‘It is in our DNA to be looking out for customers,’ Sasan Goodarzi of Intuit

11th Dec 2017
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You can be forgiven for not knowing much about Intuit. After all, it is not like the consumer-facing global companies like Amazon, Google, or Facebook.

But if you are in the business of building lasting companies, it is worthwhile to learn from the best.

What excites me about Intuit is how they built a solid business as a financial management software company; the fact that it was one of the first companies to place a bet on an outsider as a CEO; and the fact that it is one of the first companies to put its customers first.

Over the past five fiscal years, it has increased sales by an average of 7 percent and profits by 3.7 percent annually.

In November, the company reported results that again surpassed expectations. In the past four quarters, the company has generated a total sales of $ 5.24 billion and profits of $ 1.4 billion.

Intuit's share price has gone from $ 52.5 to $ 155.2 in last 5 years. An idea that Founders Scott Cook and Tom Prulx incubated in 1983, is today valued at $ 39.6 billion.

Last month, I had the opportunity to interact with some of the top management at Intuit while I was in San Francisco.

Here’s the first of the conversations I had with Sasan Goodarzi, who is Executive Vice-President and General Manager of Intuit's Small Business Group.

Sasan Goodarzi

Sasan was appointed to this role in May 2016, and he leads a global division focused on fuelling small business success. The Small Business Group includes QuickBooks, QuickBooks Online, Payroll, Payments, and the Intuit Partner Platform.

Goodarzi has held multiple general management positions during two separate stints at Intuit. From 2013-2016, he led Intuit’s Consumer Tax Group, which offers the company’s flagship TurboTax products.

Under his leadership, TurboTax reinvented itself and delivered breakthrough innovations which resulted in double-digit customer growth for three consecutive years. From 2011 to 2013, he served as the company's chief information officer, successfully leading Intuit's transition to the cloud.

During his previous time at Intuit from 2004-2010, he was Senior Vice-President and General Manager for the company's professional tax division and Intuit Financial Services. He has also led several acquired software companies in addition to Intuit's operations in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Before coming to Intuit, Goodarzi worked for Invensys, a global provider of industrial automation, transportation and controls technology, serving as global president of the products group.

He also held a number of senior leadership roles in the automation control division at Honeywell and served as the Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of a technology startup, Lazer Cables Inc.

Goodarzi earned his Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Central Florida and a Master's in Business Administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Excerpt from an interview with Sasan Goodarzi, where he dwells upon among other things his early influences and how businesses can leverage new technologies for success.

Shradha Sharma: Tell us something about your growing up years. What were your early influences?

Sasan Goodarzi: My childhood was tough, everything was very new as we had just moved to the US. My father had passed away.

This is the time when Iran took hostages and I remember being bullied at school. At that age, children don’t realise that it is not their fault, but I felt that everything was stacked against me.

I have always been hungry to do things that people said I could not. Frankly, I think it all comes down to hard work, grit, and hunger. I am probably hungrier today than I was 10 years ago. But for me, it’s a different kind of hunger now. My hunger is directed towards helping people, whether they come to the US from another country, or the people who were born and raised here, I realise that anything is possible. There is a bigger cause that I’m going after now.

I was kicked out of school because my grades were bad. I had people telling me I wouldn’t amount to much in life. I think you shouldn’t judge anyone based on what is happening in their life at any point in time. Anything is possible in life.

My passion is to help organisations achieve things they never thought were possible.

SS: Don’t get me wrong, but Intuit as a company is not in the glamorous or ‘every day in the news like search or social networking’ space. As in, it is into things which may seem boring for a normal person. However, it has created a distinct identity by providing financial empowerment for companies and has made its name in that space. At your level, how do you see that whole building of the company like this; which is very distinct, making it mainstream, like the campaign in which you say ‘we have your back’… How do you think of that?

SG: Personally, I think that in the past five years, a lot of credit goes to Brad Smith (CEO, President of Intuit Inc). We have significantly changed our brand to the external marketplace. We are always up there; we are now ranked No. 8 on the Fortune 500 list for 2017, because our brand has significantly improved.

When we hire engineers from Amazon, Google, and Facebook, and when they come and see the kind of problems that we solve for our customers, they actually get more excited, than any problems that they have faced anywhere else.

We have Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, who sits on our Board. Diane Greene, who is on the board of Google, has been on our Board for the past six to eight years. Amazon’s CIO is also on the Board. The reason I give these three examples is that they always say in every Board meeting that they are in awe of all that we do here.

So, that is just a long way of saying our brand is better today, better in terms of communicating it. People know it and I think five years from now it will be 100 times more. I think we are accelerating, but I would actually tell you that what we attract people to, is good work. They think it is exhilarating because the problems are so hard to solve.

SS: One of the things that I heard you emphasise a lot about is Artificial Intelligence (AI). And I have been hearing a lot of leaders talking about AI. How do you see AI in your business?

SG: I’ll start with a basic premise. Everyone uses AI, but I don’t think they really understand what it is. In the past when we coded software, we did it by using constraint language in such a way that we would feed in information, and it would calculate it, and give it back to you.

But AI is very similar to a human brain. The way you write the software is in a way that it learns. And it gets better every single day. And I think it is most critical in our space than in any other space, only because everything we do is about data. So when more people use it, it becomes better every single day. So it is fundamentally changing how we deliver benefits to our customers; the rate of innovation. It is built on the foundation of leveraging the data we have; all the data that our customers have and that we have access to, thereby making the platform smarter every single day.

So it is fundamental, that in everything we do, we are moving forward.

SS: So you also said that you are listening a lot to your customers; you are listening and thinking ahead. Do you have a team at Intuit that looks into it and goes, ‘Hey, you know this is how we should be, and this is how we need to think in the next five years’?

