"How do you bind people culturally together? How do you bind people to the same motives? How do you bind people to the same objectives? Managing people will get your work done in a rational way, but it will not move everyone in the same direction, at the speed you want. After COVID, everyone will be working remotely, and a good leader can definitely derive and drive a lot of organizational value on a day to day basis." - Nisarg Shah
Nisarg Shah is the cofounder and CEO of Affable.ai. Founded in 2017, Affable.ai is a Singapore based startup leveraging artificial intelligence to run highly effective influencer marketing campaigns. Their Machine Learning and platform helps brands like Shopee, Huawei, and Chanel engage with the most authentic and relevant influencers.
Affable is backed by Decacorn Capital, SGInnovate, Entrepreneur First and strategic angels from organizations like Google and Microsoft. Affable is also the first EF startup to be funded by Startup Singapore Equity scheme, which stimulates and accelerates private investments into local startups with intellectual property and global market potential.
Before starting Affable, Nisarg built scalable automation systems at Goldman Sachs while working with their technology department in Bangalore. He also previously founded another company, Visualive, which was an AR platform to help consumers visualise 3D product models in their surroundings before buying them online.
Nisarg graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, majoring in Electrical Engineering and minoring in Computer Science and Management Studies. In his spare time, he researches and writes for his highly-subscribed newsletter about Unique Business Models, a short weekly summary of how different companies like Duolingo , Unsplash and Robinhood actually generate revenue. You can follow him at www.linkedin.com/in/nisarg259/ and his newsletter is at bit.ly/ubm-ss. These links are in the show notes.
Jeremy Au: [00:02:25] So good to have you, Nisarg.
Nisarg Shah: [00:02:18] Hey, thanks for having me here, Jeremy. Super excited to speak with you.
Jeremy Au: [00:02:22] When people talk about influencer marketing in Southeast Asia, they always seem to bring up your name as someone to talk to. I remember reaching out and having that conversation with you and just kind of really being mind blown by your domain expertise, as well as your leadership journey. I'm so glad to be able to have you sharing your journey with everybody and myself.
Nisarg Shah: [00:02:45] Thanks a lot, really appreciate it. And from our chat, I remember your own journey of how you started your own company and moved back and helping the community of entrepreneurs in different ways by mentoring them and guiding them, right? it's a pleasure to know you and speak with you on this and share my journey with your subscribers.
Jeremy Au: [00:03:03] Yeah, it's awesome, because the founder community across Southeast Asia is such a tight knit one, there's so much pay-it-forward and mutual support that just doesn't seem to happen in our old domains of finance and consulting. Right? So there's such a funny change in difference. For those who don't know you yet, could you share more about your professional journey?
Nisarg Shah: [00:03:24] Sure. I'm Nisarg. I'm originally from India, Mumbai specifically. Grew up there. And when I was young, basically was a good student in academics, and the natural next step for any Indian student who has great academics is to aim for the IIT. there's a lot of schools, and a lot of institutions that are just geared towards putting you in an IIT. Right? I kind of went through that. When I was at IIT, my original thought was that I was going to spend the next four years studying a lot.
There's a spectrum of students in engineering typically that are the good students who are following all the class notes and are excelling in exams, and there are the rebels who want to do everything else, like sports, like festivals, and other things, right? And I was somewhere in the middle of where I was still good at studies and academics. I was getting the bare minimum required to qualify for most of the opportunities. But at the same time, I felt like there were so many new opportunities that opened up when I was in a university, like running the student placement office, but I was inviting companies to hire students, or where I was making sales calls to get sponsorships for cultural festivals.
I think I grew a lot there, which kind of shaped me for my roles and for my first job, which was at Goldman Sachs. Getting into banking was super exciting, but I was in the technology division. So it was still the same: computer science, engineering, automations. But it was my real first world experience. Right? And I think that's where I also got my first experience in leadership and management. And we can talk a bit about that. But I noticed there was two kinds of managers: one, which was really good at managing people and getting their work done, and the second, which were really good at leading a team and still getting the work done. And that struck to me.
When I then moved on from Goldman Sachs and started my own startup, which was Visualive, I moved back to Mumbai, started staying with my family. And I was building this app to help people visualize furniture in their space using augmented reality. And I was three months into this when I was a solo founder, just building it out and making the new first-time founder mistake of building everything first without even speaking to a customer, because of course the customer's going to buy it, right? And this is when my friend introduced me to Entrepreneur First.
