Speaker 1: Hey there, Product lovers. Welcome to the Product Love Podcast, hosted by Eric Boduch, co- founder and chief evangelist of Pendo, and super fan of all things product. Product Love is the place for real insights into the world of crafting products as Eric interviews founders, product leaders, venture capitalists, authors, and more. So let's dive in now with today's Product Love podcast.
Eric Boduch: Well, welcome lovers of product today. I'm here with Sri, who's the chief product and engineering officer at Zuora. Why don't you kick this off Sri by giving us a little overview of your background.
Sri Srinivasan: Hi, Eric, thank you for having me on your podcast. So about myself, I've been at Zuora for about eight months or so, but my career has gone through quite a bit of winding turns. I started at, I would say in right earnest at a company called PeopleSoft many, many years back. I would say nearly two and a half, three, nearly closer to three decades back. Was an engineer there grew up as an engineer. Eventually when PeopleSoft got acquired by Oracle, I was one of their distinguished engineers had spent a lot of time building a lot of the subsystems. Drove a big transformation from PeopleSoft desktop to web in the Y2K days if many of you remember. It was quite an interesting transformation. And at 2005, one of the folks in the road for me was do I go to Oracle and continue the PeopleSoft saga? Or do I find my creative energies you put to use elsewhere. And I decided Oracle was not the cultural fit for me. And took myself to Microsoft after meeting, I would say the current CEO, I met Satya at that time and he was the head of the division I joined. I didn't report to him, but I reported to one of his directs. So, the whole direction of going into solutions was quite exciting. And for me, Microsoft up until then was a black box and a couple of leaders helped me unravel it. And what a journey I spent about 13 years at Microsoft, learned a lot and into 2018 at the exact 25th year mark of my career, I decided I was going to do something different other than business apps. So I took myself and ran Cisco collaboration division for a good three years, went through a high scale phase, especially serving nearly every person working from home during the COVID phase, amazing journey. And finally ended up at Zuora after having a brief conversation with Tien Tzuo. I would say December of last year with the transformation he was thinking of off, and here I am, my role focuses on obviously transforming our portfolio. Simply put, moving us from subscription management to the journey of usership, which is nurturing subscriber relationships on behalf of our customers to help them monetize those relationships.
Eric Boduch: So, let's talk about your career for a minute. What jobs or what leaders had the biggest impact on you as you grew as a product leader?
Sri Srinivasan: Yeah. So the first one I would call out is PeopleSoft customer friendly company. There's not a single company out there who's going to say, hey, I'm not empathetic to customers. Eric, have you ever heard that? They'll all say, yeah, I am. But the people who listen and act are few and far between, and I would say PeopleSoft is one of those companies. It's still the benchmark for how well they treated their customers, how well they listened to their customers. So for me, it was very simply put the leaders there were have been transmitted in my journey. I'll give you an example. For me, it was a person by named Petros Dermetzis who's now retired from work there, he used to head all of product and engineering. He's the one who had a whole bunch of mentorship conversations without asking for a mentorship discussion. That led me to understand why we build certain things for customers. Understanding the scenarios, understanding the purpose, understanding the impact. I think that left a lasting impression. I would say the two leaders there Petros and Dave Duffield, who was the founder of PeopleSoft and founder of Workday. And obviously similar experiences at Microsoft, many a leader when I joined Microsoft, the first thing I noticed was boy, so many smart people, so many energized capabilities across the landscape of tech. And I think Bill Gates left a lasting impression in his second incarnation as chief technologist for Microsoft under Satya. I didn't have much interaction in his first forum, but in the second one I did. And it was quite amazing to see him engage at the level of understanding that very few of people at leadership levels too, he was deep in technology, knew where technology was headed and perspectives were quite amazing to simply acertian here.
Eric Boduch: Awesome. You talked about Microsoft now I have to ask you, what was it like to be a product leader at Microsoft, especially because the time you were there was when they were starting to invest heavily in the cloud, right? So you have this big existing desktop kind of business, so to speak. And now this big transition to the cloud, talk to me through that process and the impact on your product leadership on the product organization and how you built the company.
