This Woman Entrepreneur's Journey to Building Composable Digital Experience Platform & Raising $169 Million
By: WE Staff
Neha Sampat, Founder & CEO at Contentstack, has more than 20 years of experience as an entrepreneur, female leader, and tech visionary. Neha is a reputed industry leader and an advocate of diversity and women in leadership. She has spoken extensively about women in tech, her own journey as an entrepreneur, her experience as a female leader, and her company’s prominent role in the future of technology.
Before Contentstack was founded, Neha was the co-founder and CEO of Digital Experience Platform (DXP) Built.io®, which German software powerhouse Software AG later acquired. Some of her accolades include being one of the “50 Women in Tech Dominating Silicon Valley” in 2015, “San Francisco Business Times Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business” in 2017, and “San Francisco Business Times 40 under 40” honoree. She has also received the title of “CEO of the Year” by Aragon Research in December 2018 and Female Tech Trailblazer of the Year in 2020. She is also a recipient of “Best CEO for Diversity” and “Best CEO for Women” in the 2020 Comparably Best Places to Work Awards.
In a conversation with Women Entrepreneur India, Neha sheds light on the highs and lows of her entrepreneurial journey, the fundraising experience and advise for entrepreneurs looking to raise capital.
Tell us about the early years of your life. Did you always envision becoming an entrepreneur?
I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. After graduating from the University of Denver in 1999, I followed the dot.com tech boom to Silicon Valley and founded my first job at a PR firm. A year later, I started my own PR firm called Special Sauce Communications with a few friends. Things were going well, but the 9/11 attack brought business to a standstill. With the US economy struggling, companies cut their PR budgets, eventually leading me to the next big thing.
I transitioned from PR to product after I landed an internship with Sun Microsystems during my MBA from Santa Clara University.
In the following years, I became a wine sommelier, launched a parking app, and shuffled a few enterprise tech jobs before becoming the CEO of Raw Engineering in 2007. In the early days of new digital transformation featuring mobile, cloud and SaaS (software-as-a-service) technologies, clients struggled with implementation and integration. This led us to build Built.io, focusing specifically on cloud-based integration solutions.
As the digital world evolved, delivering omnichannel content became a significant pain point for companies striving to deliver modern digital experiences. They needed to be liberated from legacy monolithic software. This led us to pioneer a modern, content management solution via Contentstack.
What led you to take up entrepreneurship and found Contentstack? What were you looking to do differently through your firm?
While working at my PR firm, helping brands tell their stories during the dot.com boom, I realized how passionate I was about businesses. Further, the shift to product management opened new opportunities and verticals for me, and I fell in love with SaaS and the whole product ecosystem. With the launch of Raw Engineering and Contentstack, I could combine my creative flair with technical interests and help customers solve real-life challenges.
We realized the challenges infrastructure posed for our clients. To become future-proof and digitized, the brands needed to be free from legacy systems built on monolithic architecture. The answer lay in creating a composable headless CMS. But none existed back then, so we invented Contentstack.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey? What were some of the toughest challenges that you faced in the early days of building the CMS company?
One of my biggest challenges would be building and maintaining the company culture in a way that would keep employees motivated and engaged as the company scaled. We focused on building a values-driven organization and the values we set forth in the early days still hold true today as a much larger company and team.
Fear of change continues to be a major hurdle. Even though enterprises are not satisfied with the capabilities of their legacy systems, the thought of change is overwhelming and they worry about challenging the status quo. This led us to focus on building one of the most impactful customer success teams in the industry. We are determined to help companies on their path to composable and if they give us a chance, we will do everything in our power to ensure they cannot fail at their mission.
Highs and lows are said to be an integral part of an entrepreneur’s journey. Can you tell us about one specific moment or a particular milestone that the company achieved which is the closest to your heart?
This would be when we raised our Series A funding in 2019.
It was an exhilarating experience, to say the least. Back then, Contentstack was growing steadily, but we knew to capitalize on the market, we needed more funds to scale further. And so, we started connecting with multiple VCs over the next few months. The process had its challenges, as female-founded startups tend to secure less funding than businesses run by male entrepreneurs. But despite the hurdles, we raised $31.5M USD, led by Insight Partners, which was one of the most significant Series A rounds at the time. The funding coincided with Contentstack's Winner's Circle trip in Mexico. It was a joyous moment for all company leadership and top performers at the event.
Though we have come a long way from there and established the brand as a category leader, I still look back at that day for motivation and inspiration.
Drawing from your personal experience can you tell us what goes into building a successful venture in today’s business climate? What are some pointers that aspiring entrepreneurs must keep in mind through their journey.
Investing in networking is essential to start a business venture. It's vital to grow and nurture your network. This leads to mentors, customers, partners and often good friends that will help guide your journey.
Never stop learning- be curious and ready to take up new challenges. Yes, it will be scary and sometimes overwhelming, but you will learn and widen your horizon.
As an entrepreneur, you must develop resilience. Not all of your ideas and bets will pan out, and you will have to become immune to rejection. If you don’t stop believing, the opportunity follows.
Finally, never settle for the status quo- it's one of my guiding mantras which we turned into one of the core values of Contentstack. Be ready to challenge your knowledge and understanding; only then will you be able to influence others to do the same.
Contentstack has successfully raised $169 Million so far. Can you tell us your philosophy towards fund raising. How difficult (or easy) was your first ever fund-raising journey?
Fundraising is an exciting experience, complete with its highs and lows. Entrepreneurs must be agile and adaptable to be successful in the current times. We learned this at a very early stage as a company. When we were looking to raise our Series A funding, many reputed VCs advised us to gain more customer traction. Even though we were scaling quickly, Contentstack was still young and untested.
Building on the advice received, we changed our business strategy swiftly and secured seed round funding, gathering sufficient capital to enhance market traction. After a year, we closed our Series A funding in much more favourable terms than we would have a year earlier.
Fundraising is similar to dating; you must ensure both parties are aligned on the most important things. For us, that was our values and finding a partner with whom to solve difficult problems.
Studies and surveys suggest that women entrepreneurs find it much tougher to raise funds than their male counterparts. What is your take on this? How can the situation be improved?
Absolutely. A Harvard study found venture capitalists often ask women different questions than men. Men tend to be asked questions about the potential gains, while women are questioned about losses. Men are asked about company vision; women are asked about work-life balance. Women-founded companies are often pigeonholed as "lifestyle" companies by investors. Investors simply assume women start their companies to sustain their lifestyle in the short term rather than being committed to the long haul.
Quite a few psychological explanations account for why, but the fact remains that biases – conscious or subconscious – exist in venture capital, and that's only now beginning to change.
It would be naive to think the answer is no — it probably did make a difference. But I've made it my mission to be vocal about my journey and the inequities that female founders face. By putting it out in the open, we can work to change that reality.
Everyone seems to be finding it tougher to raise capital right now — but I wouldn't let that discourage anyone. Yes, it's not the right time to go heavy on trying to raise funds, but it's essential to work on building long-term investor relationships. Investors are still funding, only now more cautiously. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate how an investment in you and your company will yield great returns.