Entrepreneur First is a Singapore-based accelerator kind of model where they take in first time or they take in technology founders from different domains and put them together in a room and help them build companies. Interestingly, I had originally thought of not joining the program because I was like, "Come on. I'm not going to move from India to Singapore to work with a random person, build a startup around it, when I already have a potentially very successful idea." Right? And when I was speaking to a few mentors at EF, and this was my first foray into getting proper mentorship on business ideas, I realized that I was not the right person to build to Visualive and whatever I was working on was not validated. I didn't have the right contacts. I didn't have the right team to build it out.
At Affable, at Entrepreneur First, I met with Swayam. We brainstormed a lot of ideas, became really good friends. And what we both realized was scaling word of mouth through social media users was the next big thing. And there was a completely archaic process. The entire process was super manual, time-taking, full of guesswork. There's no automation, no analytics around it. And we said, "Look, let's build out a prototype." So now we did not do that mistake. And we built a prototype. We showed it to a bunch of people and people started paying us for the prototype itself, which was a very positive sign that if we build this out, it could be something. And that's where we started building Affable. So yeah, from a kid in Mumbai to now, I'm in Singapore running Affable, team of around 15 of us and doing well.
Jeremy Au: [00:07:09] What a great journey, and such an inspiring one for so many entrepreneurs. Could you share a little bit more about how you personally got started on the leadership side of things?
Nisarg Shah: [00:07:20] So when I was a kid at IIT and I started dabbling into the side activities, which is everything apart from academics, is where I got the first exposure to leadership, right? And for the listeners, there's this unique thing about Indian universities where the students run what is called a placement office, where we call up big companies. I was calling companies like Goldman, companies like Shell, and asking them to come to our campus and interview our students. And when they would come, I would manage bringing them news and giving them water bottles and running around making sure all the interviewees are there on time. When I was working in this team of students who were managing student placement office, it was also the first time I was accountable to someone. And in this case, I was accountable to 150 students. And I had to make sure that I bring in opportunities for them. I was working in a team of five and I was given this huge task of bringing in companies for student placements, right?
This was my first foray into leadership, which I also then translated into making my first sales calls when I was bringing sponsorship for some cultural festivals at IIT. Again, a very Indian thing is where there are sponsors who are paying to put up the banners and have announcements to meet the students in cultural festivals. And I remember I had to interview for one of these roles. And when they asked me like, "Why do you think you can sell?" I told that my dad has his own business and I've seen him selling, so I think I could sell as well. And it's just funny, like if I look back now, I'm never going to hire someone who's saying that Dad is selling so I could sell, right? But I think that worked for whatever reason. And yeah, I was selling. I brought in a few thousand dollars of sponsorship revenue, from these brands. And these couple of experiences helped me as a leader over my next experiences in the professional journey.
Jeremy Au: [00:09:11] Amazing. So true. Why is leadership so important?
Nisarg Shah: [00:09:16] I think leadership is specifically important, and I'm speaking from the technology world that I've been a part of, right? So historically, there have been managers. And my first experience about importance of leadership was when I was at Goldman Sachs. So I was an intern first, and then I joined full-time as an analyst in the software division. But I could see a stark difference between influential managers versus influential leaders. And I was fortunate that my manager was a good leader. Leadership is important because a lot of times good people will be ignored just because they're not visible to these organizations.
If you were to talk about a big organization like Goldman Sachs, good leaders can bring in very good, talented people and show them to the right management opportunities, whereas in small startups, leadership is important because there's so many different ways of doing things, where if you have a fixed mindset as a manager, and a fixed checklist, then you will not have all the innovative, most optimal ways that something could be implemented. And I feel giving that freehold to someone to run a project on their own and then guide them, to set a flagpole and reach that is something that good leaders can enable. And I think now there's more awareness about leadership, more awareness about how micromanaging doesn't always work. And it's becoming more and more important these days, with super smart people in the industry who don't like to be answering people.
