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ThoughtSpot CEO: COVID-19 creates unprecedented challenges

ThoughtSpot CEO Sudheesh Nair addresses the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, not only in terms of running a business, but also psychologically.

With the spread of COVID-19 forcing organizations to drastically alter operations, these are unprecedented times for company leaders like ThoughtSpot CEO Sudheesh Nair.

They need to figure out how to remain operational even though almost no one is coming into the office. They need to figure out how to communicate quickly and efficiently to employees dispersed across hundreds and even thousands of locations, depending on the size of the organization.

And that's no different for Nair. The ThoughtSpot CEO is making decisions he's never had to make before.

The business intelligence software vendor, founded in 2012 and based in Sunnyvale, Calif., recently raised $248 million in financing and is positioning itself to go public. It needs to continue to innovate to keep its status as a young but respected company, and it needs to keep growing its customer base to remain attractive when it eventually conducts an IPO.

In a recent interview, Nair discussed these extremely challenging times as well as ThoughtSpot's recent technological offerings.

In part one of a two-part Q&A, the ThoughtSpot CEO talks in depth about how ThoughtSpot is dealing with COVID-19. In part two, he delves into the company's product plans, as well as the steps it's taking on its path toward an IPO.

How has ThoughtSpot been affected by COVID-19?

ThoughtSpot CEO Sudheesh NairSudheesh Nair

Sudheesh Nair: ThoughtSpot is absolutely affected like any other company in the world. I look at this as very unique and unprecedented in modern history for one specific reason. People say this is like SARS or MERS or the 2008 financial crisis, but this is the first time that personal health is trumping everything else. If you asked people what they were worried about in 2008 they would say losing their job, or if you asked in 2001 it would be going to war. Here, it's an unknowable and uncertain enemy -- there is complete uncertainty with what is going on. Personal health trumps everything, and that has never been the case before.

The second thing is the stock market and people's 401(k) plans, so personal finance is a concern. Number three is their job.

And as ThoughtSpot CEO, how are you helping the company respond to the coronavirus?

Nair: We're doing a few things. Internally, we have made the company work distributed. Last year when I joined ThoughtSpot, one of the initiatives we had was called 'No HQ' -- we don't want to be a headquarters company because it assumes that other locations aren't as important, so we went with a 'No HQ' plan of building the culture, the tools, the infrastructure.

There is complete uncertainty with what is going on. Personal health trumps everything, and that has never been the case before.
Sudheesh NairCEO, ThoughtSpot

Now, [because of the coronavirus] almost all of the company is working remote. And inside the company we have decided to over-communicate, because one thing I wished that other CEOs did when I was on the front end and we went through a couple of downturns was that they would tell me what was going on. Most of the time companies just go into shutdown mode and the execs have meetings in dark rooms and they don't tell people what's going on because they think people will panic. But in general, what happens is that if you don't share, people assume the worst. So, we are trying to communicate with as much transparency as possible about the good and the bad.

We are also keeping mental health a very high priority. We have a subscription to a meditation app, we use mindfulness internally pretty prominently, and we've hired a yoga/meditation instructor to do remote classes for our employees. We are open about the fact that we are all affected, and we are all concerned, and we all have struggles.

When just about everyone is working remotely as they are now, does that have an effect on collaboration and the ability to innovate?

Nair: There are ways it will affect us and ways it won't. With our 'No HQ' policy, it allows us to pick up without missing a beat when it comes to collaboration in general. However, there are two specific things that are still impacted.

One is where engineers can't hang out in a hallway, have a cup of coffee, and debate and brainstorm on a specific problem. The second thing that is impacted is sales. In sales, as a young company, a lot of our customers are looking at not just the technology but the people -- is this a group of people we can believe and trust in? Forming that kind of trust is so much easier when we are sitting across from each other and looking each other in the eye.

There is an impact, and anyone who says that sales won't be impacted because of logistics is lying. Just imagine having this conversation in the same room instead of a remote call -- there is a difference.

As a CEO I assume this is the first time you've ever been through anything like this. Are the decisions you're having to make because of COVID-19 more difficult than those you have to make on a regular basis about other issues that might arise?

Nair: Yes, no question about it. In general, being a CEO during a pandemic is not highly recommended -- it's not the best job to have. But you know how people always talk about the importance of hiring. A long time ago, someone told me that the board has only one job, which is hiring a CEO. And a CEO only had two jobs, making sure the company is funded and making sure you are surrounded by good executives. I feel like, whether it's because of luck or whatever, we check both in the sense that last year we raised $248 million, plus we had another $100 million in the bank, so we are a well-capitalized company. But more importantly, the people around me are amazingly capable. When I look at the executive team, there are three or four people who could go and be CEOs today. Having that caliber of people around me is making it easier for me in the sense that we don't panic, we can have hard conversations, and there is no need to assume that people are not going to perform.

Yes, it is a hard time to be a CEO, but you find that the quality of the people that surround you and the culture you have built is going to hound you or it will reward you. At ThoughtSpot we are lucky that we have an amazing culture and great people.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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