In today’s episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about knowing who you are as an entrepreneur.

As a founder, it’s important to be aware of your strengths and your weaknesses – self-awareness. Not being aware of your weaknesses, can lead to a situation when your team loses respect for you. And this can ultimately lead to the demise of your startup in extreme cases.

In this episode, Steli and Hiten share their thoughts what self-awareness is, why it’s important to develop this attribute, understanding who you are and how to build a business that works for you and much more.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

00:33 Why this topic was chosen.

02:06 Why you need to do what works for you.

02:57 What kind of founder you need to be.

03:56 Why you should run your business like somebody else.

04:09 Understanding who you are.

04:22 The difference between understanding who you are and what you need to do to be successful.

06:40 Why you should approach sales with some level of self-awareness.

07:28 Why they’re not just one thing that the customer cares about.

07:53 Why you need to understand what your customer wants.

08:10 The importance of understanding who you are.

3 Key Points:

  • Some companies are going to be great at sales and marketing and others are going to be great at a product.
  • There are many ways to create value for your customer.
  • The interface might not matter that much as long as it solves their problem.


Steli Efti: Hey everybody. This is Steli Efti.



Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah.



Steli Efti: Today on the Startup Chat, we want to talk about knowing who you are as an entrepreneur. Let me set this up for you, Hiten, and I’m dying to hear what you have to say about this. We’ve talked often about self-awareness, right, and how useful and important that is as a founder, as a human being. How important is this as a criteria for a team? How self-aware is your startup team overall over their strengths, weaknesses? What’s really going on out there? The reason why I wanted to talk about, I don’t know, self-awareness, self-acceptance, knowing what kind of an entrepreneur you want to be or you are, is that I was just doing a podcast interview, and the person that was interviewing me was a SaaS founder. One of his questions really kind of inspired this thought, which was basically … He was basically setting up the question by telling me, “Listen, Steli, as we all know, today in SaaS, you need to be a product-focused company to succeed. You need to be a product-focused CEO and founder to succeed. Today, products need to sell themselves to a certain degree, so you need to build products that kind of grow organically. Look at Slack,” and he brought up a bunch of other examples. “There’s a lot of content, so what do you do every day to become a better and better product manager and product person as a SaaS founder?” I was like, “Nothing.” Basically, my response was that I do agree that the standards for how good your product needs to be today are much higher than they used to be, and I do agree that a lot of amazing product-focused CEOs and founders are generating really incredible companies and creating really incredible companies. But I disagree with the main premise that everybody needs to be a product-first team or product-focused team, especially in SaaS. I brought the example of the biggest SaaS company in the world, which is an amazing marketing and sales company but not that great of a product company, right, Salesforce, and said that in the future, I still believe that there’s many ways to create value in the world and create a brand and to have a reason for existence. I think that some companies have to be great at sales and marketing. Some companies are going to be amazing products. Some companies are going to be incredible in support or whatever else. There’s many ways to create value for your customer, and I don’t think that starting now, every SaaS company needs to be a company that only focuses on product and has no expertise in anything else. That led me to think about the whole debate that’s not as prominent anymore, I feel like, today as it used to be a few years ago, of do you need to raise VC money and IPO, or could you be a lifestyle business and sell fund? Or, what kind of a thing to you need to be in? All this basically comes back, for me, to founders knowing who they truly are, having some level of self-awareness of what their strengths are and what kind of a business they want to build versus looking outwards to what everybody else is saying how you need to be as a founder or CEO, or how you need to be as a SaaS company or as a whatever company. I know that it took me a long time to truly understand who I was and to … Not to understand, to accept who I was and to bank on those strengths and build the type of business that was great for me in the way that I could be great. I see a lot of founders that I think are probably wasting a lot of years trying to be somebody else or doing it like somebody else. So, I wanted to talk about this, and especially from the perspective of talking to younger founders. Or, not young, but maybe less experienced founders and entrepreneurs who are not quite yet sure who they are and what they really want and are looking out at success stories as a footprint on how they need to behave and who they need to become. We’ll talk a little bit about understanding who you are and how to get there quicker in order to build a better business for you.