Good leadership is also super important now in the world after COVID where everyone's working from home, right? How do you bind people culturally together? How do you bind people to the same motives? How do you bind people to the same objectives? Managing people will get your work done in a rational way, sure, but it will not move everyone in the same direction at the speed you want. So I feel right now, after COVID, everyone is working remote, a good leader can definitely derive and drive a lot of organizational value on a day to day basis.
Jeremy Au: [00:11:20] So what hurdles did you personally face and how did you overcome them?
Nisarg Shah: [00:11:24] When I started my leadership journey, I had some examples of how leaders or managers are performing, right? So when I was at Affable initially, it was just me and Swayam working out of a coworking space, looking to interview interns who could join us so that we could expedite our work. I started noticing that when these folks joined us, we were micro-managing a lot of their work, right? So specifically me, when I was looking at someone who's doing sales calls or writing blog posts or doing marketing material, I would step in and always guide what they were doing on a day to day basis, and always looking on their shoulder to kind of see if everything is as per the plan, which was not right.
When this thing got brought up as feedback, saying I was controlling or trying to micromanage a lot of these projects, it struck me that if there is not enough independence in the team to work as they deem right, then we're not utilizing their skills to the best. If I have hired someone to do something in a specific way, and now I'm telling them to do it in a different way, then it doesn't serve its purpose. So over a period of time and over the last two and a half years, I think this is one of the biggest change I've brought in terms of my leadership skills, which is giving the freeway to let people reach a destination in whichever way they want. Right? So once you've discussed and set a destination or a flagpole with a timeline, it's totally up to them to execute it the way they want. And I want to make sure that I am there to support them, to provide them the resources they will need, to provide the time they would need to execute it in a different way.
As we speak, it's COVID around, and everyone was supposed to work from home in a fraction of days. Now, if the organization had a leadership kind of style where you're still micromanaging and looking over the shoulders, it would have been very difficult for us to adapt to a new normal where we can't even look at what people are doing or what times they're working. Right? But given the fact that the entire team is so used to working on their own terms, specifically if a goal is set, now we do not need to micromanage. We do not need to worry what my team members are doing because I know and I trust them that they will help me achieve the goals that we've set, and they know that I have their back if anything goes wrong.
Jeremy Au: [00:13:37] Who are your role models in real life?
Nisarg Shah: [00:13:40] Interesting. This is different than a lot of people who have fixed role models. Right? When I speak to people and ask them who that role models are, it's typically one person who's been their role model for their entire life. But for me, it's kind of different. When I was a kid and I had this aim of getting into an IIT, which is kind of like a goal for at least 10 million people in India, and I was one of them. So I was looking up to everyone who was already doing IIT: my cousins, my seniors from school who'd been to IIT. Right? So they were my role models.
But when I went to IIT and I was preparing for the engineering exam, for the masters and for the MBAs, and I would notice people who are running their own companies, or my dad who had his own business. So my ideas then were anyone who had their own startup or a very successful business. And now that I'm running Affable, I noticed that there are so many people who can manage multiple businesses, like Jack Dorsey or Elon Musk. I don't have enough time to manage one business successfully, and they only have 24 hours as well, but they're managing two or three public companies at the same time, and I'm like, "Come on. How do you even do that?" Right? So, yeah, I guess when I'm there, my role models will be different again, but that's been my journey of changing role models as I grew up.
Jeremy Au: [00:14:54] That's so true. I think we often see our role models change over time because they are also changing in their trajectory, and also the problems that we need inspiration around also change with our life stage as well. So I'm so glad you pointed that out. What support or resources are available for others considering a journey similar to yours?
Nisarg Shah: [00:15:15] When I started out, I was looking at all the Y Combinator essays that Paul Graham had written. That is true for a lot of people. They are considered to be like the Holy Grail of running a startup. But there's so many different essays, and I think one that stuck very close to me was Do Things That Do Not Scale, right? Like, that is so counterintuitive. But if you read the essay out, and that was my first foray into understanding how people think about entrepreneurship and building out a startup. In terms of resources, I feel like reaching out to mentors who've done it before is the strongest and the purest way to learn something that you're about to start doing.
When I was at Entrepreneur First and I was speaking to my mentors, like Ad, Teck Moh, Teik Guan, Shao Ning, they've all run successful businesses before, they've all been in leadership positions, and they knew where we could kind of like fail or what other mistakes we were doing, right? There is no book where I can read this out. I mean, there are a few books, but I wouldn't be able to understand from the journey perspective. So speaking to them, understanding their feedback, getting scolded by them about what we were doing wrong on a repeated basis, has been super helpful.