SG: That’s a great question. I’ll answer it in two ways and they work hand-in-hand.

Our team comprises 8,000 employees. One of the fundamental things that we do and try to get better at every day is something Scott Cook started years ago - really fall in love with the customers and their problems.

So one of the techniques we have is, what we call ‘follow-me-home’ or ‘follow-me-to-the-office’, where we go into the customer’s environment and observe them. We are not observing their products, but we are observing them and their pain points. We observe how they work, and we understand what obstacles they have, and how they interact with others. We ask them questions like, ‘Why do you do it this way?’ or ‘What’s this sitting on your desk?’ So that’s one right element. It is something that we expect from all of our employees.

In fact this year, Brad personally went to every site, we have only two sites left - our St Paolo, Brazil office and Sydney Australia, where we are retraining everyone on customer-driven innovation.

So we are very good at it, and we believe we have a long way to get better at our work, where everyone is focused on what matters most to the customer.

The other thing I would say is, we learn a lot. You can’t get more customer observations than that, because every time a customer asks a question, we contextually understand it and see if we are able to answer it. We learn from every observation and every interaction. And with similar interactions with our customers we learn from their data and get better.

With all that said, we also just look at the structure of the market, market trends, technology trends, trends from the government’s perspective, and regulations that are coming. And based on all that and the competitive landscape, we then try to look out and say – are we taking the company in the right direction or do we change anything in the company? And that is a muscle that we have.

In the last year, we sent our teams to go and think about the future, and we studied customers in China, in India and many places, and we always say that our future is here except that it is unevenly distributed. And that incorporates into our processes -we changed our mission and our strategy as we look at the next 10 years.

So we observe our customers, we learn from data and their behaviours, and we also always look out at 10 years, and based on the trends we change our direction. And that’s the methodology we use.

SS: So what you are saying is that it is in your DNA to be looking out at customers.

SG: And we work at getting better on it every day.

SSSo one term that is very common and we hear a lot about is ‘customer centricity’. What is your view on this?

SG: I don’t like that word. I don’t like it because it is like a buzzword. I generally don’t like overused words. It’s less about words, but more about behaviour. What really matters is that it is in the DNA of the organisation to deeply understand what pains the customer, and to fall in love with the problem and not the solution.

And we fight this internally, by the way, we are not perfect at this. It is where I or we will fall in love with the solution that we have created versus the problem that the customer faces. It is really the behaviour of an organisation, you can tell if they are starting at the top, if they are deeply focusing on the customer or if they have metrics that measure what matters to their customers.

It is very easy to go into an organisation and in within just three or four days be able to perceive if they are customer obsessed or customer-centric – whatever word one would want to use. That is why I don’t like the words, it should be more about just observing behaviours of teams to see how they think, and how they act.

SS: Something I wanted to ask for my interest – you have this capital QuickBooks – for small businesses or startups – through which you plan to come up with localised capital acceleration programmes in different geographies.

G: Our entire focus has been on building the foundation, and the foundation is very hard to build. You need to have access to all the data, and you also have to know how to use the data. Also build a credit model where massive Machine Learning and AI that has to be applied, that has to get smarter every single day. And now that we have done that, we have focused on scaling it in the US, because that actually will help us continue to get better.

We also plan to scale out in different geographies though we have no timeline for that because we want to first test it in the US before we look at extending to other geographies. The pain point of the customers doesn’t change. The customers have the pain point and we just need to nail it here.

The regulations are different depending on the geographies, and so what we will have to do is see how we can expand and make sure we meet the local requirements. But our long-term plan is that, yes, we would want to expand to other geographies, because the pain point doesn’t go away, and we would want to solve that problem.

SS: What stresses you in your role?

SG: I’m totally stress free. That is why my hair is still black and I don’t paint it every morning (laughs). You know it’s a great question. I would say there are probably three things I think about a lot and that can stress me.

But my style is that I turn stress into motion, I don’t sit around and stress about things. If something is not right I create a tsunami.

One is, and this one might be on a daily basis is a question I keep asking myself - Am I being effective and am I adding value. Am I being as effective as I can be when I interact with my team and my employees? That is probably No.1 on my list – that I think about a lot. Because of my passion and intensity and I am demanding, I have to know how I am doing things.

The second thing would be talent. We are growing and not only creating an environment where our employees can grow, but also making sure that we don’t become stale, so we can still attract the best talents. It is hard to find great talent. And that is something that I think about a lot because it has a lot to do with how capable are our managers, and the management that we have.

The third thing, which is the last on my list because it really doesn’t matter if you get the first two right and especially the second one; then the third one pays off – which is re-innovating at a velocity that allows us to deliver benefits that are far better than any other alternatives. But that truly for me is last because we bring capable people. And things happen.

SS: Are you quick to correct hiring mistakes? Do you make those hard decisions?

SG: Yes, absolutely, I can take those hard decisions. I always tell my team one of the biggest things I learnt over time through many mistakes is that there are three areas where I add value. The first one is where are we going. The second is who sits around my table, and the third is just making sure that we have a system that delivers execution excellence. And I just think it’s a premium to have the best people around your table and if you make a mistake they help you take the right call not only for the individual but also for the organisation.

SS: Besides Intuit, do you also invest in startups? Are you advising on the boards of young companies here?

SG: I do help a lot but I don’t invest in them because I don’t want to get into conflicting ventures. But it is a great source of learning because when you meet with startup communities or smart people in general, you learn a lot. For me, it’s a huge benefit to learn, but I do advise several startups and several great folks - family and friends that are in startups, running great companies. I advise them a lot but don’t really invest in them.

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