Sri Srinivasan: Yeah. So Microsoft went through many a transformation. We obviously, going from on- prem software selling and the desktop to pure cloud SaaS was quite transformative. But the most important thing was I had the opportunity not only transforming the business line, but also being nearly the first SaaS service on Azure. Right there in house, it brings a whole bunch of responsibility Eric, because you're not only bringing SaaS to market. You're also making sure Microsoft's technology can stand the test of general purposes. So we had mixed responsibilities and you had to do it with PNL in mind. Your profit and loss as a GM of business, you can't let gross margins suffer, you've got to make sure customers have a transition plan. You've got to bring partners along for the ride. It's more than technology transformation, I think that portion was tractable. The bigger thing was cultural transformation. How engineering teams think about product in a fast world, how your partner go to market change because Microsoft, for the most part is a hundred percent partner go to market. Partners are used to this upfront sale. And now you're getting only about 136 to fit along the way. Just think about that, right? That itself is changed in many ways. So I think at Microsoft, we all learned together every single day was learning with a different sense of passion and purpose for what we wanted SaaS to be. And if you remember, there was a book that Satya wrote at that time, it was called Hit Refresh, Eric, I don't know whether you read it or not. But that book was all about, the mindset you bring forward. And I would say the key thing I learned was to apply continuous learning. That is the things you learn yesterday don't necessarily help you tomorrow. And you got to learn from your experiences and make it better that you get automated, you get scale out of it. So carried effects book wrote mindset was I would say the Bible for how you wanted SaaS processes to work per se.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, I haven't read the book, but I'll have to check that out. So we talked about, some of the challenges you mentioned one, which is the technical challenge to talk to me about that. The roadmap of moving from desktop to web cloud and how daunting that can be for a company of Microsoft size.
Sri Srinivasan: I think it's daunting from the standpoint of the speed and the cycle of innovation changes completely. So you go from 24 month delivery cycles to nearly weekly and monthly updates, think about that, right? And along the way, the additional level of complexity in business apps is exchange management along the way. You can obviously make technology move at a rapid pace, but how you make sure the functions that your customers did before an update actually work well after the update, that's kind of key to enterprise SaaS. There is, I would say nearly 70 to 80% of enterprise SaaS are still trying to figure out that secret sauce of how do I keep my customers on the innovation train without disrupting them, bringing them along for the right. And I don't think that not has been cracked at Microsoft the most further along. And tho those were early learnings, incrementalism, flighting, testing, understanding what your customers are doing, putting the right telemetry systems in place. What SaaS does for you is you've got all the listening systems in the data all along the way. You don't have to bring opinions in, you can be heavily data driven. And we took that to heart. We built the systems that basically gave us insights into how customers perceived our products, what worked, what did not work. And we spent a lot of time building the technologies that do continuous integration, continuous deployment based on, feedback from customer from usage itself. I would say that's the secret of success in SaaS. And that's a lesson that carried forward along the way. So it's transforming teams to understand that feedback is not only a gift, feedback is something you act on every single day, every release.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, no, absolutely. I think you can get access to so much data in the SaaS world and you need to make use of it. What made you decide to leave and move into the, I guess the video conferencing world.
Sri Srinivasan: Like I told you, it was exactly the 25th year of my working career. That's a quarter of century. That's huge. And for me it was, I had a chat with one of the leaders of an equity company. One of the largest equity companies that basically have is a SaaS company. They hold SaaS companies and they buy them, they sell them, that's what they do. And one of the conversations I had with him was how much are you learning every single day? Are you comfortable in your jobs? And at that point, one of the self- reflection moments for me was I was very comfortable doing what I was. And both that book Hit Refresh our effort to, and these conversations led me to believe I had to put myself in uncomfortable, so situation so that I could spur my learning exercise again. So I took myself away from business apps all together and decided to do something different. And I really believed in teamwork. I still believe in teamwork. The power of the team is what gets us through. So for me, it was how do I leverage the power of the team through the lens of digital technologies? So for me, Cisco was giving me the opportunity to go transform their collaboration suite. And it was great learning opportunity to learn how media worked, how team collaboration worked, how consumer SaaS work, how consumer SaaS being sold through the lens of businesses into business work. It was just an amazing learning experience of dichotomy, of owned data centers to public cloud migration. It's just an amazing experience outside the Microsoft cocoon, I would say.