There are a lot of blogs out there as well. I'm a very active Twitter follower. I don't understand how Twitter's free, because I get so much of my value from Twitter. Apart from just the news, I'm following all the people I find influential, and during that journey, I came across so much written content. So many blog posts on Medium. So many newsletters that I subscribe to. My inbox is full of newsletters related to startups, investments, or tech landscape across the world. And I learned a lot from that as well.
Finally, while COVID hit and I was thinking of what next can I do with the extra time I had, I started writing a blog post and newsletter of my own. And this was geared towards finding unique business models. So a lot of times we think about innovation on the product , on the design , on the execution of something, right? But there are very few successful businesses that have completely innovated on the business model itself. I started researching a lot into unique business models. And if the listeners find it useful, that's a weekly newsletter that goes out where they can learn about a new business model every other week.
Jeremy Au: [00:17:27] Awesome. So tell us more about the current problem that you're solving in the influencer space.
Nisarg Shah: [00:17:33] Good question. One thing that has remained constant over generations is celebrity endorsements. So if you look at 1960s, there were black and white commercials. If you look at 2010, there was Michael Phelps on a cereal box. If you look at 2014, there was written bloggers who would place their affiliate links. And in 2020, these are Instagram-based micro-influencers, right? So the constant thing across generations is celebrity endorsements. But now that people want to work with thousands of micro-celebrities, the process of acquiring them, process of working with them, the process of identifying if someone has fake followers versus real followers, is so manual that the brands that we worked with would spend weeks manually searching by hashtags on Instagram to find out some relevant parenting bloggers who could post about their diaper brand. Right? And even after that, they would not know if most of the followers were men or women.
And this is typically a case with beauty bloggers who have like 100,000 followers, but 80% are men. And you see all these beauty brands and skincare brands selling to a female-centric audience to these influencers who have male followers. So in short, there was no transparency, no analytics, no data, not automation in the space. And when we started, we felt using technology, using image processing, natural language processing, big data, we could bridge this gap very efficiently. So that's a problem you're solving with Affable. But Affable is an end-to-end influence and marketing platform where leading brands like Chanel, Shopee, Lazada, Pomelo, use Affable to find influencers, reach out to them, track all their content, measure the sales that are driven from these influencers, and come up with their own personalized influencer strategy.
Jeremy Au: [00:19:20] What are the common misconceptions that you've encountered in this space?
Nisarg Shah: [00:19:26] The biggest misconception that I've encountered in this space is influencer marketing does not work. Because we're kind of selling that it works, right? So I'll tell you why the misconception arises also, right? The purpose of influencer marketing is not always to bring in sales. That is the biggest misconception, which is we use influencers to bring sales, right? A big part about influencer marketing is to drive awareness about your product.
Imagine if you were running a brand and I give you a stadium full of 100,000 people and a microphone to tell us something about the brand, this is not driven for sales. It is driven to spread word. And influencers are amazing when they come to spreading word. And the reason why they are really good is they have a dedicated following of people who've chosen to follow them for the kind of content they create. So if I'm following a travel blogger, I follow them because they've been creating amazing content about travel. If I follow tech entrepreneurs on Twitter, that is because of the content they create. So if someone says, "Read this book that Ben Horowitz has launched," I even go to Amazon and buy the book because I've been following this person for the content they've created. Right?
Now, the misconception among brands is that influencers not bringing sales, so they're not effective. There's a 6x ROI in terms of media return that influencers are able to drive. And this could be sales, this could be PR value, this could be awareness in terms of monetary terms, right? And a lot of times, our biggest challenges is, when I'm sitting across the CMO or head of digital, is convincing them not to look at Affable per se, but to look at influencer marketing as a strategy in the long term and let us as Affable help them to achieve the goals that they want to drive to their strategy.
Jeremy Au: [00:21:05] You know, one thing I've noticed is that you've been able to build the company to be financially sustainable and to really be much better than the standard route of this burning a ton of cash in such a growth that isn't worth it. Tell us more about how and why you went about doing this.
