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A podcast Series With Chet Kapoor

Season 2 · Episode 10

Don't Just Be Better, Be Memorable: Building a Multi-Product Platform with Cisco's SVP & GM of Security & Collaboration

Jeetu Patel, SVP and General Manager of Cisco's Security and Collaboration Division, walks us through building and delivering a multi-product platform. He also discusses how to stay energized throughout the week, his vision for the future of work, and the power of compounding value.

Published May 18th, 2021  |  29:34 Runtime

Episode Guest

Jeetu Patel

Jeetu Patel

SVP & GM, Security & Collaboration Division at Cisco

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Episode Transcript

Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast featuring tech leaders from some of the world's largest enterprises and fastest growing startups, hosted by DataStax Chairman and CEO Chet Kapoor. Each episode follows a leader's journey to scaling a massive business while inspiring their teams. Join us to learn about the experiences that have shaped them, challenges they've overcome, and the advice they'd give to their younger selves.

Narrator: Jeetu Patel, SVP and General Manager of Cisco's Security and Collaboration Division, is focused on creating world-class subscription-based products that solve Cisco customer's biggest challenges. On today's episode, he walks us through delivering a multi-product platform and shares the six things you need to build a great company. Jeetu also discusses the importance of picking the people you work with and curating your days to stay energized. You'll learn about the future of work and the power of compounding value.

Chet: Jeetu, thank you so much for joining us. It is a pleasure to have you on this podcast.

Jeetu: Chet, thank you for having me, man. It's good to finally be back in touch after a few years, where you had started at Google and then we had lost touch for a while. So it's great to be back in touch again.

Chet: Thank you. So you recently joined Cisco, and you spent five years at Box before that, and EMC before that. Tell us a little bit about your professional journey.

Jeetu: A lot of us get lucky a few times in life and I'm definitely one of those. I started my career actually in the reverse order than what most people do. I started my career in a startup, ran my own business for the first 17 years. And then decided I wanted to learn scale, and then went to a large company, EMC. And then, from there, we had this incubation startup that we had purchased and they said, "Do you want to go out and run this business and be CEO of that business?" And so we did that, grew that business very quickly to about 100 million in about two-and-a-half years. And that was a fun ride. And then, Dell was buying EMC and they wanted to make sure that they optimized on paying off the debt. So they didn't want to go out and do anything that was completely high growth. And so they said, "Let's carve this business out." So we sold it to private equity.

Jeetu: And then at that point in time, Aaron Levie, was a good friend. We were having dinner one night and then he said, "Why don't you come join us?" I decided to join him and spent five years with him, which was among the best five years professionally that I spent with anyone. He's one of the most wonderful humans. And then this amazing opportunity came up with Chuck at Cisco to say, "Hey, do you want to run the collaboration and security business in the midst of a pandemic?" Which, in some ways, you can have so much impact and make such a huge difference in the world with people. It was too hard to say no to. And here I am. It's been seven or eight months now, and it's been a fantastic ride. And the good news is I still talk to Aaron just as much as I used to in the past. And so I've actually gotten the best of both worlds.

Chet: In these years, what was hard?

Jeetu: I'm just not as smart as the rest, so I just have to work harder in general to be able to be at par. And then in Silicon Valley, there's some pretty amazing talented people that are here. And in order to keep up, it takes a lot of effort. Initially, it just took me a while to get to the rhythm and pace. The thing that was hardest for me, actually, was not working for myself when I came to the Valley first. That was what I thought would be the hardest. And I'm so glad I did that because it just gave you an idea of scale. And so that took some adjustment, where you couldn't just go out and do something. You had to get an idea socialized, get buy-in from people. We didn't have to do much of that in a small company.

Jeetu: And then going from that 20-person company to 60,000 people was a bit of an adjustment. But I had some great coaches along the way. In fact, my first boss, Rick Devenuti, is still my coach. And so I still have him as my coach. And it's been fantastic to go through that. But I think the biggest one was just not working for yourself, initially, to get adjusted to it. But now I wouldn't do it any other way. This is actually a lot more fun. You can do a lot more consequential things at scale.

Chet: And what was easy?

