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Savneet Singh – Leading a Public Turnaround at PAR Technology – Ep.207

My guest today is Savneet Signh, CEO of PAR Technology, a billion-dollar market cap publicly traded point of sale software business serving the restaurant industry.

Episode Description

Ep.207: Alex (@aebridgeman) is joined by Savneet Singh (@SavneetS).

My guest today is Savneet Signh, CEO of PAR Technology, a billion-dollar market cap publicly traded point of sale software business serving the restaurant industry. I’ve been following Savneet’s career since college when he went on Invest Like the Best talking about acquiring software businesses through his holding company Tera. Through that work he connected with PAR, joining the board and eventually replacing the CEO. Since then he’s turned the business around and is finding more success.

Savneet and I talk about turning around teams, management techniques he’s developed, his role as a teacher and chief communicator at PAR, and his views on software businesses from an investor perspective.

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Clips From This Episode

Distinguishing a Good Product from a Great Product

Biggest Takeaways from Growing Product Teams

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(00:00:00) – Intro

(00:04:02) – Joining the board of Par, becoming CEO, and saving the company from bankruptcy

(00:14:08) – Retaining speed over time

(00:16:22) – Stages of structural changes

(00:18:48) – Nurturing healthy tension

(00:20:32) – Incentive models

(00:25:29) – What have you learned about your role in making hard decisions?

(00:29:08) – Communication styles

(00:32:34) – What does a typical week look like for you?

(00:34:23) – How has your view of M&A changed?

(00:36:45) – What distinguishes a great product?

(00:38:01) – Is being the all-in-one solution becoming the trend in SaaS?

(00:40:01) – What stands out as a trend in software right now?

(00:42:24) – Takeaways from running and growing product teams

(00:43:59) – Communication between sales or product and customers

(00:45:11) – Advice to listeners

Alex Bridgeman: I’m really excited to chat with you because there was a podcast you did on Invest Like the Best several years ago, it was talking about Tera Holdings at the time, which was your software holding company. And of course, your role has evolved to CEO of PAR. But what was the idea behind Tera and then how did you go from Tera to the PAR role you have today?

Savneet Singh: Yeah, it was pretty simple. I think early on, my partner, Ro, and I had this vision of creating the next version of Constellation software. Both he and I studied Constellation for a long time. We used to, I remember when we first discovered it, like literally a hard copy of one of his letters, and I was like, dude, you got to read this. This is incredible. I remember writing emails to my friends and saying if Warren Buffett was 30 years old, he’d just be buying enterprise software, he’d be building this thing. And so, we had this idea. Ro was a successful investor. I was an operator who had some bent investing and said let’s go find these businesses, potentially run them decentralized to figure out points of centralization. We went out and tried to go find these businesses. And it was a little bit random, but we stumbled across PAR I want to say in 2017. And originally they weren’t that interested. PAR had this small software division. I thought, hey, can we carve this thing out of PAR? And that sort of got going. About a year after that, PAR reached out about joining the board. PAR was sort of still really early in its software journey, less than 10 million in revenue, but saw the writing on the wall. And I got on the board of PAR, and then PAR got in a lot of trouble. We were in a real mess. We thought we might run out of money. And so, I ended up parachuting into being CEO, and it just kind of wasn’t by intelligent design. I think it was a little bit of like solving a problem and then realizing it was a great opportunity and we went forward. So, it was just sort of one of those things that worked out, but none of us planned it to be that way.

Alex Bridgeman: Did you get invited on the board because you were active or talking with the management team often or getting to know them? How’d that happen?

Savneet Singh: No, no. They had heard my name from a fund that was an investor. And originally, they didn’t take any interest in it because the company had a large shareholder, which is the founder who I think him, the CEO, didn’t really care too much about what investors felt as far as suggestions for people to join the board. But somehow one of them read something or had something and knew me, and then they reached out. And I did a lot of work on the company because I met them a year ago or reached out to them a year ago about trying to do something. And so when they asked me, I was pretty fluent in saying, hey, here’s how I would run the business. Here’s what I would change. And it was great because I think they appreciated the transparency and perspective that I had, while also realizing I probably would be the silent guy. And then I went through the traditional interview process. But it was really random. The fund that recommended me, I didn’t have a long-term relationship with, I hadn’t been on a board with before. It was one of those things where dots connected, again, very much through happenstance.

Alex Bridgeman: And so, what was your role on the board initially before challenges with finding a CEO happened?

