Ramin Sayar is president and CEO of the cloud-based data analytics company Sumo Logic, which provides a continuous intelligence platform for DevSecOps and integrates security practices within the DevOps process. He was previously senior VP and GM at VMware. His lifelong love of cooking started in childhood, when he “borrowed” supplies from his sister’s toy oven kits; he’s since expanded to the great outdoors, where he makes everything from wood-fired pizzas to smoked ribs, briskets and pork belly.
Pick each of your partners for the long haul and for a specific purpose. Ideally that purpose extends beyond your current company phase or stage. Although it is important to have tier 1 investors, I think it’s less about which top tier firm and more about the individual. You want someone who complements your background and skills and who can coach you through challenges. They can help you “mind the gap of the talent trap,” for example, which would be my second piece of advice. Founders who are building a large organization for the first time often struggle with when to develop their existing talent versus when to trade up for someone who’s a better fit. A good partner can help you navigate that by asking the right questions, seeing the potential risks and helping you think through what you’re going to need one, two and three years from now.
Your partners have to strike the right balance, too, of course, and still recognize that ultimately, you’re the one running the company. Usually, though, founders lean too far in the other direction—they think if someone’s nice or you get along well, they’ll be a good fit. But really, the best partners are the ones willing to call BS when you need it. They keep you honest.
I’m asked a lot about the current market trends and our longer-term business and product strategy. However, given our continued business growth and tenure as a company, I am also frequently asked about the path to IPO or monetization—what I’ve learned so far and what to do to prepare. There are so many things you don’t think about until they slap you in the face and you have to figure out quickly how to respond.
I think the first thing you need to do is assess your bench—not just the management team, but your investors, board members and advisors—and make sure you have a good mix of up-and-coming people with those who have been down this road before. You also have to have a lot of “truth versus harmony” conversations to ensure maniacal focus on the things that matter and that need decisions or actions.
My mother is undoubtedly the person most responsible for who I am today. I grew up in Iran during the revolution, so she raised my siblings and me during a very tough time. Especially for an American woman learning an entirely new culture, from how to speak the language to how to cook the food. Then she moved us to the U.S. by herself—my dad stayed back for about a year —and she never broke once. She is unflappable.
She taught me not to fear failure, because what’s the worst that can happen? You can always start over, just like we did more than once. I learned to think more about what I have to gain than what I have to lose. That was the foundation for more than one calculated risk in my life, including joining Sumo.
The team has generally assessed skills and qualifications before I meet someone, so I focus on fit—in particular, their EQ and how willing they are to be vulnerable. There are two questions I use to try to get a sense of that. I’ll ask them to tell me about a moment in their life that’s made them who they are. And I’ll pay attention to their body language and tone just as much as what comes out of their mouth. Some people close off and aren’t really forthcoming. Others open up, take a breath, and might even show some emotion. That’s a sign of strength to me, not weakness. I also ask candidates to share a moment in their professional life where they struggled to make a decision, and how that’s made them who they are.
After they answer, I always explain why I asked. One of our core cultural values at Sumo is “bringing light to dark” or transparency—we build trust by telling each other what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. If someone is willing to be forthcoming in an interview, chances are they’ll be willing to do the same thing on our team. It also tells me they’ll be adaptable enough to withstand the challenges of hyper-growth and constant change.
There are so many. Blitzscaling resonated with me. The Innovator’s Dilemma is another. One that jumps out for me is Radical Candor, by Kim Scott, because having difficult conversations is such an important skill. Personally, I’m usually pretty comfortable in those situations—if anything, I sometimes have to be careful about how direct I am. But the book has so many specific takeaways on things like getting collaborative alignment and how to deliver actionable feedback. For example, the old saying of “kiss them, kick them, kiss them” doesn’t work for everyone, especially in a multigenerational workplace. Some people don’t know what to do with that. It’s much better to make both your praise and your criticism sincere.
There’s good guidance on one-on-ones, too, like starting with a check-in and ending by asking how you can help the other person. To me, a lot of the principles come back to something my team and I are constantly trying to improve on, which is servant leadership. You should be measured by what you do for others, not for yourself.
Another important and must-read book for any disruptive company is Play Bigger, by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Kevin Maney, and Christopher Lochhead, which outlines how to build and navigate category creation. A lot of what’s in there ties back to what we’re trying to do at Sumo Logic with a new category of software called continuous intelligence.
The difference between just hearing and actually listening—internalizing a message and taking action. It’s something I expect from the people around me. I’ve been lecturing my two boys about it from the moment they could talk! But I’ve been guilty of poor listening myself many times.
I use a framework for decision-making where I try to be clear about everyone’s role. Are you being involved in the decision, empowered to make it, or just informed about it? And I do try to listen differently depending on my role. Sometimes people will say, “We just need you to make this decision.” But when they’re the ones making it, I’m in a different mode. I’m trying not giving my opinion unless they ask. That’s a challenge for a Type A person like me. I can be quick to jump in with a recommendation, especially in an area where I feel like I have expertise. But I want to empower people to be accountable, and that means I have to step back and listen.
Something that would allow me to spend more time on the really impactful stuff versus the noise. Maybe teleportation, so I could get from place to place faster. Or a mini-me—a clone. There’s only so much you can do in a day, and only so many days in a year. You have to ruthlessly prioritize your time.
I think I’m better at that than I was years ago. I make sure I’m at every one of my kids’ games on the weekends, and that I’m actually present, not on my phone. But it’s inevitable that you have to sacrifice some time with family and friends for work. So I’d love to see an invention that would make it easier to strike that balance.
- Transparency builds trust
- Listen—don't just hear
- You can always start over