Eric Boduch: Awesome. That's cool. It's interesting to hear about product leaders that constantly challenge themselves, right? And want to learn new things. I think, I ask a question at the end three words to describe yourself, but in one of the questions that comes up a lot is like curious where you can see that in product leaders like this curiosity about how technology works or how different marketplaces work and it's a thread. It's definitely a thread we see in product managers along with some other characteristics. So talk to me about how product leadership as a whole has changed throughout your career. I imagine a lot of things were the same, but things I imagine change too, as you move through different deployment mechanisms for software.
Sri Srinivasan: Absolutely. I think product leaders have, again, going back to that growth mindset, product leaders are truly business owners. They are entrepreneurs on the edge and the best product leaders are one that are ready to sacrifice their existing product for a better product of the future. And if you, this is key Eric, because if you look at many, how innovation happens today, there'll be a great company out there with a lot of product. And then they get you served or the rug swept under them by a startup that comes along the way and eats your lunch. That's because they bring product managers in those small organizations, repaint the canvas and start with an empty canvas and product managers every single day have to bring in unfettered thinking into saying, let's not worry about the constraints of today. Let's understand what the customer of the future wants. So designing for the future is one of the hallmark of product management. And I think that exercise has only become better with the advent of technology with the advent of listening systems. And if you look at the traditional innovation cycle, if I might, it was three years in software in on- prem and now it's down weak or less in consumer assets like ours. So, basically product managers are ones that are on the pulse. They're thinking about the future. They're basically have this fortitude of seeing the forest through the woods, unlike others and bringing others along for the ride. So it's one of those things where you are harnessing technology towards the furtherance of some of the business purpose and that business purpose needs to take importance. And the second part is how do you bring scale thinking to work?
Eric Boduch: Yeah. Talk to me about scale thinking.
Sri Srinivasan: So I think SaaS in particular, I've seen many, a SaaS model failed because organizations did not bring scale thinking. Scale thinking for me is, in at least software driven SaaS world in places like Zuora, where we are thinking about, journey to usership that is really nurturing that subscriber relationship, scale thinking is all about making sure there is no place for hero work, seriously, no place for hero work. Which is all the way from how you engineer, how you do in certain management, how you do software triages, how you think about your next features, things of that sort. You need to have empathy, but there is no emotional caution attached to how you attack these problems. If somebody's working 20 hours a day and saying, I solve this problem, the bigger question you've got to ask is why did you have to spend 20 hours? Why could you not do it as part of your design? Why did you even hit the issue? So it's those hard questions that make up scale thinking. And scale thinking to be honest with you, is taking from a product manager's lens. A line level product manager often gets attached to the features they're building and scale thinking is, is this really working? What do you have to tune? Should you share it at the right time and move on to something else? These are hard problems. Scale thinking is about how can I see maximized potential out of what I'm building towards the furtherance of the customers I serve. And I would say it's an art form more than a science work.
Eric Boduch: Yeah. I would agree with that. A lot of people in the product space, especially young group product managers tend to get obsessed with the product as opposed to the problem. Right? And it's like attached to the, what they've built, the features they've built. And then it, it's hard to look at things from a different perspective because maybe the underlying, opportunity has changed and warrants a fresh look, right? And then they're more attached to the product as to the value they're bringing.
Sri Srinivasan: And I'll tell you at Zuora, we have something quite interesting, very different. I haven't seen this with SaaS companies. We have a group called Subscribe Strategy group. So what these guys do this group does is engages management teams across the globe. And pretty much helps us hone down the problem set. And they're not product of the product group. All they're doing is they're basically understanding trends, behaviors, adoption methods, and mechanisms in the subscriber space. And when we talk about scale thinking, understanding of the problem and staying true to the problem often requires somebody to look at it from the outside and kind of keep reminding you, are you really sticking close to what you're supposed to be doing? And I think we have one of those riches here, quite interesting.