Jeetu: What was easy for me was I love people. And so it didn't matter if you were with 20 people or with 1,000 people or 10,000 people or 100,000 people. I draw my energy from people. So dealing with people, understanding different kinds of people, what makes them tick? How do you make sure that you get the most out of them? That didn't really change and that came pretty naturally to me. And so I was lucky in that dimension. The other thing that I had a fantasy about when I was working for myself as a consultant, was I had this fascination growing up about products. And I used to always find it so amazing when I was in Chicago saying, "Wow, these companies in Silicon Valley, they're creating all these pieces of amazing technology and they are literally changing how everyone works."

Jeetu: I used to always find it fascinating when I'd go to London and I'd see an ad for an American company, everything's just completely globalized. And then being able to be in the midst of that, where you're building high-scale software that billions of people use, is such a privilege and something that came naturally. Because I was so passionate about it, it doesn't feel like work.

Chet: That's awesome. My suggestion to anybody who is starting out their career is two things. One is make sure you do something where you'll be happy to get paid for it, but you would do it anyway. The second thing is go and work for people that you really respect because that will change your trajectory forever. You'll pick up some really good habits.

Jeetu: Chet, one thing on that one that's really important is I am so lucky with the people that I've worked for. But I've also met people that have worked for people that are just complete assholes on the other side. And I will tell you this: it makes a world of a difference. A lot of people pick brands. Pick the people you're going to work with. It'll be the brand 10 out of 10 times.

Chet: For me personally, it has shaped everything I've ever done. It's much like a child. A large portion of their personality gets formed in the first four years of their lives. And I think for your professional career, as well. And working for Next and for Steve Jobs made all the difference in the world. And that just creates your trajectory. What you do over time is undo some things, as well as redo some things. But the baseline of working with smart people and trying to create phenomenal products that change the world stays with you forever.

Chet: So during your time at Box, you did something spectacular. You and Aaron went from a single product application to a multi-product platform while quadrupling your revenue. Just going from a single product–and being at EMC, you saw this–to a platform strategy is hard. But doing that while you're quadrupling your revenue is even harder, almost impossible. Tell us a little bit about what you faced when you were doing this. I talk to a lot of people, and it's not just Valley people who have products. There are a bunch of companies out there who are not digital natives; they're digital immigrants, and they want to do a platform strategy. What would your advice to them be given that you've been through it?

Jeetu: Well, I'll tell you this: in the world of software, the companies that actually get a disproportionate amount of share in the market tend to be ones that become platforms. And what do I mean by platforms? That means that you are creating something on top of which other people can add value where, over time, the amount of economic value that gets secreted by the ecosystem is greater than what's getting secreted to you. That's truly a platform and other people are building on top of what you've actually taken. And your core underlying value set is getting compounded by the power of all other people's imagination. The hard part about a platform is that the use cases aren't all completely known like you do in an application. So in an application, you have a very defined use case. In a platform, you actually have a developer ecosystem and they imagine things that you would have never imagined. Before you know it, you're like, "Oh, wow, they did that with us? That's not what we had thought about." And so that was a pretty interesting journey to go through.

Jeetu: I think on the multi-product side there's another pretty important transition. When you have a single product there is a certain selling motion and there's a certain dynamic in the company. And when you start having multiple products, how do you get your distribution engine to make sure that they can actually still use your existing route to market, but can have the other products flow into that route to market in an easy enough manner? Oftentimes when people build multiple products, one of the biggest mistakes I've seen people make is they will not pay attention to the existing route to market. And they'll actually build a product for an entirely different route to market. And then you don't get any scale from the business that you have. If you can minimize the number of buying centers and routes to market you have in a company, the better off you're going to be, the more you can actually scale.

Jeetu: Now, of course, you're not going to be able to have just one. Over time it just expands. But try not to have 50 of those because when you have 50, it gets really hard to go out and scale something because your distribution engine just does not get leveraged.

Chet: That's a great point. So it's really interesting. It seems like going to a platform strategy where people are building on you and you don't know exactly what people are going to build on because they take your APIs and do many more things with it– you can isolate that to a group of people and say, go for it, go and make that happen. The second part, which is creating a multi-product sales team or route to market– that, I feel, is one of the hardest things a company at scale does. I mean, I had a chance to see this at IBM. I know you got a chance to see this at EMC, and you're probably seeing at Cisco. It is not a simple problem to solve. Any tips and tricks on what you saw at Box that worked?