Savneet Singh: So, I was just an independent director. I was on some committees. And it was a little bit crazy. I remember getting on the board and there were noises around PAR. There was a DOJ and SEC investigation for bribery and corruption under a prior CEO who was still working at the company as Chief of Staff to the current CEO at the time, so it was a little bit of an interesting dynamic. The company’s products at the time were a majority hardware and services led, but it had this emerging software division. And within the first couple of months of joining the board, it was very clear to me that something was wrong. We had another activist come into the stock, started demanding changes. We had this DOJ, SEC thing. I was getting angry emails as a board member from customers. And I’m like, that’s really weird because who emails a board member when they’ve got a problem with a product? And so I asked the board at the time, can I go meet the management team and see what’s going on? What’s happening here? And I was really naive. I was super young. I was 33 or 34. And so I went and I met the management team. And I came back to the board, and I really passionately said, we should sell the company. And I said, I’ve only been here for a couple months and I’m definitely the least experienced, but I don’t know if this is a problem we can fix. I remember meeting the management team and asking all the [inaudible 4:11] folks I mentioned, what’s the plan? And there just wasn’t an aligned plan. Really good high quality people, but a misalignment on what is actually the goal of the company. And then I remember asking, what’s the best job you’ve ever had? And not one person said their current job, which I thought was crazy because I was on the comp committee. I figured somebody would lie to me and be like, oh, this is the best job I’ve ever had. Literally non-existent. Then as I dug deeper, it was really clear to me that while the software business was growing, it was grossly mismanaged. We were pushing out product once or twice a year, which for an enterprise product is pretty bad. You want to constantly update, release, give your customers what they promised. The customer NPS was like a negative 50 or 60. The employee NPS was negative 50 or 60. And so you had this weird thing, which was management wasn’t aligned, they weren’t totally happy, the customers were unhappy, employees were unhappy. And then underneath it all, we were losing a ton of money, we had two activist shareholders, a DOJ and SEC investigation. Like it was just a lot. And I said, this doesn’t seem like a fixable thing, let’s try to sell the company. At the time, I think the rest of the board was sort of like, let’s go find a new CEO and see if we can turn the thing around. And so we went out and hired a search firm to find a CEO. And inevitably we didn’t really find one to step in. And so when I became the CEO, my mandate wasn’t to run the company. It was to run the company, but it was really to run the company to be sold. We’d already hired investment bankers to sell the company. And so, I thought I’d sit there and manage the sale process. But literally on the first day, I’ll never forget, the CFO, who’s still our CFO today, came in and said, we’ve got 10 weeks of cash left. Savneet, is that enough time to sell the company? And I was like, we’re not even going to finish the management meetings, like we’re not going to sell the company. Plus, we’ve got all these investigations. It’s going to be a long process. And so it was the scariest moment at the time but now I think the most fortuitous one in my life in that it forced me to dig in because I was like I don’t want to be the CEO of a company that goes bankrupt. And so we dove in. And within 10 or 12 days, we made a plan to unfortunately lay off like 20% of the workforce. Within a month, we renegotiated some of our credit agreements. We worked really hard to clean and simplify while the bankers looked to sell the company. And fast forward a couple more months, the bankers came back and couldn’t find anyone to pay more than our stock price at the time. But they came back to me and said, hey, if you want to stay, we think we could finance you. We kind of have heard about you, we know about you. And by then, I had gotten really convicted on a few things. The first was that I really did believe the problem was solvable because I spent the time with the people, the product, and to me, all problems are people problems. And I said, this is this is solvable. It’s a hard one, but we’ve got to go through it. And the second observation I had was software was eating the restaurant and the restaurant just didn’t know it yet. And that got me really excited about the long term opportunities, which is when you’re in a market that has the beginning of digital disruption, if you are that sort of plant the flag solution, you’re that platform solution, like there’s a great potential outcome here. And I thought that our product had that opportunity. And then third was that the team, the employees, the company started to rally. Like we had solved a lot of problems in a short period of time. And I felt pretty excited that we could get the team to rally around this. And so, it was a combination of those factors that said, hey, maybe we can make something out of this. And so, when the opportunity came, I said, sure, I’ll stay and we’ll try to build something. And very much like the values we created for the company then, the mission, vision, it’s all sort of stayed the same. The people have changed, the energy has changed, the size of the company has changed, but we still kind of align on that same strategy we had five, a little over five years ago.

Alex Bridgeman: I mean, with only 10 weeks of cash remaining, timing is so important, like being able to move quickly to fix that is huge. How did you make sure you were moving quickly and doing things fast? You said you accomplished a lot in a short period of time. What did that look like?

Savneet Singh: Anyone who works with me knows my only speed is urgency. And so, I remember when we founded it and I said, Brian, we need everybody in the office now. And so everybody, if they weren’t at the office, they came in and we said, like we got to identify it today. And so I remember going person by person, what can you give? What can you give? What can you give? And then you’re saying, all right, that’s what you can give. This is what I need and come back. And we did it. And it was like literally one night we figured out where we’re going to get the cost. And then I said, okay, if you all can deliver on that, I’m going to go deliver on working with our banks. And so, I remember going to Citizens who was our bank at the time, I think, or whoever it was and started working on them and saying, hey, I need a little breathing room. I need breathing room. This is going to be better for you. It’s going to be better for us. Give us that room to figure this out. And then, I remember going through our assets saying, okay, we can sell this business, we can sell this. And so it’s just like having an aggressively aggressive plan. And it’s reflexive because once you can prove to your lenders that you can cut costs, and then you can sell something, they’re going to give you a little more leeway, a little more leeway. And so, it’s that obsession of urgency that really got us going. One of the things we did early on or back then was we created a set of values for the company. And we made them really, really tough. I always joke, go find a company’s values you disagree with. Like, it’s hard to find because when you see a list of eight or nine values on a wall, you pretty much feel like, yeah, I’m curious, I’m high integrity. Like I’d fit here, I’d fit here. And we at PAR said, let’s find the values that are actually specific enough where you say, I may not be a good fit. And so, we made these early values, which were speed, ownership, and winning. And since then, we’ve added another and edited them a bit. But it made it really precise. So, if you were coming from a fancy smancy tech company, and to you, culture meant like free coffee and a fun environment, and then you saw our values, like speed, ownership, and winning, you kind of knew you were getting into a unique situation. And the reason we did that was because we wanted to not only attract talent that wanted that obsession of ownership, wanted to build a career through intensity, but we also wanted to scare out people that were already here that said, hey, this is very different. And that was a big part of creating that urgency across the company. Even to this day, when I do my annual reviews for our team, the first question is, how do they line up with our values? And I always get really frustrated when someone’s like, I want to talk about culture and how we work together. And I’m like, that’s a derivative first of do you know the values? Because the nice person doesn’t always subscribe to the values that we at PAR need to be successful. And so, I just wrote this email to our whole company about like the day one intensity that Jeff Bezos talks about, but to me, it’s just going back to those values. And every year, remember like, okay, we’ve got to start there, we’ve got to start there, because as you get bigger, you get lazier, you get more comfortable, and stasis kicks in.