Nisarg Shah: [00:21:26] I think that's an amazing question. And I think this is something that I get from my dad, where he's running a bootstrap business for last 20 years, right? And it's a business. It's not a high-growth startup. So he has his own manufacturing line and he makes products and sells to his customers. And he's been doing the same thing for 20 years. Never took a single outside dollar and built it over a period of time. Right? And what I've learned through that is just keeping a close eye on the financials so that you're not too reliant on external sources to determine the future of a company. And said that, we did take external funding when we started, because that would help us build out and achieve some of the milestones we laid out.
But over the period of time, one of the things we always closely monitored was also our bottom line. Today's world is fighting over the top line, but people are spending $1 to get 90 cents back. Whereas what view trying to do is spend that dollar, at least get a dollar back so that we can justify the new investments we want to make. What I'm not saying is that someone should be on a slow growth perspective and kind of always gain profitability very early on. But what I am saying is I would not go for growth at the expense of your runway.
Jeremy Au: [00:22:36] Yeah. It's easy to talk the talk and it's good to see you walk the talk as well on this, having seen your great growth rate, as well as the profitability journey as well. What would you say the counterintuitive things about having to lead with that kind of mindset?
Nisarg Shah: [00:22:54] Specifically in today's generation, startups are competing in a way. You want to be in the news for the company that raised the most amount of funding. You want to be in the news, go on a stage and talk about your revenue numbers. Right? And one thing that is very counterintuitive is the company that raises the most funding is not necessarily the most successful company, but the company that is growing well at preserved cash flow is potentially going to be a more successful company in the long term.
So one of the things when we speak to investors and they ask us, "What are your projections? Why do you think you can't burn faster than what you've projected?" And I'm like, "Why do you want me to burn faster than what I've projected?" Because I've already projected extra. And if you feel that by not burning faster, I'm going slow, then that does not the right attitude that I would kind of want to partner with, which is super counterintuitive. But I feel like a lot of founders would be happy to take a deal where they're asked to burn more and grow. But at the same time, it is very important to kind of make sure that you keep a close eye on your runway and your cash flow, while you are investing in your growth.
Jeremy Au: [00:24:01] Definitely. that's something that is so underappreciated, and the true alignment between great founders and great investors is, at the end of the day, what is the maximal total value of the entity? If it went sideways at the last minute, nobody's happy. But if nobody's growing, then nobody's happy either. But how do you do that? Then maximize the value at each stage, right? Product market fit, customer market fit, sales channels, all these things need to be derisked and done.
Nisarg Shah: [00:24:30] Yeah, I think you're right. And I wanted to kind of also mention that we've been fortunate to have really good investors who understand our mindset of running the company and it took us time to reach that. I mean, you will never find a partner, even not even a modest partner, where you're kind of already on the same page on day one, right? So it has taken a back and forth, and we've reached a point where now we are on the same page with our investors. When we send them quarterly updates or when we have our meetings with them, they know our psychology of running our business.
They've been super supportive. They've been helpful. They don't push us to burn more. They don't push us to grow at the expense of our runways, which is very necessary as a founder, because then you have a support system, which is extremely crucial. I don't think you can define the importance of a support system. I can totally imagine you would know, because you've done a startup of your own, grown it beyond the Series A stage, and sold it successfully. So having a support system among investors that believe in your way of running an organization has been super useful for us in our short journey.
Jeremy Au: [00:25:34] You've been able to have great investors from Entrepreneur First, Bansea, Angel Investors, from Microsoft and Google executives. What would you say are the attributes of great investors that founders love and recommend to each other?
Nisarg Shah: [00:25:50] yeah, we've been super fortunate to get investors across the board, from EF to SGInnovate. It has been a great partner for us throughout the journey. Decacorn Capital, which kind of led the seed round for us with SGInnovate as well. And I feel like what I appreciate from investors, and this is my personal opinion, is having them provide value beyond money. I think today if tech startups want just money, then there are enough resources available that they could raise some small amount of money and still survive. One of our investors literally opened up doors to our initial customers. One of our investors helped us to hire amazing interns to start with. SGInnovate runs a lot of programs helping their startups grow, find the right customers, find the right employees and interns and apprentice.