Jeetu: I think at Box, and also at EMC and Cisco, the thing that you have to do in a multi-product company is make sure that you massively simplify the motion that the customer goes through in order to consume your product. Imagine if a company has one product to sell, you can get very detailed. Now they have two products to sell. Okay, they can learn two products. Now, think about them having five products to sell. It gets a little bit more complicated because you're going to now need some specialists for each one of the products, especially if they're in different buying centers. Now think of a company that you're scaling. You're doing really well. You've got 10 products, 15 products, and places like Cisco, you've got hundreds of products. How do you then get the shelf space in a salesperson's mind to say, "Sell this product and make sure that this is the scenario and the playbook that you have to run when the customer has this problem that's been articulated."

Jeetu: And how do you go out and create the need for that? It gets pretty complicated. And so I've always found that the simplest way to do this is keep your products insanely simple and make sure that you're solving the most important problems. And don't get overly enthusiastic as a product person on trying to get to comprehensiveness in your messaging rather get to memorability. Memorability trumps comprehensiveness every single day of the week and twice on Sunday. So whatever you build, make sure that people remember the things you talk about. You don't have to talk about every single thing that you build. And this is a mistake that product people make all the time. They start going into a laundry list of things that they've actually done. Probably the top three or five is all the people can remember. So make sure that those top three or five are really different from the rest of the competition.

Jeetu: It doesn't always have to only be better, it has to be different. Because if people don't see you as meaningfully different, they won't switch to you. We have a rule internally which is, if you just have something that's 20% better than the competition, the customer's not going to move over to you. You have to be 10x better. In order to be 10x better, you have to deliberately think about what you are going to do to make it 10x better. It doesn't happen as an accident. And number two is: the business model shifts are actually what cause most of the disruption, not just a feature or an implementation of a feature. So think about those things as you're building these multi-product portfolios for your distribution engine, whether it be partners, whether it be online direct, whether it be through direct Salesforce. And ensure that they're able to digest that as easily as it needs to be digested so that you can get to mass scale distribution.

Jeetu: Because the hardest challenge that you have is if you don't get to distribution, eventually it becomes a hobby. And I feel like there's six things you have to keep in mind to be really thoughtful about what you build for a great company. The first one is timing. Timing always trumps everything else, and you don't control it. The second one is market. You have to have a market that you can go after. It's a large market, but you can take it off a bite at a time. Third is the team. You've got to have a great team. Market trumps team, in my opinion, because if you have a great market, it'll pull a mediocre team up. But if you have a shitty market, you'll even get the best team down. This is a controversial, debatable topic. So– timing, market, team. Fourth is product. Fifth is brand. And sixth is distribution.

Jeetu: If you don't have all six, you don't build a great company. But they go in sequential order: timing trumps market, market trumps team, team trumps product, product trumps brand, brand trumps distribution. But you have to have all six in order to build a great company.

Chet: My general take is PMF, product market fit, trumps everything. So no matter what, just focus on the pixels. And I'm using pixels as a figure of speech. It can be APIs. Just get really fixated on what gives you PMF. And a lot of people get stuck on whether PMF is actually UX or it is your API design. It could be we are integrated to more things than anybody else, and you need it. It might be ugly, but you need it.

Jeetu: The way I think about that, Chet, is the closest way to tell that you've got product market fit is just looking at your retention curve. If people come back and you deeply understand why they come back, then eventually, you know that you've got product market fit. The other thing that's scary about product market fit is just because you have it doesn't mean you won't lose it. So protect it when you have it.

Chet: And I like the combination of both. I like the retention piece. But I also like that when you are revising your forecasts every month, you know that something beyond you, the flywheel, is working. And so people are talking to others, there's some virality involved. But I like the fact that you also look at your retention rates. Because if you don't pay core attention to it, you just see your growth curve or people coming into the door but not coming in again, there's a high chance you would lose it.

Jeetu: Yeah. I think retention is a prerequisite for growth. If you don't have good retention, you shouldn't even bother with growth because all you have is a leaky bucket.

Chet: Shifting gears. You recently shared on LinkedIn that you've had your best day yet at Cisco. Tell us a little bit more about that day.

Jeetu: We optimize so much around productivity in a day that sometimes you forget there are certain things that make you more energized and there's certain things that sap your energy. For me, the thing that makes me energized is sitting with a team of people and imagining what a product could look like that we could build for a market that people get really excited about. And I love that creative process. In any job, you can't do that all day long because there's other things that you have to do. There has to be a sales compensation meeting that needs to be had. And there has to be something around data centers to make sure that you're getting the right level of efficiency, scale, and uptime. And there's a bunch of things that you need to do on a daily basis.

