’m not talking about the, you know, Excel spreadsheets and like Google data, studio dashboards, when we actually built that front end for the first time and things like this, and we had those sales calls. One of the things that I realized was that clients have very, very varying degrees of knowledge on what data can do for you. And I think that’s partially because everyone understands that data is the future. And data is important, because they see in the news, they see examples of how other companies are using it. But their personal interaction with it, and their personal knowledge with it might not be that deep. And it was something that a mentor of mine said, because that made me think about this quite a bit because we had a few calls with someone who was who I think was like more polite rather than for like, she didn’t want to, she was saying, Yeah, maybe type of thing. Which is another problem. As far as doing sales. As a founder, you need to understand which one is like a polite, no. Which means we’re polite, no. But when we when I was discussing that whole interaction with one of my mentors, actually at the Fashion zone at a time. She mentioned, she was just like are you sure that you understand what your product does. When she said that I like at first, which is a guest. Of course she does. Like I explained that to her the notice that I don’t know if she does. And like that sort of stuck with me for like a week of me like, you’re sort of like thinking about what does it mean? And then I and then I talked to someone else. And they said like, well listen like you like because like we start sort of started going into September when exactly that was happening that like everyone knew that the second wave is coming, but it’s imminent, and everyone was just trying to get on the bandwagon and get their fulfillment and everything else in place for the Black Friday and Cyber Monday and like everything else. So we, at that time, I was just thinking like, maybe there’s a way for me to educate? So I did the first iteration of just like putting like, like, as simple as just like putting like, all my thoughts on paper. And then that ended up being a 30 slide deck. And then I called up the fashion zone actually they were the first ones that I did that with an OSHA sec. Do you think that would be interesting? And they said, You know what, that will be interesting. Yes, we’ll do it. We’ll put you in the schedule. And they did and it was extremely well attended. Like we had I think like 60 or 70 companies registered and like half of them attended despite of being on an extremely short notice. Like it was like a 10-day before type of thing. And it tended before the event like that’s when we started advertising don’t do anything with it in. Because it was so well attended. And we had so many questions come in and people really loved it and people were talking about how they, they really liked it and they appreciated it on that day, we had so much follow up emails after this about the questions what else they should do, what else they should consider, and things like this, which made us realize that we probably need to spend more time on this. So I ended up holding that deck together. Like we had a mentor who helped actually another mentor, who does a lot of like those type of sales. Things who like basically helped us trim the content. And then at the same trim the deck, I guess a little bit but like put more content in in a more in a more digestible manner. like figuring out what type of examples work, what type of examples don’t work, where do you need to make those, you know, like, extra pauses to make sure that everyone like golf with you are talking about and like things like this and making it in the best way possible. That was that moment where we, like realized who really needed that. I don’t know if that answers your question. If you’re like, it’s a lot of like, a big story of how this happened.
Andy Halko 46:14
Yeah, but I think you, you know, a point that you made that I think is so important that I really want to hit on it is, you know, I think people overestimate the knowledge of their target audience. Like always, because you’re so steeped in it, and you understand it, and you live it and think about it, that, you know, you go out and kind of make these assumptions like, oh, someone’s going to know exactly what I’m talking about. Or, you know, and I really think that’s a massive mistake that companies make not just startups and software companies, but everybody, of making these assumptions that someone understands what the hell they’re talking about.
Fatima Khamitova 46:53
And definitely, I think that that was that moment, it was just such a big, like, you know, aha moment when my mentor said that she was really sure she understands what you’re talking about. Yes, she must be. And like that whole, like conversation, like thinking back was like one of those key moments like realizing that we need more educational content, we need more of like, and we did like, and we did some. So that’s why it’s also like, it was I realized that maybe like what we did wasn’t good enough for us for those type of people, because we started doing some white papers. But white papers are very different from like, being able to, like the webinar where someone can, like, you know, unmute themselves and ask a question is a very different format from reading a document that might also be a little bit, you know, a step too far into the knowledge as well. So doing those things, I feel like as an early stage startup, it also helped organize the thoughts quite a lot.
Andy Halko 47:52
Yeah also, it ties into it a little bit, but I’m also interested in always like how people come up with their model and pricing, I think that that’s a struggle point is, you know, do you sell monthly or annually? Do you do it by user? You know, is it custom? And then, you know, what do you actually make the dollar about? How did you guys go about that type of thinking?