Eric Boduch: So let's jump into Zuora. Talk to me about Zuora and their mission and what got you excited. What made you jump over there?
Sri Srinivasan: So at Zuora, we have a very simple mission. We believe in helping organizations, nurture relationships with subscribers to help them monetize and engage these subscribers for life. It's that simple. It's monetization of subscriber relationship through continuous nurturing, providing the best experience and value. You could use either one of those. Now that's a lot of bombastic talk. What does that really mean? It basically means that we understand everything about the subscriber on behalf of our customers. We help our customers create the right subscription plans. Right monetization plans and offers. We bring agility to this trade and we help customers get services off the ground with the right level of flighting and technologies of that sort. The prime example is, the video conference, you and I are on. Zoom is a prime example. We support these customers in everything we need, in terms of back office, offer management, understanding usage, understanding entitlements, understanding where you should be optimizing your offering and things of that sort. That's what we do. We are the defacto standard of agility for organizations like Zoom.
Eric Boduch: It's awesome. What's the big challenges at Zuora?
Sri Srinivasan: The biggest challenge I would say is how do we take all the data we have around the subscriber and convert that into effective information, intentional information in order to drive proactive action. So basically what does that mean? You have a subscriber on a particular service. They turn, what, if you knew all the leading indicators and you were able to advise your customer, that you need to do this, this and this so that this person doesn't churn, I think that's effective information. So our transformation is how do we take the massive amount of data we have and convert that into an engaging subscriber life cycle that I would say is the biggest problem we have.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, that's interesting because we think about similar issues at Pendo, right? Where we're getting product data and we're helping people do guidance is like how, we can help them visualize that data visualize flows and pass and how customers are logging in, aren't logging in, but then there's this insights component. How do we make that easier for people to be more predictive? When are people it upsell or buy an upsold version of your product, when is a cross sale opportunity, right? How do you identify people that may end up turning? That kind of stuff is really interesting to think about how do you take these huge data sets and trillions and turn those into, insights and do that automatically for product management, as oppose to having to have them build their own models. So interesting challenges, that we're looking at from similar challenges from very different directions, right? So what makes you so bullish on subscription economy? Obviously that's the heart of Zuora.
Sri Srinivasan: So I think what makes me bullish is what got me here in the first place. I saw these challenges at SaaS services I have operated myself. I operated it at Dynamics 365. I've operated it at Cisco Webex. And here I am kind of operating the engines for a SaaS business. And one of the beauties of this is I see the subscription economy at play across 1300 plus customers we have, which is quite amazing. You're not just sitting at the cockpit of Zuora. You're sitting at the cockpit of transmission of all these companies. So it's an amazing in place to be at. And subscription economy to me is not only about subscriptions. It's also about the next level, which is usage. And what it is doing is it's democratizing products far greater in terms of usage than it has ever. When we were just in product sale, if you sold to a million people, the subscriptions gets you to 10 million people and usage gets you to a hundred million people. So think of the linear scale of adoption, you get by, just people coming in and saying, hey, I'm going, just use this particular product for this particular function and that's it. So it basically increases your reach brings the level of equity in this world that is unimaginable, right? It's quite literally, taken to the education world. You can buy a book for a hundred dollars or you can rent it for an hour for 50 cents. Just think of the reach you get to. Customers like check, do this on a regular basis. And I think we've also helped people change the business models when the COVID thing hit. We had Fender, guitar manufacturing company that basically started offering free lessons, music lessons to a whole bunch of folks. And they hit more than, I would say, a million subscribers or 10X increase in subscriber base, but they're still nurturing. Right? So our belief is anything as a service is going to expand across industries. I see it in agriculture, with the code where I see a whole bunch of people gardening in their backyards a lot more than they ever have gardening as a service has taken off. If you don't believe me, there is manure as a service.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, no, I'm familiar with the manure as a service. We have a service here that provides that along with composting as a service, right? It's really interesting how all that's taken off. I wish I knew about the Fender one because I bought a Fender guitar at the beginning of COVID and my lesson part didn't work quite as well.