Alex Bridgeman: How do you retain speed over time? Is that a factor of systems being better, flatter management structure, just hiring people who move more quickly? What are the dimensions that go into keeping a speedy company?

Savneet Singh: So, I think there’s two aspects. So the first is actual structural. I do think that people always think it’s people and it’s culture, but structure matters a lot. One of the things and probably the most debatable thing I think people argue with me the most about at PAR is running relatively decentralized. We run in business units that are connected at the top, but we run in business units because it creates accountability lower in the organization. If you have an organization that has four or five products and you just have a CPO, a CRO, a CCO, so many decisions flow up to like one human being. And that’s really tough. There’s an escalation, and it’s like, well, who’s the tiebreaker? Well, it’s going to be the CEO. It’s going to be me answering all those questions. And so structure helps a lot in creating speed. You push those decisions down. And what I like about a decentralized environment is not that it just helps you go faster because there’s somebody that owns each one of those P&Ls or deliverables, but it also helps you discover talent because if there’s an emerging talent, you can throw them into a role that they have complete accountability on much earlier in their career, actually discover are they ready for it versus waiting for them to climb the ranks for 15 or 20 years and then give them a shot. And so I like giving him or her that opportunity much earlier. So that’s one. And again, when you create a structure like that, well, guess what, it attracts people who want to get the job quicker. One of the things that’s happened out of that is there’s now three or four people at PAR who are younger, more motivated, that keep me on my toes nonstop where I’m stressed out every day because I know they’re better than me. So, one’s structure, and I can talk about that forever, but operating structures to me really are the best way to keep speed. The second part is people. I think you have to expressly look for people that operate with that speed. And that speed doesn’t mean careless, doesn’t mean you’re sacrificing quality, but they are people that understand that we need to make those decisions, not because we’re doing it for speed’s sake, but it sort of becomes the way the company operates. And so, to me, those are the two things we kind of always do, and a lot of what our mistakes have been is when we forget that, and we get confident and cushy with somebody and we like them, but we don’t have the awkward conversations, is that person actually moving fast enough to maintain the rest of the organization.

Alex Bridgeman: So that structure with the business units, trying to push decision making down further, what iterations have you had within that structure? Has it always been that way? Or was it centralized at one point, then you decentralized? What are some of the stages for structure at PAR?

Savneet Singh: Well, I think it’s all- When I got there, everything was functional. So, there was one head of sales, one head of this, one head of that. And I originally broke it up into software and hardware. And the idea there was pretty simple. The person selling hardware is very different than the person selling software because they’re selling to very different buyer personas. And so why are we clumping it all together? Similarly, like if you kind of continue to peel that onion, if you’re a finance person that’s only [inaudible 13:13]  businesses, like you don’t know the KPIs, metrics, leading indicators that I need to know for a software business and vice versa. If you’re a marketing person, and you have an emerging part, I think our ARR was around 10 million bucks but revenues were 5 million bucks in software when we took over, if you’re the marketing person, you’ve got $200 million of hardware and services and $5 million of software, where’s your attention going? The product that is bigger, but not the product that has the enterprise value and the value of the company. And so, we started out very functional and we moved to very decentralized. Now, the hard part is, now that we’re bigger and we have lots of products that have captured market share, you have the opposite problem, which is everybody internally goes and says, hey, I talked to that customer and they talked to that customer. Now it’s confusing because they have two different PAR salespeople. And that’s the healthy tension I candidly like to have because the question is like, okay, let’s have one salesperson cover that account. And there’s two obvious reasons to do that. One is expense. You could probably save by having a little bit less, a few salespeople. But you still need a specialist in each product. And so I’d argue the savings aren’t always that great. But two is you create simplicity for the customer. But then I always think about is the customer actually getting a better experience? Because they’re now talking to a generalist, who’s not really an expert on either product, who’s going to connect them to an expert on the other hand. And so, both models work. And I constantly ask these questions to our team all the time, which is, yes, it may look confusing, but is the customer actually getting a better outcome? I always think that when I get an 800 number for an airline and if I have a request like change this or that, I’d rather have a direct line to the problem that I want than to a generalist who’s going to move me here and move me there. But that doesn’t always make sense. And so, we’ve gotten to the point where I’m like I don’t really care if there’s three salespeople calling on McDonald’s, like I want to the one that gets the order and that’s the winner to let’s be a little more unified, let’s make sure we have great data to make these decisions. And so, we keep that healthy tension all the time, and it’ll never go away.

Alex Bridgeman: What other areas of healthy tension have you tried to nurture around at PAR?

