Why these founders took the lead and founded a sales automation startup

The Turning Point is a series of short articles that focuses on the moment when an entrepreneur hit upon their winning idea. This week, we feature Bengaluru-based sales automation platform LeadSquared, the latest entrant to India’s unicorn club.
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Founded in 2013 by Nilesh Patel, Prashant Singh, and Sudhakar Gorti, Bengaluru-based sales automation platform LeadSquared turned unicorn this week, after raising $153 million in a Series C round of funding from WestBridge Capital.

The Software-as-a-Service platform, which offers marketing automation and sales execution CRM (customer relationship management) solutions, will use the capital to expand to new geographies, hire talent, and make tuck-in acquisitions.

“We started with an idea that we would build a software-first business,” Nilesh said. He added that their ideation was not what kind of product to build but “what kind of business to build”.

With a focus on sales, the founding team did consulting in sales, lead generation, and area marketing services. The gap in their ground research and market availability led them to think of building a product in this space.

“We found there was a potential opportunity to create a system that was a combination of sales and marketing tools, and offer that to the market,” said Nilesh, adding that was the “initial hypothesis”.

“There was a buzz around the marketing and sales space, which is why we chose it. And, because we liked it.”

The three founders launched LeadSquared as part of their company MarketXpander Services, a B2B marketing and lead generation company founded in 2011.

Prior to this, the founders along with Neelam Dwivedi founded Proteans Software Solutions, a software services business building software products for companies based in the US and Europe.

L-R - Sudhakar Gorti, Nilesh Patel, and Prashant Singh

An evolving market

As the team started to build the product and commercialise it, the market was also evolving. It started to see the beginning of digital business and the likes of Swiggy, Ola, and BYJU’S enter the space.

“We started saying maybe there is an opportunity to build a high velocity sales execution business for businesses selling to consumers and selling something of higher value,” Nilesh said.

When businesses sell products of higher value, they have a very different sales cycle: their turnaround times are shorter and volumes are high. This inspired the team to build marketing automation and sales execution CRM (customer relationship management) solutions.

“We started to serve this market and continued to learn about it. We continued to serve use cases that we saw, and slowly but steadily it evolved into a product more suitable for high velocity sales,” he added.

When these high growth businesses disrupt the space, it means the existing player must also keep up with changing demands.

“They had to buy LeadSquared because now they had to compete with the hybrid business. So they needed the infrastructure. They needed the same flexibility. They had to be agile. So that's how the business evolved,” Nilesh said.

But this was also a challenge for the company - having to build a product that could grow and scale at the speed of the businesses that it catered to, taking into account the learning curve and the flexibility to cater to all needs.

These challenges were also points of opportunity.

“It was sheer luck that when we launched the product, it was the same timeframe for tech-driven companies to start rolling, and we were able to work for them,” he said.

He added that the automation functionality in 2017-18 was a massive moment as the software enabled people to do things at speed.

Nilesh shared that the team was also able to find people who contributed to building the startup.

However, growth needed access to capital. The company received multiple seed rounds from angels and garnered investment from Jyoti Bansal in 2017.

In 2019, the company raised Series A funding, marking its first institutional round.

What next for LeadSquared?

The LeadSquared platform is used by over 2,000 businesses, primarily in the business-to-consumer (B2C) space, across edtech, higher education, financial services, healthcare, marketplaces, and others.

“The more you learn about the market with the customer, the more you rethink what you were doing earlier and how to find better ways,” Nilesh said.

The startup plans to double down on growth investments in India and North America, start building in APAC and EMEA, add new offerings to the product portfolio, and fund acquisitions. It aims to double its headcount in the next 18 months to support this.

India continues to be its primary market, contributing nearly 90 percent to its revenues, followed by the US.

With the Indian market growing rapidly, Nilesh adds that the ability to serve outside was very limited.

“We are getting more and more crisper about what we want to do. Earlier, we were more in the sales and marketing role; now we are focused on driving sales efficiency.”

LeadSquared believes it solves a real problem at scale, offering a distinct value proposition. “Now, it is our duty to take it to the world,” Nilesh said.

Edited by Teja Lele