Hiten Shah: Okay. When it comes to understanding who you are, is it really about understanding who you are? Or, is it about basically understanding in business, what you need to be doing to be successful? Because I think those might be slightly different things. Salesforce is successful not because they have the best product. It’s because they have a product that every sales team basically needs to use because they started at a time when … One of the reasons … Of course, there’s many reasons Salesforce is successful, but they started at a time when basically appealing to the manager and building the reporting and the things that a manager really needs, a sales manager really needs, is all they had to do. They also started at a time when the whole idea of product wasn’t very important because they were one of the first SaaS companies, and they were really going from legacy Windows-style software from Oracle and Sysco, et cetera. Not even Sysco. I think it was Oracle and a couple others that are now merged together. They didn’t have to do that much. The innovation was the fact that they put it in the cloud. The innovation was the fact that they actually focused on the things that mattered to the organization around getting results, so things that the managed cared about, not necessarily the end user. In that case, that company’s DNA is important to look at. The company’s DNA is very sales heavy, very marketing heaving, considering how Marc Benioff likes to compete in the market, very loud, very noisy, very grandiose. When you look at a business today, a SaaS business, it really depends on what market you’re targeting and whether the customer cares about product or not. I think that for me, I generally wouldn’t want to go in a market where the customer didn’t care, or it didn’t matter. You could argue it always matters, but I’d argue back and say, “No, it doesn’t.” If you’re selling something to mom-and-pop coffee shops, the design and the product experience with that thing probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you can reach them, and you can provide really immediate value to a painful problem they have. The interface and how it works and all that might not matter as much as long as it solves their problem. While in other markets, where your competition has set a bar for product at a certain level, it probably matters a lot more. I know you wanted to talk about knowing thyself, which is great. But I think when you’re talking about it with a business lens, the thing I have learned is that it matters a lot more about what’s required to win in your market. Taking that lens is, I think, a lot more important.



Steli Efti: I agree, but that also … I think that, oftentimes, people think or presuppose that there’s one thing that the customer cares about. Right? That would then mean that every company that’s succeeding today in catering to a certain customer base is doing it the exact same way, which is just not true. Right?



Hiten Shah: I agree with that. Yeah, it’s not one thing. Yep.



Steli Efti: It’s not one thing. Right? And how you deliver the thing the customer cares about might differ drastically. Right?



Hiten Shah: Yep.



Steli Efti: I don’t know. I mean, obviously, you need to understand who is my customer? What do they need? How do they need it? What do they prioritize? That’s always the starting point, but then the next question is who are we as a team? Who are we as founders, or who am I as an entrepreneur, and how can I uniquely fulfill that need in a way that’s differentiated so it has a place in the market, right, in a way that is different or … I mean, if you can’t find a customer niche that is underserved, and if you compete for a customer that other competitors are competing directly with you for, then the question is not just like, “What is everybody else doing? Let me do the same thing.” That’s not really necessarily a winning strategy unless you know how to do that thing better in some way that’s hard to copy. The question is, “Who are we?” and a lot of times … I don’t know. A lot of times, especially inexperienced entrepreneurs, to me, it seems like they just look at whoever is the most famous entrepreneur of the day, or the hottest unicorn startup, and they just go, “We just need to be that.” Right? “For us to be successful, we just need to be like,” whatever. Fill in the company that’s most written about or most covered right now. When I arrived in the Valley, every founder wanted to be Steve Jobs. Right?



Hiten Shah: Mm-hmm (affirmative).



Steli Efti: And you could tell, the way people talked, the way people dressed, the way people presented. Everybody wanted to be Steve Jobs. Today, everybody … I don’t know, maybe … Lots of people want to be Elon Musk, right, because he’s a very famous example of … People want to be whoever the most famous person is, and not everybody can. Right? So, to me, I think … To me, it’s about understanding your customer, but it’s also about understanding yourself. Because if your customer is … Let’s say your customer is … I mean, you want to cater to designers, let’s say, build a product for designers, and you’re not a designer. You’re not even a very visual person, and nobody else in your team is a designer or incredibly visual person. You look at your competitors. Those are filled with super-strong design teams that build beautiful products, and you know that that customer base really enjoys them. Then, you can’t just go, “Well, we need to become really amazing designers because that’s what everybody else is doing in this market.” That’s the moment where you need to ask yourself, “Why do we even want to go after designers? What qualifies us to offer something of value to these people?” Oftentimes, I don’t find that question within startup teams. Nobody’s asking themselves, “Why are we going after this specific customer that needs something we have zero skill, expertise in or any enthusiasm for? We’re now just going to try to pretend or copy this,” or whatever. To me, that is where things break down in a significant way where, if there was more self-awareness, that would stop the conversation right there. The team would have to take a really hard look at why are we going after this customer, and is there a way for us to offer something of value to this customer base? Or, do we need to change who we want to go after?



