Building an Exceptional Culture with SoundHound’s CRO, Zubin Irani
Meet our Executive team! We’re back with our Executive Interview Series, this time interviewing SoundHound’s Chief Revenue Officer, Zubin Irani.
“You’ve got to do things with integrity and credibility. There are always times in really difficult circumstances when you want to compromise on certain things, but I’ve had the good fortune of learning from leaders who never compromised on the things that matter most,” says SoundHound’s new CFO, Nitesh Sharan.
Recently, Nitesh spoke on two podcasts, CFO Thought Leader and The CFO Playbook, about his past 20+ years of experience in finance, serving as CFO at Nike and Vice President and Assistant Treasurer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise before joining SoundHound as its first Chief Financial Officer. During the podcasts he talked openly about his plans for SoundHound, the lessons he’s learned along the way, and even shared some advice for future business leaders.
You can listen to the podcast episodes in their entirety here or keep reading to discover the highlights from each:
Below are some of the highlights from Nitesh’s discussion on the podcast, CFO Thought Leader, which features firsthand accounts of finance leaders who are driving change within their organizations. He talked about his journey to becoming a CFO, his plans at SoundHound, what attracted him to the role, and more.
Nitesh: I’ve had the good fortune of having numerous, different, diverse experiences, which I grew from. I started my career in consulting in the Midwest, where I grew up. I had some opportunities internationally to travel and get exposed to the oil, gas, and chemical industries. After business school, I joined the tech industry and spent 15 years at HP, where there were a lot of different business models and software services.
I then moved to Nike, one of the most iconic consumer companies, and fortunately, they were shifting business models. From a learning perspective, I was going from a wholesale-oriented to a direct-to-consumer digital business. I had an array of diverse experiences, which gave me perspective and an opportunity to learn.
Then, there were my challenging experiences. When I was in investor relations at HP, we classified it as an extreme sport because it was challenging on a number of fronts—followed by the pandemic and supply chain challenges of the last few years while I was CFO of the global operations supply chain at Nike. There were a number of experiences over the past 20 years that I look at and say, “Well, those are amplifying me personally.”
I’m also the beneficiary of having some great mentors and leaders that I’ve looked up to and have helped me build a strong foundation. I watched them start and end with integrity, first and foremost, and empathy. Those characteristics are what I sought out. When I saw leaders be very successful with that, it was very confidence-boosting that that’s the right way. That you can build a career and don’t have to compromise on those things.
Lastly, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the importance of having an attitude of growth and optimism. One of the sayings I really enjoy is “keep your face always towards the sunshine, and shadows will fall behind you.” From a business and career perspective, I’ve always appreciated that. You look through those challenging times and say, “Hey, at the end of this, you’re going to learn and try to make the best of whatever situation.”
Nitesh: It ended up being a no-brainer at the end of the day that I wanted to do this. It’s a place that has proven technology, proven adoption, and now, it’s scaling. To me, that was an exciting point where they were looking for a CFO, and it was a perfect opportunity to come in and help this company scale to the next level. It’s really built a tremendous foundation, and we’re seeing great momentum. It was just a very attractive opportunity to be with a great team, a great set of leaders, a great foundation of technology, and now, market adoption.
Nitesh: I’ll start by saying that the business opportunity is so tremendous. We’re seeing it in engagement with consumers. We’re seeing it in our usage and query activity. We’re seeing it in business momentum. Finance has to play a critical role to enable and build the right foundation.
The future is helping to grow this team. I have been aggressively hiring folks to build out the team to be public-ready, which is about solidifying the financial architecture. We’ve announced the deal and are in the middle of filing the initial S-4.
It’s also about putting in the controls and processes within the financial reporting architecture. We’re actively doing that. Then as we go public, certainly build up all of the capabilities required there.
In the last 10+ years, I don’t think I’ve had a team of less than 100-150 people. I’ve had teams much larger than that. This is a much smaller size, which, quite openly, is another part that was attractive to me. I can roll up my sleeves and dive in, and it’s just another great learning experience.