Jeetu: But what that day told me was a couple hours of that creative process interspersed in the right way with the other activities made me get really energized. The realization I had was if I just had a couple of these hours interspersed during the week on multiple days and curate my days that way carefully, chances are I'm going to walk away at the end of a 14 hour day really energized, rather than being sapped of energy. Now, you can't do that every day. But as much as you can, the better off you're going to be, and that's in your control. So the thing that you have to do is really understand what parts energize you and what parts don't. And it doesn't mean you don't do the things that don't energize you. Not all of us have that luxury. However, you have to make sure you infuse the day with the things that energize you. Because it's going to be better for the people around you to deal with you if you're a happier person.

Chet: Yeah, I agree. I totally agree. It's like, make sure you get a good dose of what you love and then you can tolerate what you like or the things that you have to do. That combination is really important. We were talking about this before we started the podcast: COVID is strange. It's now been a year. Everybody wants to get it behind us, but we need to keep the focus on products, we need to keep the focus on users. How have you gotten through this over the last year? Any tips and tricks?

Jeetu: I've been very blessed in the sense that the space that I have at home allows me to work productively. I've got five screens in front of me. I've got a big desk. I've got a dedicated room. I can actually take calls and not bother anyone at home. I don't have a huge amount of activity going on around me. And so those are things that are just positions of privilege to be in. You have to recognize that because it's not that easy for everyone. I do feel like there's a fundamental shift that's going on right now. Everything changed last year at this time when we all switched to working from home. And I think there's going to be yet another change that will be just as foundational. As people start coming back to the office, the future of work is going to be definitively hybrid.

Jeetu: Sometimes people are going to work from home, sometimes they're going to work from the office, sometimes somewhere in the middle. And as you start to create that kind of mode of working, it's going to be very important that... It was easy when everyone worked in the office. It was actually not that hard when everyone moved to working from home because everyone had a level playing field. But if you remember pre-COVID when there were a couple of people that dialed in on a call or conferenced in on a call, they felt like second class citizens because they weren't part of the "in club," which was a group of people all sitting together in a conference room. And now when you go into this mixed mode reality, where not everyone's going to be in the office– some of them are going to be in the office, some of them are going to be home. How does that actually manifest itself? And how do you make sure that you don't create second class citizens and you don't make geography an unfair advantage for the people that are all together physically?

Jeetu: I think that's a much more profound problem for us to solve. In the long run, if we are successful as humans, geography does not become the limiter. 3 billion digital workers should be able to participate in a global economy no matter where they are–regardless of the geography, regardless of language preference, regardless of socioeconomic level, regardless of their tech proficiency level, regardless of their personality type, whether an introvert or an extrovert. They should be able to participate equally in a global economy. And if we do that, frankly, there's nothing greater to contribute to GDP globally. But in order to make that happen, we have to take away this notion that there are second class citizens in the world. And I think that's going to be very important. So if there's four people in a room and three people remotely, what's the tech that you can use so that the four people in the room don't have an unfair advantage and the three people that are remote don't feel left out from the action?

Jeetu: How do you make sure that, if there's 10 people in a room, you can see everyone's facial expressions and body language just as well as if you're sitting in a room? I think there's a lot of innovation that needs to happen in that area. We are, of course, working on it pretty closely. But that's going to be a pretty interesting wave of innovation that will go on, which I think fundamentally could change how humans operate globally. And it could make a much brighter future for people, regardless of where they are. Chet, I know you came from India. I came from India. When we were younger, I would have not had nearly the access to opportunity if I had stayed there than come here because geography mattered. And I would love in my lifetime where that does not become the case.

Chet: Yeah, I think that's awesome Jeetu. I was going to say in the middle that I'm setting you up for a pitch. Because I know you're working on this at WebEx. It's a passionate point of view. It goes back to our roots, and I think it matters. I saw this at Google. And Google, for a hundred thousand plus people, they definitely did some really awesome things with Hangouts. And I know WebEx has been on the forefront of it. There is a next level, though, because I think we've all gotten to where it should be. But I think there's a step function coming for this hybrid environment where I feel like I'm in a meeting, even though I can choose to be in one meeting in person and another meeting from home, but it all feels generally the same. I think the tech has to help us get there.