Fatima Khamitova 48:18
So I think for us, the easier point on that was that the recommendation if we talked to the clients what they think they would have paid, which is very interesting, quick conversation, because you never know how sincere they are. Because obviously, they wanted a little bit cheaper. But there were also some times when we were like, okay, we’re going to be charging this and the person that we’re talking to, we’re just like, yeah, we’ll do a VOD, we’ll put like, like, we’ll pay more. And we’re very interested, which is like probably under charging slightly for the service that we’re providing. And like, that’s like, I guess, like, it’s a combination of these things. And what we did was, have our lawyers draft up the contracts, so that anyone like we’re able to change our pricing at any time that we want. And we’re going to be giving the courtesy pricing. So like, that’s one of those things that we’re doing at the moment. The easier thing was the few interesting things about pricing that happened with us was that one it was we just copied like because we at some point, we decided that we are doing that, like Shopify clients would be our primary customers for now and would be our target customers. For now. We looked at what other companies in Shopify did and how they charged what they charged for, and things like this. So like that was a big thing and that. So that’s where we just decided to take over all the math, okay, this is going to be on a monthly basis, it’s going to be a subscription. It’s going to be on a monthly basis. We’re not going to take any like upfront fees, and then it’s going to be based on the number of customers those clients have our half the half because that obviously determines the cloud size and how much data we’re storing for them. And things like this. On the other side of things, one of the things that we’re constantly doing and thinks that there’s just like there’s this rule with like, like that you should be bringing in like, at least 10 times the value that you’re charging. So that’s something that I’m looking at, that we’re constantly looking at as well being able to compare that it’s like, are we bringing in the value if that prices that’s on a monthly basis, like does it still make sense. So that’s one of the things that we’ve looked at as well. And the other thing that we did, was being able to, like, just like some conversations, because like, there was some things that we were like thinking about and testing out, like to test out or like to do, where we’re sort of like power, like recommendation for your power like this like output fee, where like, the fee would be different on a monthly basis. One of the things that we were like, while we wait, consider that in the future, like one of our early stage customers, which is like, I hate this, and they just like they were like so passionate about how much they hate them. And like it makes sense to me as a business owner, why they hate that they can never estimate how much money they owe to that company on a monthly basis. Like they need to like their budget, their financial team needs to be flexible about it. They need to like every on a monthly basis. Apparently they talk to their finance team being like, Well, I know that this costs that much. But we brought in that whichever you really like we didn’t budget for this. So like it’s a it’s an interesting thing where you need to like think about the business a little bit and like how that works as well.
Andy Halko 51:39
Tony Zayas 51:42
So, Fatima, what some, what are the big goals for the business over the next but let’s say five years, where do you see you guys going? Where are you? You know, the bar for yourself?
Fatima Khamitova 51:57
Yeah, so we want to be, we want to be a customer data platform of choice for retail companies. So we want to be growing, obviously, outside of Shopify ecosystem, we’re currently talking to a number of companies that use other e commerce platforms for POS systems as well, in trying to integrate ourselves into some of those ecosystems too. So like, the big goal for the five years is being able to collect all of that customer data in one spot for our customers, so they can know everything about how, when and like, how do you protect all those things at the same time, as well.
Andy Halko 52:37
Certainly like catalysts that you think is going to help you turn that, you know, turn it on faster, whether that’s acquiring a certain type of customer or a change in the marketplace, you know, certain features in the product. Is there. Is there something that you see head is a true catalyst that to drive forward?
Fatima Khamitova 52:58
I think it’s, I think that it’s an interesting one, like, definitely, there are features that I think it’s all interconnected, right? Your product needs to evolve, because otherwise your competitors can be catching up. And you’re you need to be changing those things. I think the biggest catalyst is probably the competition itself. One of the things that happened, because of like, because of the pandemic is that everyone is just overwhelming. Everyone with their emails, with their SMS with everything, all of the channels, how they can contact the customers, like you feel like you’re like, I feel like that general, it’s not just a feel it’s a statistical thing, as well as every, like, people started receiving, like, I think four to five times more communications for me, may have before, but you’re one person, like every person, like there’s only so much information you can retain, there’s so many emails you can read, there’s so many communications that you can follow up on. And like, obviously, your spending has stayed the same or probably even decreased in the last year for most people. So like, so I think that standing out is very important. And that’s something that we tell our customers that we can help you stand out in this, we can help you navigate that customer base and navigate that competition much better than they than you could before.