Savneet Singh: So, I think that tension comes from urgency. I think you have to every year work really hard on creating a strategic plan that the organization gets aligned to. And then the tension I think comes from the ability to push things out faster. So, I’ll give you an example. Every year, you’ve got a product roadmap that needs to get delivered. And every year, you’ll have a big win or an outage or something that puts a massive wrench in that roadmap. And so inevitably, someone says, hey, we’ve got to change the roadmap. And so what’s your job as the CEO? Their job is to say, well, let’s be ‘and’ people, not ‘or’ people. How do we do both things? And so, you’re always creating that tension of like, how do you do more with the resources you have? And you’re constantly fighting that battle inter year every single year. The one that I think is hardest for scaling companies is, do you put that extra dollar into go to market or do you put it in product? And you’re constantly figuring that tension. And so, I like putting tension around going to our team and saying, where do you want to invest that extra dollar? If we had another $500,000 in budget, are we putting it to sales, are we putting it to marketing, are we putting it to product? Where do you want it? We create that tension in our annual operating plan because it forces everybody to make that ROI decision because you get yourself ingrained that dollars are finite. A dollar to you is a dollar going away from that other side, and where do you think it should go best? That’s the other place, I think there’s always a little bit of tension on budgeting because you’ve got to force people to own the ROI on those decisions. And so, when a marketing person says, hey, I need an extra X million dollars for a marketing plan, I’m like, okay, so are you signing up for adding ten million dollars in new sales? The money’s yours. And so, I like to create tension around the financial aspects.

Alex Bridgeman: Is there an incentive model that helps accelerate that too or give a tailwind to some of those where’s the extra dollar going type decisions?

Savneet Singh: I think the best one is equity comp when you teach everybody to be an allocator. One of the cool things I think we’ve done at PAR that I now see other companies doing is with our product and technology team, I oftentimes show this to investors, we allocate our team’s time into how much time are we spending on feature development, like new products, how much time is going on to maintenance, how much time is going to tech dev, how much time is going on to integrations. And the reason we do that is so that we know, okay, if we’re putting more money into integrations and feature development, that’s like new stuff. If we put stuff into maintenance and tech dev, that’s sort of old stuff. And you have this healthy sort of like tension of what’s the right formula. You always want some money going to tech dev because you want to make sure your product stays scalable, but you also want to balance that with how much new stuff, how much feature development, and so on and so forth. And the reason we do that is partly because we want to know how we’re operating this company, but also it ingrains into the individuals that are running those product teams that they’re actually allocating capital like a CEO at their level. And so, if one of our products has way more money going into integrations, I’m like, well, you must be taking a lot of revenue live because we’d only be doing all this time in integrations in the event that we had a bunch of revenue that depended on those integrations. Or you’d say, hey, you’ve got a ton of money in feature development. So next year’s operating plan, I suspect revenue is going to be up a bunch because you’re building all these new products. And so it creates objectivity around these decisions. Because the hardest thing is like, oh, we have to invest in this thing. And when you put it into, particularly in engineering, if you’re a CEO of a tech company, and you’re not fluent in software, it’s really hard to know what’s a have to, what’s a must, what’s a need. Those are really- You’ll have a salesperson saying, we’ve got to do this, you’ll have the product and technology team saying we have to do this, we’ve got to integrate all these things. And I’m a little more saying like, let’s not let the anecdote be the judge, like let’s put some objective metrics on it. And the anecdotes matter, they really do matter, particularly the anecdotes that are coming from the customers that are forward thinking. But let’s put some data around it and figure out, okay, if we’re going to spend this much money on new features, we all are signing up for a lot more revenue coming these subsequent years, otherwise we wouldn’t do this.

Alex Bridgeman: Is there an example that comes to mind recently of that, is there ROI in this new feature or solving this piece of tech debt? Is there something that comes to mind as a top of mind example?

Savneet Singh: Oh, there are many. In Q2 of this year, we had our worst gross margins in probably two years. And it was a surprise to investors, and it sucked. A lot of it was the lack of scalability within one of our products, which just it had outages because it was being used so much. So it’s one of those problems that sucks because we had customer credits, customers didn’t get what they wanted, and it was painful because you can’t make up a gross margin for the rest of the year. Like when you’re giving a credit out and you can’t charge in revenue, it’s like a double whammy, you can’t make it up. So, if your compensation, as an example, is tied to EBITDA, it’s tough to make that up. And the decision you make before that happens is, all right, we’re going to have to make a major investment early on so that we can get our gross margins back to where they need to be so we can make our product scalable. When you build a software product that scales, most people never envision how large it’s going to be. And so you don’t build a scale for it to run that way. And in our business at PAR, we had this massive growth in convenience stores that were using our loyalty product. And convenient stores use our product remarkably different than restaurants. They use it way more, super high ROI to them. And so, it was pounding our system to the point that we hadn’t built the system for. And so we made this investment into our DevOps infrastructure that we continue to make today. That’s super hard because we as a team are now saying we’re going to take money away from sales, from marketing to go build better internal infrastructure so we can scale that product. That’s a long-term ROI one. I’ll give you another example that’s a little bit easier to understand. We acquired a product in September, I believe, of 2022. And it’s an online ordering product for restaurants. And I would say six months in, we realized that while the product had a lot of pipeline internationally, the real demand for this product was in the United States. And we had committed to investors that in 2023, we wanted to hold our operating expenses completely flat. So, we wanted to grow mid-20s but not grow our operating expenses. But then we realized all of a sudden, man, we have all this opportunity to grow this product in the United States. What do we do? Do we just raise operating expenses and piss off investors, piss off the commitment we made to our board and to ourselves? And so we decided to take 4 million bucks from other parts of PAR and fund this move of this company in the United States, which is an enormous amount of money internally and it’s dozens of people. And so we as a team made that decision to go make that investment into this small product with like less than a million bucks of revenue that sucked money out of everything else that we did. And so that was a tough, tough thing for the team because the person that’s running the business that’s growing 30, 40% is like, dude, that’s like money that I need to go hit my goals and I can’t do it because I got to fund that. And so, again, these are like the healthy challenges that you have intra year that you got to figure out. And that was a huge one, 4 million bucks for us within our- it was a big swing of money that had to come from everybody.
Alex Bridgeman: What have you learned about your own role in these hard decisions back and forth where a dollar here comes from a dollar over there and there’s tough decisions to be made? What have you learned about your own role in those and helping either moderate or maybe not take any part in it?