Hiten Shah: Yeah, I think you nailed it. I mean, I think it’s really important to marry those two things. Figure out the customer. Then, figure out whether you yourself can actually succeed with that customer, can actually have a reason to serve that customer, and that has a lot to do with you and yourself. I think when it comes to finding yourself, it’s really important to realize what you gravitate towards. Are you gravitating towards the best product, even if it’s the most expensive, in general? Are you gravitating towards a really good sales pitch? Are you gravitating towards a really good marketing message? This is, I think, important in your own life and how you think about things. Another way to look at this, too, is what are you judging when you buy something? What parts of it do you love? What parts of it do you hate you yourself? Because by understanding those things, you can start understanding yourself better and what things are really important to you. For me, I can easily get caught up in a product that has a lot of nit-picks, things where I just hate it because of these small things. For example, cars. I have two cars. I actually have three cars, and I like all of them for different reasons. They’re not only my cars. They’re the family cars, and so we have three. One of them is a car that I would expect to have a much better interior, much, much better than it has. Then, I have another … That’s not the car I drive every day. That’s the car my wife drives. Then, I have another car that I drive every day. Nobody else really drives it in my house because they don’t want to drive it. They have their own cars, I guess. I drive that car. I think the interior is 10 times better, so that car is the one I have. If I ever need to get that other brand where the interior’s not that great, but many people would be like, “Oh, wow. That’s an amazing car,” I can’t do it because I’m just so hung up on the fact that the interior in the car I drive that I drive the most … I drive about an hour or more a day, probably an hour and a half, and I love that car. I can’t live without that car, and a lot of it is because of the way the car drives and the interior. If I had to go drive … When I have to drive my wife’s car, it’s not like I hate it or anything. I just look around. I’m like, “I’m so thankful that I drive my other car every day.” It’s amazing that matters to me. I think most people … Or, not most people, but there are many other people that don’t have that perspective about those two brands and those two cars. They would be like, “Dude, you’re crazy. You should be happy in either one of them.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m happy. But this one just bugs me because it should be better. It should be better, and it’s not. And the other one’s way better.” Right? I think that that tells you how much the product matters to me and the experience matters to me. I know that about myself. Right? Even like the toothpaste. The toothpaste I use has to taste right and has to come out of the tube right. Right? It has to be a certain brand, by the way, Steli. It has to be this brand.



Steli Efti: Oh, of course.



Hiten Shah: Honestly, I never put that on other people. That’s the one thing about me is I’m not going to tell you, “You need to do this,” or, “You need to have that.” I will give you my perspective, but that tells me everything about myself. Right? I do care about the product experience, probably to a fault.



Steli Efti: I love that. Know thyself. Know thy customer. Yeah, if anybody out there that’s listening to this episode is like, “Oh, shit. Maybe they’re talking about me. Maybe I’ve been pretending to be a type of person or a type of founder that I’m not really,” or, “I have had the feeling that we as a startup team … We’re pretending to be something that’s not really authentic, and it’s not really delivering value to our customer,” or anything of that … If anything resonated, please reach out. We want to hear from you. We want to continue that conversation in a specific way to be helpful if we can. We always love to hear from you, even if it’s just a quick, “Hey,” whatever, “Wishing you a nice day. I loved the episode,” anything that we hear. You can always reach us at and By the way, if you have not done it yet, go to iTunes. Give us five stars. Give us a little review. Until next time, we’ll hear you very soon.



Hiten Shah: Or before that.



Steli Efti: Or before that.