Andy Halko 54:18
How do you look at competitors? Do you? Are you very competitive? Is it something that you’re obsessed with? What are they doing? And you know, what feature set do they have? Are there some folks that are the ignore it? You know, we’re we’ve got our vision, we know what we want, we’re going to go forward and who cares what the other folks are doing in the market?
Fatima Khamitova 54:37
So we did some research. I wouldn’t say I would say that no one is obsessing over it at our company because we feel like we’ve got exactly what you’re saying. We’ve got our efficient, we think that we’re doing it differently than others. We are doing it differently than others in the competition in the competitive space. We’re thinking that we can do it better, long term and amongst like wider range of companies as well. Which is what part of it is like you need to, you need to build what you believe is the best at some point because it might not be the best for everyone. But if it’s the best for most people in your target group, that’s, that’s the goal, right? You don’t want to build the copy, because a lot of the other solutions in this space are pretty much like they all have the same set some of the same sets of features. And some of that we have to, but the core is different. Which is, like why I also try not to look at it too much. Because they know that like, yeah, they can get it for like that much money, they can go there. But building something that is completely new and different and require some educational aspect a little bit is something that we have a goal of, and that’s how we’re changing, at least for us.
Andy Halko 55:45
That’s great. So, you know, the, the question I always like to kind of wrap up around is, you know, let’s imagine that you were able to go back in the past two, five or six months before you decide to go on this endeavor and start the business and have coffee with yourself. What is some advice that you would give yourself about the future and what you’re about to embark on?
Fatima Khamitova 56:18
That’s an interesting question, I think. I don’t know. So like, it’s a very, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about whether if I were if I could like, if in September 2019, when we started the company, if we could foresee the pandemic, would I start the business or not? And that was the question that I’ve asked myself a few times, because that was something that recently was asked of me. But even like, during when things were happening, I was sometimes thinking about it, like, wasn’t that better off, you know, having a great job at a great company that was that was a lot more established? And like things like this? And I think the answer is that I would have done it anyway. Even if I knew that that was happening, what I probably the advice that I would have given myself is to be a little bit more, I think forward and a little bit more confident in some of the things that I was doing and exploring because this is, it’s important. And it’s important to move sometimes a little faster. And if you like when you don’t exactly know what you’re doing. And I think that was probably the problem. The biggest problem was that we didn’t know what we were doing exactly. We knew that we wanted to do something in that big in this big intersection of retail marketing and data. But there’s so much to do, even in the intersection of all of these things, that it was just a little bit difficult navigating with how do you how exactly do you do all of that. And I think that like moving a little bit faster. And some of the ideas that we had are super, would probably like speed it up a little bit more, but they don’t even know if it would be that much to be honest, because we’re still figuring out things. So like, guess being confident in what you’re doing is the biggest thing that I would have said myself.
Andy Halko 58:08
It’s pretty interesting. I think as I’ve asked that question, you know. that is a common theme is, you know, be confident in what you’re doing, you know, go for the risk like, and I think even that summary of life is short, go after it. And it’s so interesting, because we’re talking to entrepreneurs and people that start business. And from the outside, I think most people would think they’re confident, and that they’re, you know, not afraid of risk. But every time we go back and talk about advice, it’s about more confidence, you know, don’t be afraid to go forward all that type of stuff.
Fatima Khamitova 58:43
Oh, I think it’s natural to be scared, right of something that you don’t know, unknown and thinks the best fun predictable. So I feel like even though intrapreneurs are probably like people who start companies are confident, they’re so human. So it still makes sense for them to be like, a little bit scared and a little bit unsure about where something is going.
Tony Zayas 59:07
Yeah, for sure. So Fatima thank you so much for your time today for audiences who want to find out more about you, more about Veer AI, where should they go?
Fatima Khamitova 59:18
Uhm, Veer.ai it also has links to our LinkedIn and Instagram and Facebook and other accounts. You can find us on any of those social media and you can reach out to the team. If you want to know a little bit more about the product and what we do and if we can help you or someone you know, firstname.lastname@example.org is the best way to reach us. It’s on the website.
Tony Zayas 59:44
Well thanks again.
Fatima Khamitova 59:49
Thank you! A pleasure chatting with you!
Andy Halko 59:53
Thank you so much and looking forward to see the business keep growing.
Fatima Khamitova 59:57
Andy Halko 59:58
Tony Zayas 59:59
Take care, everybody!
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