Lead Story

Face-Off That Almost Killed Icertis

The co-founders of the SaaS unicorn were caught in a bitter clash. Only one of them was correct.

In 2001, Bollywood’s biggest friendship saga after Sholay, hit the silver screens. Akash (played by Aamir Khan) and Siddharth’s (played by Akshaye Khanna) rock-solid, childhood friendship in Dil Chahta Hai faced the test of time and difference of opinions but ultimately managed to emerge successful.


Art, they say, imitates life. Start-up world’s Dil Chahta Hai moment came 11 years later when two founders, both passionate about their business, locked horns over a make-or-break business decision. The story of contract management software company Icertis has similar undertones, if not that dramatic.


“No, I wouldn’t say that (that the difference of opinion could have led to the divorce between the two founders), though we probably came too close at those times. Both of us were passionate,” laughs Monish Darda, chief technical officer (CTO) and co-founder, Icertis.


Darda believes he has been lucky in his relationships with all his co-founders (he has been part of seven start-ups), because never have any of them given up on each other saying this isn’t working.


Started in 2009, Washington-headquartered Icertis offers contract-management software to business enterprises. That is, it manages its client companies’ contracts—right from authoring templates and creation to execution and renewal. The Icertis Contract Intelligence (ICI) platform also helps companies extract data from their contract documents and use it for effective strategising.


The company’s unique name came first as a suggestion from co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Samir Bodas’ wife. The founders had four five suggestions and they were not being able to finalise any. Bodas and his wife were vacationing at South Africa at that time, and it was there that she suggested that a Latin word certa that meant “you can trust us”. From there was derived Icertis, roughly translated to “I certify.”


CTO-CEO Face-Off

Sometime between 2012 and 2013, both its co-founders found themselves pitted against each other over a choice of technology to develop their product.


Darda and Bodas were developing the user experience for Icertis’ platform, when a technology called Silverlight from Microsoft caught the interest of the CTO. With it, Darda believed his team could create a beautiful user interface for Icertis’ product and that it would catapult the company to the ‘next level’.


But Bodas wouldn’t hear of it.


The CEO wanted the CTO to use a technology that would be compatible with all the browsers, and not just Microsoft’s. “Usually, he never interferes with the tech side,” says Darda, “but this time, he was insistent... that we should really have something that works across browsers, not just the Internet Explorer.”


Darda didn’t want to give in. He could see that Silverlight brought the richness of Java Applet to the Microsoft world. Icertis had already built a few applications on that technology because it was easy to use, had a good ramp up time and checked all the technical checkboxes.


“The business checkbox wasn’t checked, and Samir caught that. We argued over it a lot. I said we could build faster and better, and it would be really beautiful, but he said no because it did not satisfy one of our key business requirements, which was availability on multiple platforms,” Darda recalls.


Finally, the two decided to take it to the most important person of all–the customer. Their answer clinched it.


Darda says none of them cared about the technology that was being used. They simply wanted the functionality and a product that was easy to use.


“User experience was our biggest differentiator, and both Samir and I were and still are passionate about it. So, when the customers said we don’t care about the technology, that what you are doing is good and just build the features we want, that changed my mind fairly quickly. I said if customers don’t care and if this is a business reason, Samir is right.”


All’s Well That Ends Well

It was a critical juncture. Bodas says that it would have decided the fate of the company. He knows that Darda’s approach was technologically superior, which would have speeded up their product type-to-market process. But Bodas, as the CEO, had to look beyond that. “Silverlight was a technology that could become obsolete. The only way to have stayed ahead then was to build it in a way that everything would be available on any browser,” says Bodas.


After rounds of back and forth and heated debates and discussions, Icertis decided to switch to a format that would have open access. And in exactly 18 months after that, Microsoft announced that the Silverlight technology would not be downloadable October 12, 2021 onwards.


That was a close call.


“So that would have been a really bad decision at that time. We were lucky that Samir was thinking years ahead. And I think we ended up making a right decision there,” smiles Darda.


Us Against The World

The evergreen pair of friends Jai-Veeru (played by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) from another friendship cult-film Sholay, found a new direction in their lives under the guidance of Thakur (played by Sanjeev Kumar). The friends would have taken up a different path, if they had not met Thakur at the right place and at the right time. Cut to Icertis.


At a crucial juncture for the company, though the two founders did not headbutt over this one, it was a well-wisher who presented the solution. The solution they got was something entirely new.


In 2013, the company had managed to secure deals with four to five large customers for their contract lifecycle management (CLM) offering. Microsoft was one among these customers. The founders were planning to build a suite of applications.


“... which we called the ERP space. Between customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning, there was a whole lot of white space,” says Darda. These were the times when enterprises were not very willing to go to the cloud, and Icertis thougtht of building a suite of apps. “We would take to the enterprise where IT would say, okay these are small enough, not important enough, we can break them up and can actually start our cloud journey,” Darda adds.


Darda was visiting Seattle at that time, and both he and Bodas headed out for golf once in a while. One day Bodas took him for a round of golf with another friend, Pradeep Singh, founder of Aditi Technologies, an American IT company. Singh asked for Icertis’ client list, when Bodas and Darda explained their plans of building a suit of apps. “So I said in CLM here are our four to five customers, who were all Fortune 100 actually at that time, and he said that you guys are stupid,” Darda says.


Brutal, but it proved golden. Singh explained that a company that small in size—Icertis had about 50 people at that time—one does not manage to get Fortune 100 customers, especially when selling something as elaborate as enterprise software. He then suggested that they should forget about developing other apps and concentrate solely on CLM.


“This one was actually a harder decision to take because Monish and I were on the same page this time, but Pradeep was pushing to take an entirely different direction,” laughs Bodas.

Experience Over Ambition

Bodas went as far back as 1992 with Pradeep Singh, who was his hiring manager during his Microsoft days. His argument was that Icertis then did not have the bandwidth like Microsoft does, to service a client’s multiple needs.

“He made a compelling argument that if we wanted to go big, we should bet everything on one idea. To his credit, he put his money where his mouth was,” Bodas says. Microsoft went on to invest in Icertis after the latter decided to focus on CLM.

Both Bodas and Darda decided to test the friend’s hypothesis. They put together a pitch for CLM and took that to some venture capital (VC) firms.

“VCs are good at pattern evaluation... They were so interested in the idea that we got three term sheets (documented intent to invest) in two months. This was around 2014-15. And we realised what Pradeep said was right. India-based Eight Roads and the US-based Greycroft put money into that,” Bodas said.

The founders of this young company seem to have cracked a code, of converting a difference of opinion into strength. It makes space for dreaming big and dreaming smart.