Jeetu: Our goal is, can you make a virtual meeting, 10x better than an in-person interaction? I think we're going to be there faster than you know it. That doesn't mean that in-person interactions aren't valuable. For example, when you go out to dinner and break bread with someone, there's something extremely tangible and valuable about that. And there's a bonding that happens during that kind of shared moment between two humans that's very special. But when you are actually having a business meeting, you can probably get more done in a virtual environment because you've got more people, especially as you get into larger audiences. I have 50 people in a room. I can actually do much more to go out and get signals from 50 people digitally than I can in a physical environment.

Jeetu: And so I think there's a lot of innovation that's to be had and I feel we are in our early days. When people ask me, "Is this it?" And I'm like, just imagine in five to 10 years... I don't think we will be looking at two-by-two boxes on a screen as the best way that 50 people can interact with each other, or 100 people, or 1,000 people or 100,000 people. There has to be a better way to do it.

Chet: Awesome. If you need an alpha user, let me know. We'll be game because we are always experimenting. We're a distributed company, so what lands up happening is we use all the tips and tricks all over the place to get this going. So look forward to the awesome innovation. Two-part question: who inspires you, and what would be the couple of things you would tell a younger version of yourself?

Jeetu: Growing up, my mother had a very hard life. My dad was pretty abusive and she powered through and sold her last pieces of jewelry to get me to one semester in college when I came to America. And so I'd say that she definitely is the reason that I'm here. So she inspires me a lot. I think my daughter now, to see how she is really pushing boundaries and doing things that are extremely on the creative front at a very different level than what I could ever imagine doing, is super inspiring. And then I would say, if you look at public figures, the one that I find so inspiring–and this will piss off some of your listeners and then make some people happy–but Barack Obama. He's so good at the way in which he operates as a leader.

Jeetu: I had campaigned for him at one point in time. I used to live in Chicago and I had gone to a campaign. And the way that they do it is you bring your cell phone, they give you a list of people to call, and you just sit down anywhere on the floor and you start calling. And the amazing part about that experience you would call people who would get angry on the other side. They'd start yelling at you. "Why are you calling?" All you're calling and telling them about is, do you have all that you need to go vote. It's not who you're going to vote for. Do you have everything you need to go vote, get people out to vote.

Jeetu: And the amazing part was everyone in that campaign office never once raised a voice when someone was mean on the other side, never once did anything, because the leadership that came from the top set a tone. And the moment we walked into that room, it was almost automatic that you would follow the tone of the leader. You're not going to do anything that's disrespectful, even if you've been shown disrespect on the other side. And it was an unbelievable experience to go through, to say, the tone gets set from the top even when you're not around. And so words matter and your values matter. And he did such a good job of that. And so he's a source of inspiration for sure.

Chet: And what advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

Jeetu: These journeys of success that you see in other people seem so far away, but if you keep chipping away little by little, there is a power of compounding that's not understood by most people. My one big regret is I understood the foundational principles of the power of compounding in life way too late. Because if you just understand the power of compounding, and not just how you compound wealth, but how you compound value and how you compound learning and knowledge... Little by little, if you keep doing it consistently, before you know it, you look back and there's a world of knowledge you've accumulated. And so the advice I'd give to myself is, "Read the book on power of compounding sooner rather than later."

Chet: That is awesome advice. Jeetu, this has been phenomenal. It is always great to hang out with you. We really appreciate your time.

Jeetu: Thank you so much for having me, Chet. And thank you for doing these. These are good for the younger generation, and if they can take away one thing from something like this, it's worth the time. So I really appreciate you doing this.

Narrator: Building a successful multi-product platform requires simplification and memorability, so make sure you're solving the most important problems first. And remember that it's not enough to just be better than the competition; you also have to be different. The future of work is hybrid. New technologies will help us create a global economy where everyone can participate equally, no matter where they live, what language they speak or their socioeconomic status. Jeetu reminds us to always make time for the activities that energize us. Finally, stay persistent with your goals and harness the power of compounding value in life.

Narrator: Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests and amazing stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new episode is released. And for Apple Podcasts listeners, please rate and review the show to help give it a wider reach to listeners such as yourself. And feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at inspiredexecution@datastax.com.