Sri Srinivasan: Totally get it. And you've got to look at analyst reports and such people may say the subscription economy is growing at 30% and stuff, but the penetration is only 5%, 8%, 10%. That's 30% growth on that. I expect it to keep on growing and doubling and tripling over the next four or five years, people are shedding materialistic attachment to products, and they are attaching themselves to experience and value a lot more. That's basically, it crosses generational boundaries and that's where we are headed. It's about how can I get the best experience possible? And it can only happen in the subscription economy. It's not only guitars and manure and things like that. Automobiles, it's tires as a service it's spanning industries. It was limited to SaaS, it's totally cross the chasm.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, no, absolutely. I know there's a company, I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, and there's a company here, that does air filters as a service, right?
Sri Srinivasan: Yeah. Well, refrigerator, water filters. We don't have to go buy them anymore. They just come as refill packs. That's a subscription.
Eric Boduch: Yeah. Yeah. I totally get it. And there's another company that's doing sensors. That'll just know like when you're out of olive oil. And as soon as you're going to run out, they'll ship you more olive oil. So there's interesting applications of that too, of like the reoccurring services. You get an air filter every X number of months, or the consumption based, you get new olive oil when you're within two days of running out or three days of running out, whatever happens to be. It's really interesting. Like you, I am bullish on the subscription economy. I see it is a huge opportunity for tech, for entrepreneurship. Yeah. There's just so many different things we could be and will be doing there.
Sri Srinivasan: And one final thing I would say there is we at Zuora learn from an ever increasing landscape of customers of how the subscription economy works. And we bring back to the next customer who join us. That's so much better than DIY projects in this space.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, absolutely. It's interesting. It made me think about like, okay, like, does Zuora make sense to work with companies like this sensor company that's doing usage based fulfillment, usage based subscriptions, right? You can see this expansion of the opportunity for Zuora, and all based around this fundamental service i. e a subscription. There's a few things that we touched on as we were going through all of this that I wanted to get back to. First was going back to Microsoft and you were talking about the big change of moving to a subscription economy, a SaaS economy away from desktop. And one of the things you talked about, which I think is really interesting, and I feel like we'll be remiss if we don't touch on in a little more detail, was the relationship with partners that Microsoft had and the challenge in moving them through that model. Can you talk a little bit more about that for product leaders out there who have a strong partner ecosystem and might be moving from an on- prem model to a services model, similar to how Microsoft went that has this whole partner ecosystem to take into account.
Sri Srinivasan: Yeah. So, absolutely. I think it's a great question. First, my advice to product managers is take this part, your distribution extremely seriously, extremely seriously, the goal market, your distribution, who takes you to market super important. Why? Firstly, in the SaaS world, you cannot outsource experience. You have to control it and you have to use your partners as a conduit. Secondly, at least at Microsoft, I would say partners for partners there. These were businesses. They were like second mortgages for them. So you got to think from a partner's lens, empathetically on what it means for them to make that transformation from an on- prem sale, that gives you, I would say at sugar rush, the high, and now you're saying, you get a smaller dose of that high 136 for the next three years. So it's a business model transformation for some it's too hard to pick. So we did pretty much work with our partners on how that would happen. Because if you were making this much, now you're reducing and making a lot less. And so it was, we did things like, pay them six months of incentives for transforming work, through business models, build scale mechanisms for them to understand, sell to more customers. If you remember one of the things I said with on-prem, it took you 18 months to sell and an implement with SaaS. You were doing it in one or two months. So, now their addressable market was growing, helping them see that scale to it has made many, a successful stories. So my simple guidance to product managers is spend the time understanding your distribution, think from their lens, put on their hack, which is very hard to do, and then make decisions because often I see product managers, GMs make a whole bunch of assumptions that are not true. And until you have those, the human dialogue with the other person's hat on your head, you will not make the right decisions.
Eric Boduch: Yeah. Thanks. The other thread I wanted to touch on was big data. I mean, we talked about data and huge sources of data and how we utilize them in digital services, but there's this whole accessibility and inclusivity part of that too. I wanted to get your thoughts on that, how we better utilize data to make digital services more accessible, more inclusive?