Savneet Singh: I think the first thing is that every CEO or every leader has to first educate. I think it’s remarkable to me how many CEOs don’t spend a lot of time educating their teams on what is ROI or like how do we look at decisions, or how do we make decisions, or why did we make that decision? One of the things that I think if people- PAR isn’t the greatest place in the world by any means, but one thing I think every employee who’s worked here or has left here would tell you is they hear from management way more than any other company they’ve worked at. Every other week, I hold a town hall and I’ll go through what’s going on in the macroeconomic world, what’s going on in the SaaS world. I’ll do a topic of lemonade accounting stands, I’ll do a topic on gross margins, AWS every other week. Our business team managers do one every week, every other week about their businesses. And so the leadership teams, the senior leadership teams, the middle management, everybody sort of becomes educated on how to be a business thinker over and over and over again. And so that education is like, it’s amazing how few people have it. There’s amazingly many senior people I interview couldn’t tell you how a P&L works. Or how many head of sales I’ve interviewed who couldn’t tell you how to calculate gross margin or how to calculate CAC to LTV. They can say all the fancy stuff. And it’s just really interesting. And it doesn’t mean they’re good or bad, it actually means like, hey, if they don’t know that stuff day one, how can I actually have an honest conversation with them? So, to me, it’s actually a way of looking at it, I think we can educate constantly of how do you make decisions? How do great businesses get built? Every quarter we do an offsite. I do a case study on an amazing software business, or I’ll do a case study on something that fell apart. And again, you educate. Then the second thing is to create those conversations because those are super awkward conversations to have sometimes because you are taking money from somebody else and putting it there. And no matter what, people, we seek social cohesion, it’s uncomfortable. And so, it’s a little bit like getting those conversations going and making them normal and proving out that that’s the way we want to operate as PAR. And then the last one is making the tough decisions. And in the end, I think the leadership has to make that decision. And the worst way to do it is sort of crowdsourcing and get to the middle way. Like I always say, turn left or turn right. And so I think those are the steps for us. And I would say the people that are leaders of PAR now are the ones that could do all those things, could educate, could make those really hard decisions that people don’t want, but most of all, foster those awkward conversations that nobody wants to have.

Alex Bridgeman: I love the turn left or turn right phrase. You sound like you’ve got a bunch of these phrases lying around. What are some other ones you enjoy using?

Savneet Singh: Oh, I don’t know if I have any other ones. It’s more like when they come, they come. One I think people would say that I say a lot is data over anecdotes over and over again. I always think that there’s so many roles within a company that doesn’t always have an easy observable metric. Like how do you measure the success of an HR team, a legal team, sometimes the finance team. They’re not setting sales goals and stuff. And so, I’ll say, well, we need some data here. Let’s do a survey of your peers. And how do they think about the HR team or how do they think of legal teams? What does the sales team think of the legal team? And then we have data and we’re like, okay, we have an 80% success score here. And so, I like data over anecdotes as one that I tend to use a lot. Another one I like to say is like data creates objectivity on subjective matters. Do we have a problem here because everyone’s saying we have a problem, but why doesn’t the data show that? And so, then you sort of bring in the data and you’re like, okay, the objective data says this. We feel this way. What’s the disconnect? So I don’t know. I’ll think of a few by the end. I’m sure there’s more.
Alex Bridgeman: Those are great. So, you talked about having a town hall every other week. You mentioned writing a company-wide email earlier in our conversation. What are the other ways that you’re communicating with the team at large, like that kind of teaching your team different aspects of the company or macro environments or what happened with this SaaS company? I’m really curious to learn more about that particular piece of your role. What are some other components to that?

Savneet Singh: So, I think it’s actually all- it happened naturally. It wasn’t ever like planned. But when we first took over PAR, and again, we were a much smaller company then, we would have a, every week I would do a town hall, which is, I think, probably looking back a little too often. And then every week we’d have a weekly wrap, where we’d wrap on what happened that week, our wins, our misses, hopefully a little bit of a financial update or a KPI update. And then every week I would have a leadership meeting with the direct reports where we’d go through, so on and so forth. As we’ve gotten larger, it’s harder to do that. And so I would say we have this biweekly town hall that people join remotely. We do an executive team meeting every other week now where I am generally taking the executive team through what are the high priority items around run the company, what are key priorities for those in the room, and then usually a case study or in-depth conversation on something. So as an example, the next one coming up, I wrote this email to our team about day one mentality, but it’s about creating urgency in everything we do. And my perspective is, hey, we’re losing that urgency as we’ve gotten bigger and we’re having way too many conversations about the internal, not the external. And so, I’m going to do a whole case study on companies that I believe have succumbed to that. And then, I think the business unit leaders themselves do a bi-weekly sort of entire team call within their entire team and then a weekly leadership meeting across their key leaders. And so, it’s kind of pushing that down to the vendors at PAR. And I think the last thing is you have to create a culture that is somewhat open door. And what I mean by that is people have to feel comfortable bubbling challenges upward. And so I work really hard to make that common. So, I will comment on Slack channels. One of the funny things I used to do is everybody was so scared, I think, through PAR’s prior culture of reaching out to the, quote unquote, boss. And so, I would send cold emails to individuals at PAR asking a question, but I’d put the whole email on the subject line or I’d use no punctuation to sort of make it like, hey, let’s just, this is an iterative thing. Like, just come back to me. I don’t want like the dear seventieth comma. I don’t want someone proofreading an email for two hours to send me. And so you just have to create a culture that fosters a lot more collaboration. And so I would do all sorts of that. And then the last thing I remember I did was, one of our values is being owners not renters. And to prove that, I would sort of go out and say, if anybody finds a recurring meeting that we think is wasteful of our time and we can delete, you get $1,000. And so we would get that. Or if you found a dollar of savings, we’d give you 5 cents. And so, we would just create programs that made it feel like it was more of your company. Again, creating this ability to interact with the CEO and leadership team. And that is, again, something we have to constantly push because when people come from outside of PAR, I think they’re a little bit alarmed that like, wait, everybody on my team has a relationship with the CEO, and like are you checking up on me all the time? And it’s obviously not like that. But it is really this understanding that PAR is our company, not my company, but our company collectively with our investors, our board. And so, if it’s yours, you’ve got to speak up. And so, I think that’s the other part of it, is not so much a formal thing but an informal way of organizing ourselves.