Our number one use of proceeds is helping grow and enable the sales and marketing function. We recently announced that Zubin Irani joined us as Chief Revenue Officer and are super excited to have him on board.
The company has gotten to the place it is today on the backs of just a handful of business development team members, including the CEO, Keyvan Mohajer, who went out and built partnerships with the largest enterprises. There is a tremendous opportunity to go much faster, so we’re trying to scale up sales and marketing.
Nitesh: One event was when I was at HP right before the financial crisis, and we just acquired a service company for $13 billion. We were rolling a lot of short-term money, and then the Lehman Brothers collapsed. We were trying to go to the market and raise permanent capital. The first day was the day Lehman Brothers went down. That was a crazy time, but there was also a lot of learning in that experience.
When I joined Nike, we were at a pretty interesting time where there were some pressures in the business, and competitively, we had an investor day that really showcased our future. I learned a ton through that. Then through the pandemic, we learned a lot.
What did I gather from each of these experiences? There were a lot of themes. Number one, when you’re put in these really difficult moments, it’s important to keep your eye on the prize. Also, when you go through pretty difficult times and tensions are running high, it’s been reinforced to me over and over again that how you do it matters. The end doesn’t justify the means.
You’ve got to do things with integrity and credibility. There are always times in really difficult circumstances when you want to compromise on certain things, but I’ve had the good fortune of learning from leaders who never compromised on the things that matter most.
On The CFO Playbook, a podcast that teaches how world-class CFOs and finance leaders set goals, manage teams, leverage technology, plan for the future, and improve systems and processes, Nitesh talked about his past experience in finance, advice for those starting, and what he’s looking for in building a team.
Nitesh: One of the big realities we’ve come to appreciate over the last few years is working differently with being virtual. People at home who require additional support or have kids have come to say, that’s okay. It’s a healthy thing. It starts with what matters to people and their lives.
The intersection between work life and home life is blurrier than ever, so how do we make sure we set up the right boundaries while still delivering what’s needed. I do think it starts with what matters to people, whether that’s virtual, in-office, or a hybrid option. We’re actively surveying and understanding the pulse of our employees.
It’s also really important to keep agility. As long as we can stay flexible and keep listening and communicating with each other, that’s really important. I also agree with the importance of maintaining your top talent.
One of the silver linings is because we’re able to operate effectively in a virtual world, it opens up the number of candidates out there. It’s important too to try to go a little deeper on what inspires people, what motivates them, and what really matters.
Nitesh: There’s a little bit of an emphasis on creativity and the ability to scale and build. I always try to hire for attitude, agility, competence, and someone who has scalability. What I’ve come to appreciate and what makes great companies is the agility to capitalize on opportunities when they come. You need the tenacity to take it to its complete thought, fruition, or deliverable. Underneath, you need talent that can do that.
At a smaller company, you need more than that, meaning you need that tenacity to solve the issues of today. When you’re at this phase of a company, there are always issues that are coming up that are top priorities. So, you need to see through both a lens of now and of later.
It’s not easy to find quite openly, and that’s one of the things I emphasize. If you have an attitude of optimism, then you can persevere through a lot, and that’s benefited me and my career. I’m hiring people who I’m hiring for the job today, but expect that within 6 to 12 months is going to be a much bigger job.
Nitesh: First, I will say, go with your passion. It shines through if you really enjoy what you do and have enthusiasm. People gravitate to that. That’s not a very technical answer, but it matters more than anything else. Also, having an attitude of running toward the fire or going at challenges.
Interested in reading more interviews from team SoundHound? Check out the below blogs:
At SoundHound Inc., we have all the tools and expertise needed to create custom voice assistants and a consistent brand voice. Explore SoundHound’s independent voice AI platform at SoundHound.com and register for a free account here. Want to learn more? Talk to us about how we can help bring your voice strategy to life.
Meet our Executive team! We’re kicking off our Executive Interview Series with the inspiring Angeline Tucker, SoundHound’s VP of People and Culture. In the interview, she discusses her background, why she chose SoundHound, what working during a pandemic has been like, the future of work, professional advice for other HR professionals, and more.
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