Sri Srinivasan: Yeah. So I think the very first principle with data that every SaaS service, every software business has to understand it is not your data silly. It is not, we are all custodians of customers, data. That's super important to understanding the enterprise business. So you got to design with that principle. So the other thing is, the subscriptions where we are, it's a very confluence between so many peace parts. It's a very confluence, basically we call it journey to usership. What is it? Journey to usership is basically understanding that intricate relationship between product it's delivery and the customers it serves. Obviously we generate a whole bunch of data in terms of, in product sale. It's one time you sell, you ship and you're done. Whereas in the subscription, life starts at the sale of the subscription. Now, you know everything about, what did the customer do? How much did they adopt? Did they go on vacation? Did their usage drop, adopt renew cycles, upgrade cycles, pause, cycles, churn, all those capabilities coming into play. And I would say both from a, the first thing is we are custodians of this data were because of democratizing this data. So we base enable customers to understand behavior and act on the behavior from different lenses Eric. That's pretty much how we think about it. And obviously it pulls in, you got to take data deep and make sure you're not looking at it from just one lens. You bring, diverse perspectives to it. That's where you get an usually army of engineers. You render it to through user research studies that have changed quite a bit. You engage with customers and basically get their perspectives. Today I would say globally, diverse engineering pool already. That's nature of the world. I think Thomas Friedman declared in 2005, the world is flat. And that's true for how we think about data and inclusively and making decisions.
Eric Boduch: So this has been fun. Wanted to ask you a couple final questions. What's your favorite product?
Sri Srinivasan: What's my favorite product? So let me talk what I'm doing at Zuora. I hope to make it one of the best products I ever build. And we are basically talking about monetize anything as a service, we call it unified monetization. That is, we want to simplify the ability for customers to sell and offer, try it, iterate it, and basically get faster returns on the capital expenditure that they have. We believe helping transform product centric companies into the subscription economy, through the lens of something like unified monetization is kind of that secret sauce where you don't no longer have to be just bullish on it, you can actually see it in action. So for me, I'm most excited about how do I influence a higher degree of growth. It's like the dream for every product manager, this kind of a problem opportunity. And I would say in terms of my favorite product, I think it's the iPhone. January 7th, 2007, if you guys remember was the date, the iPhone was launched, changed the word, it changed how we engage as subscribers. It basically increased the reach. I think kids know how to pinch faster than they learn A, B, C, D.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, no, it is interesting. I remember buying an iPhone when it first came out and I actually carried two phones for quite a while because I had my Blackberry and I could type so much fat on the Blackberry and replying to emails and sending text messages. And then the iPhone was like this new thing that like, that's where my music was. So instead of an iPod now I had the iPhone and I could use it for phone calls and apps at that point weren't apps, they were like websites, right? They were masked or faked up applications, so to speak. But it's very interesting to see how far that's evolved and how quickly it's stuck, even though some of the experiences on the iPhone, like sending messages, sending emails were a lot harder than the old technology, but just the design factor, the form factor in integrating things like music in with your phone, right from the beginning, how that kind of just meant the end of the blackberries of the world. It was definitely a cool time. I can't believe when you think about it, that that was almost 25 years ago. Sorry, it was almost-
Sri Srinivasan: 15 years ago.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, quite a while ago. So, but still a favorite product and.
Sri Srinivasan: Inaudible.
Eric Boduch: Yeah. Yes. We, saw the decline of Blackberry shortly after the iPhone came out. So, crazy world. One final question for you. Three words to describe yourself.
Sri Srinivasan: First word, always want to learn, learn, learn, learn growth mindset. Second tenacity just never give up towards the quest of exceptionalism. And thirdly, I would say empathetic to our customers, customer obsessed to the core, blow through all walls for customers.
Eric Boduch: Great. Awesome. Well, thank you. This has been a blast.
Sri Srinivasan: Thank you so much. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about Zuora and the subscription economy. Look forward to helping each one of you listening on the journey to usership.