Alex Bridgeman: How do you spend your time? Today and with the size that PAR is at, what does a typical week look like for you? And maybe how does it contrast with a couple of years ago?

Savneet Singh: I think when I started in the first couple of years, a lot of my journey at PAR was product. I was like the chief product officer to a degree. It was not so much running everyone’s day job in product, but our product was problematic. It was breaking. Our customers were angry. That was the number one product we had, challenge we had at the company was product. And so my efforts were really focused on that. So, if we could solve the product challenge, I felt confident we could solve the rest. And then later, it evolved. Once we felt like our product was more stable, it was working, then I went out and sort of became the evangelist for PAR, which is, hey, we have this new idea of unifying your tech stack from having a bunch of point solutions to this unified solution of PAR. And I became salesman in chief. I think our sales team would still tell you, I find a way to bring a couple of deals in every year just to show I still got it. But today I would say most of my time when I start breaking it into pieces was I’m very active with our key business leaders on the decision making we make every single day. As much as I want to pretend I’m like strategic high level, I’m still very much in the weeds of a lot of those decisions because they’re relatively, individually still relatively small businesses where small things can mean a lot. I spend a ton of time on the people side both in running the team that reports to me but the team outside of that, always making sure that I’ve got a pulse on what’s happening, not just the people that report to me, but throughout the organization. And then I spend a lot of time on the M&A side, which M&A has been a really amazing tool for PAR. It seems to have worked. How do we amp it up? And I think M&A is hard to get right, particularly in software. Most deals don’t work out in the long run. And so, I’ve tried to lead that myself because I want to foresee those challenges, but also make sure that we go in eyes wide open because every banker presentation, internal or external, will tell you if the deal makes sense. It’s all the stuff that you don’t know going in. So, I spend a lot of time on the M&A side today.

Alex Bridgeman: What have you learned the most about the M&A side in terms of- I mean, you’ve been doing this for quite a while, and you were an investor before and you’ve had a lot of M&A experience. I’d be curious today, what is your toolkit and set of requirements for a new acquisition or new deal you’re looking at? How’s your view of M&A changed?

Savneet Singh: So, I don’t think anything’s changed from my perspective of like the economics of the deal. I don’t think that’ll ever change. That’s still, to me, very formulaic. You as any investor or operator can do the math to figure out if the deal will pencil out. I think what I have a much greater appreciation for is the people side, particularly in technology where oftentimes the companies you’re buying are startups. Whether they’re five years old, 10 years old, 15 years old, they still very much have the heritage of that startup. And when you acquire a business that’s been run by a founder and those employees now report to somebody else, it’s almost like changing churches or changing religions. You bought somebody else’s deal for a long time. And all of a sudden, that person’s not in charge anymore. They may not even be there anymore. Now you’ve got to reach somebody else. And so, one of the things that I think we’ve done a really good job of is like we’ve gone to those organizations and we start day one to say, hey, everyone’s going to tell you nothing’s going to change. Of course, everything’s going to change. Your benefits are going to be different. Your logo is different. Your swag is different. Like your computer is different. Don’t go in there saying nothing’s going to change and be really upfront about that. And then be a fantastic listener and listen, listen, listen. Because you want to keep them working at that organization while then figuring out what you need to apply. And so, one of the coolest things that I think we’ve had at PAR is our retention of employees post-acquisition, I would argue, is probably better than anybody in software. At the very least, we retain the people we have no business retaining because I think they buy into our culture. We do a really, really thoughtful job of that. The second thing I’d say, if I give a second reason, which is the one that I think other people forget often, is the quality of the product matters so much in software. We have been so lucky to acquire good products. But if you buy a bad product, you can’t sell your way out of that. You can’t market your way out of that. And so buying a high quality product that doesn’t have loads of technical debt that can scale, it saves you, it’s worth the premium to a degree because it allows you to build the future. Because if you buy a product, the founders will leave and then you have a product that’s not working. You can spend a lot of time fixing the past instead of working on the future. And so those are two things. I think our ability, any company’s ability to win the people, create a plan, create that transparency, understanding alignment and execution is important. And then buying the right product. It’s easy to buy revenue. It’s much harder to buy great revenue and great product.

Alex Bridgeman: What distinguishes a good product from a so-so or product that’s not going to be a good fit for you?