There was so much to do as a founder. If you have a support system that can carry the weight of a little bit of it while you're doing what you're supposed to do, which is build a product and sell, it goes a long way in helping us. At the same time, a great attribute of an investor also is to support the founder through the tough positions, right? Like, we've had decisions to make which were not obvious, but were good for the company in the long term. And I know that I invested had our back, right? Which it goes a long way, again, in helping us in solidifying our belief in them and their belief in us. Where as founders, if you were to take tough positions, your investors will not pressurize you the other way, is very important as well.
Jeremy Au: [00:27:18] You have successfully gone through the EF Investment Committee and then through the seed round, and SGInnovate, and Decacorn Capital. What advice you give to other founders who are thinking about the fundraising journey? What tips would you have for them?
Nisarg Shah: [00:27:36] My number one tip would be, be genuine. I think that has worked the most for us, me and Swayam, because we never tried to fluff. We never tried to pitch a story that investors would buy and invest in us. And I know you mentioned the Investment Committee of EF, and this is where it all began. So the way EF works is you have a team maturation, and at the end of it you pitch an IC. And Swayam and I, we were the last team to form before we were to pitch an IC, and this was like two weeks before the IC. Now we have two options. One is we prepare a pitch that they would love to invest in, but we would not like to build. And the other was something that we really believed in and we knew we could build and sell and we leave it to their perspective if they would like to invest in it.
And we took the second route because we realized that if this is something that we're building, it is something for the next 10 years. And we do not want to promise on day one something that we do not believe in. So we said, "Okay, this is what we believe in. This is what we're going to build. Let's share that story. Let's share our vision with investors. And if they like it, it's good. Otherwise we'll find that investor who likes it." So we never had a clear set of investors whom we really wanted and kind of we created a pitch around them. What we said was, "This is our pitch. Now let's see if we can find partners and investors who would like to join us on this journey to build it out."
Along the journey, we've come across both kinds of investors: one set of investors which would never really match our ideals, which would help us build what we want, and there've been certain kinds of investors who would push their idea on us, and they would say, "If you were to build this, then we would invest in you." And that's not what we believe is the right method of investing or taking money. If it was a customer who said, "If you build this, I will buy," I would go out and build that for sure, because it's a customer, right? But if it's an investor who is telling me to build this and then they would invest, then I'm not sure if that's the money I want to take, because what if I build it and the next day he says, "Now build something else." so this is something that I've taken away from my investment pitches and something probably the listeners could benefit from as well.
Jeremy Au: [00:29:34] Awesome. I'm just wondering, if you could go back 10 years in time, what advice would you give to yourself back then?
Nisarg Shah: [00:29:42] One is keep learning. Second is, everything's going to be fine. Because that's literally what my journey has been. I've had setbacks, from Visualive to EF, which I never felt was the right decision to take, to now running Affable successfully, to kind of having faced rejections from investors, but then finding that one investor who would buy into our vision, from not getting the right candidates initially to now having a stellar team of people who are helping us build Affable. I feel like if you keep trying, then it's going to be okay.
One of the things that I strongly believe in since I was 10 years old, has been keep learning. So the first product that I was that I built was called Graspr, where I would like to create a community of people who would share what they have learned every day, to now that I'm sharing my learnings of the unique business models, or just following learnings of different people on Twitter, to my favorite Reddit sub-Reddit being TIL, which is Today I Learned, I feel like if someone just keeps learning, there's immense value that they can capture in the world. And I understand that it's going to be fine. Don't worry about what's going to happen 10 years later.
Nisarg Shah: [00:30:57] I am super grateful for the interaction as well, and I can't wait to kind catch up in person over a lunch or a drink for once this COVID thing dies so that we can actually see each other in person after all. thanks for having me on the show. I've listened to the other podcasts from different guests that you've had before. And to be honest, I was intimidated by the quality of speakers you had on the show and was super grateful to have this opportunity and share my learnings from the short journey with the listeners. Hope they find it useful. If there's any followup questions or if there's anything else that they would like to know or learn, or just like a quick mentoring session, I'm always available to share my insights with anyone.
Jeremy Au: [00:31:33] Yeah. Amazing. And I think the truth, is the reason why I'm on this show is because I know that so many people, now that they've heard your story, will admire you for your journey, your authenticity, and your leadership. So thank you for sharing.
Nisarg Shah: [00:31:50] Thanks, Jeremy, for having me. It was a pleasure speaking to you.