Savneet Singh: In the enterprise, it’s pretty easy. Will that product sell? Does it help the needs of the customer? And can it scale? The last one’s the hardest one, which is lots of people can listen to customers, design a product, model a product, but taking it to scale is very hard. Distributed computing, like restaurants, it’s hard. It’s like you may sell something to McDonald’s but McDonald’s has got thousands of restaurants that also run the same thing and they’re updating new data. That’s pretty hard. And so, first and foremost is, have they built the product that can solve your customers’ needs? It’s a little bit like are you buying a project or are you buying a product? There are a lot of really good things where you’re like, oh, they’ve got pretty much what we need, but we need them to do this, this and this and this to get into our product, into our end market. And all of the time saying like, all right, what’s the timeline for that, that, that, and that, and let’s double it, and let’s double the cost. And then do we still want to do the deal, knowing what our competitors will say about it. And so, it’s about saying, oh wow, this product is actually going to wow our customers, be number one and number two in our market from a product perspective, and then we think we can scale it and so on and so forth. Because once you figure out you have the right product, right price, then it’s like what’s the value you add to that? Like, are you a private equity firm or are you an operating business? And if you’re an operating business, I think you’ve got to sort of prove out that that product underneath you is better than it was on a standalone basis.

Alex Bridgeman: What do you think has changed in software over the last couple of years? From the outside looking in, it appears PAR has become more of an all-in-one solution. Do you think that’s a broader trend within SaaS and something you’ve identified? Or is that something more specific to your market that your customers are wanting specifically?

Savneet Singh: I think categorically for our market for sure that’s happening. I think industry-wise it’s probably happening too. I think there’s like a platformization happening across everywhere, which is we all probably feel we’re spread too thin and have too many products to do what we do. Think about the average person, they’ve got email, they’ve got Slack, they’ve got WhatsApp, they’ve got iMessage, they’ve got Asana, they’ve got Jira, they have like so many tools to do their job. It’s probably a little frustrating. I know sometimes I’m like, did I check every little communication device to make sure I’m up to speed? And that’s a very small tidbit of the workflow of the daily average white-collar worker. And if you’re a restaurant, in our example, you have that times ten. You’ve got, all of a sudden, in the last five years, you’ve added a new payment solution, QR code ordering, you’ve created a mobile app, you’ve created a loyalty app, you’ve created a supply chain software, you’ve created a new HR software. I mean, you’ve had all these products just slam into you and you’re not getting the value from it. And so, I think what we see in restaurants is that our customers are looking for vendor consolidation simplicity because they’ve already bought a bunch of software. I think that’s probably analogous to most markets where I look at your iPhone and I’m like, oh my God, it’s really confusing that I have so many apps that do so many different things. I’d rather have five apps that are like super apps to help my life be a little bit simpler. I think in the enterprise that’s a more acute problem because most companies that buy software aren’t software companies. And so they don’t have the bandwidth and tooling to manage all that. Restaurant companies, illustratively, a thousand store restaurant chain might have a hundred total corporate employees, maybe a hundred and maybe 10, 15 of them work in the IT department. And of those, five or six are in charge of like software products to their stores. And so, when that same group is managing 25 products per store versus 10, their life sucks. And I think our job is to simplify it for them.

Alex Bridgeman: What else do you think is changing in software? What stands out to you as a trend that you’re paying attention to?

Savneet Singh: Well, I think there’s like the consumerization of the enterprise is forever going to be a trend. I think AI will play a huge role into that. But as the generation of the workforce changes from those that came from a generation that didn’t use technology to the 20 year old who grew up on Snapchat, TikTok, and modern software, their expectations at their work match their expectations outside of work. And so, I think the way we interact with software will have to change. When my littlest kids are working at McDonald’s one day, they’re going to expect that software to work just like all the software they used their entire life. And you’re seeing that happen. And so I think AI will accelerate both the UI, UX and how we interact with these products. And that’s still for a long time. And then obviously AI will kind of disrupt and make things work a lot easier. But I think we’re still a long way from that in at least the industry that we operate in. But I do think this massive trend of the consumerization really, really matters. And where I think it’ll matter more is that over time, every product gets commoditized, and over time, what makes a product sticky is like the workflow. Like how does it integrate in your life where you can’t rip it out? What’s amazing about our products at point of sale is that once you’re on it, it’s hard to rip out. And you can either take advantage of that and screw your customers, or you can deliver them an amazing experience where they don’t even think about that. And we want to do the latter. And I think that the way you do that is a combination of having all the features, functionality, and modernity that they’re used to, but combine that with UI and UX that is just like their day to day life. And then they’re like, gosh, this is a no brainer. So, I think that’s one trend that will carry on for a while.

Alex Bridgeman: Have you read the Will Larson book, An Elegant Puzzle, the engineering systems and design book? It’s a Stripe Press one.

Savneet Singh: It’s literally the book I’m using to hold up the microphone that we’re…

Alex Bridgeman: Oh, that’s hilarious. I picked that up a few months ago. I really, really enjoyed it, especially the discussions on, it was kind of like an obvious thing in hindsight, but as you grow a product team and hire engineers, new engineers need to be trained by veteran engineers so that they understand how products work or how the code base works and all that. And so that takes away from their time doing new features or technical data or what have you. What have been some biggest takeaways for you in growing product teams and running product teams, either from the book or just your own experience or from peers or what have you?

Savneet Singh: So, this is going to sound really basic, but to me, a product and engineering team are no different than any other team at PAR. The 80/20 of it is still the leadership and how that team works together than it is anything technical about how they operate. So are there teams that have better onboarding? Of course. Are there teams that have better documentation? Yeah. But those do make huge differences to the life of a scaling team. But in the end, it’s the quality of that management, that leadership that works out. I’m never surprised when somebody with no technical background becomes a great product manager. It’s because they’re able to, they’ve probably, to become that great product manager, have worked very hard to become technical enough. But they’ve also won the trust of that engineering team that they are making the right calls for that customer. And so that’s one thing. The other thing I would say is, I’m still shocked how many times when I interview product leaders, those that say, oh, I don’t really talk to customers that much. It blows my mind. I still think it’s a really basic thing. But I think if you want to be good at product management, you’ve got to spend time with customers and salespeople. One of the first things I ask when I go look at companies we’re acquiring is, when I get to that second level of diligence, you’re meeting the head of product and head of sales, it’s like, what’s your cadence with the product guy? What’s your cadence with the sales guy? In 9 out of 10 companies, there’s almost none. It’s just we meet at the executive meeting. All that means to me is that the information, all that amazing information that your customers are telling you every day is not going to your product team. And it’s going through a massive filter that is probably heavily biased towards revenue and not like future-proofing your company.

Alex Bridgeman: What’s a helpful cadence or what cadence makes sense for you in having your both sales team and product teams talking to customers? So, one customer over the course of a year, like how often might they hear from a sales or product leader?

Savneet Singh: It’s tough to answer because every business is different, but we hold QBRs and SBRs with our customers. And so every quarter, we’re sort of sharing our information, their information. I think that’s a great way to sort of collect that feedback across many, many different customers and share it with the product team. And so that’s the way we do it. I think it’s a really great way because you’re straight from the horse’s mouth. But if you’ve got a good leadership team, your sales leaders are speaking on their weekly or biweekly call talking about here’s what we’re learning, here’s what we’re hearing, and products in that room having it. Just today, we had a go-to-market on site at our offices. And we had one of our product leaders there. And why do we have a product leader there, even though they’re not really going to make a decision about if we restructure sales this way or that way, it’s because that person can absorb everything the sales folks are hearing from the customer. And then the way they chime in is like, hey, did you guys know we’re building this and this and that like you don’t need to create two systems for that. We already- like that collaboration, I think, has to happen naturally. So, I think it’s a little bit of a functional leadership style of the person in charge.

Alex Bridgeman: As we close out here, any last pieces of advice that you often share with other SaaS CEOs or maybe peers that share with you?

Savneet Singh: Oh, gosh, there’s so many. I’ll share something that I share with emerging leaders at PAR that I think is important. I think it’s defining your leadership style. I think that being authentic is the single greatest piece of advice you can give to any leader. What I mean by that is when someone gets promoted at PAR to be a leader at PAR, I try to spend a lot of time with them early on, saying define what your style is going to be. They’re the leaders that we have that are the incredible orators, the charisma that is unbeatable, and behind that, they have layers of depth and so on and so forth. And that’s a type of leadership that people can rally behind. We also have the servant leaders who are a little bit quieter, that have as powerful or as senior of a job, but are like very, very focused on leading by example, putting out great content. Then we have leaders at PAR that are strategists that like inspire the team because they’re so strategic and you’re like, oh my God, I didn’t think about that. And they can execute on the strategy. And the reason I say that is when you get a leadership role, whether it’s ego, whether it’s inferior complex or imposter syndrome, like you start acting like what you think you should be. You try to be charismatic, you try to tell jokes, you try to be bigger than you really are. And I think it’s a mistake I see over and over and over again, where what people are oftentimes looking for, I think our [inaudible 42:45], they just want to know who the person is and then work that way. And then I take it a second step further and I say, once you define what you are, and you should know who that is by the time you’re a leader, you should probably figure out like, hey, I’m going to be that charismatic guy, or I’m going to be this, like you kind of know who you are. And you’d be surprised how many people screw that up. Then I go to that leader, and after they come back to 90 days, I say, all right, now I want to know what motivates every single person that reports into you. And that’s how you deliver success to that because if you don’t know what’s inspiring each one of your team members, it’s problematic because you don’t know how to incentivize and drive them. So as an example, we have a leader on the leadership team that I work with every single day. There’s a leader on there that I’m pretty sure she has no idea what she’s paid. But what is she looking for? It’s like she wants to know that she’s in the flow of all the information. So, in the back of my mind, I’m like, all right, I’ve got to make sure I call her like every other day because when she feels out of the loop is when she feels alienated and scared. We have another leader at PAR who is one of our best emerging leaders at PAR. He really only cares about one thing, which is like I want objective metrics of success. And then I’m like, all right, he does not need the pat on the back at all. In fact, that actually pisses him off when I call him out in front of the whole team. What he wants is like, is he succeeding against the goals that we set up for him? There are other people that are purely financially motivated. There are other people that like live for the pat on the back from the CEO, and that’s really what means more than anything else. You have to kind of define what’s going to motivate the people around you and know who that is. And it won’t be uniform because everybody’s motivated by something else. Everybody has some insecurity or something from their childhood that takes them away. And for me, it’s figuring out what is that thing that inspires. Is it fear? Like there’s someone on our team at PAR where like fear motivates him. And I can literally go to him and say, here’s millions of dollars, or here’s a pat on the back, or call him out in front of the town hall all the time. And it really wouldn’t matter. What motivates him is like a little bit of fear of failure. And so I know with him, I got to be like, I can’t believe we screwed this up. We’re off by 2% here. What’s going on? Because that gets him going. And the point I’m making is to be a great leader, a little bit of it is like being a psychologist. And you’ve got to be able to not only create the right strategy, create the excitement, the energy behind that execution, but you also have to be a tactician to a degree. And I think you do that by figuring out who are the people that are working with you and what motivates them individually to create that collective success.

Alex Bridgeman: Savneet, thank you so much for sharing your time. I really enjoyed getting to chat with you. Thank you for a little bit more podcasting time. I enjoyed your other episodes and it’s good to chat with you more.

Savneet Singh: Thanks.


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