Interview with one of the ‘top women leaders in SaaS 2018’, Nazma Qurban
Updated: Sep 30
We were lucky enough to grab some quality time with Nazma Qurban, Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) at Cognism and Top 10 SaaS Sales leader UK in 2018, on our live broadcast. Here are some highlights of the thought-provoking and candid chat between Nazma and Sales Impact Academy Founder & CEO, Paul Fifield, on how to go from SDR to CRO and £8M of ARR in 5 Years.
Paul - “I guess my first question to you is where did you begin?”
Nazma - “My very first job was in recruitment but for me my career started when I secured my first role as an SDR in a tech business at GenieConnect. I was actually 27 at the time..
I have met a lot of young professionals and graduates who are new to the industry think they need to rush to get to the next step of their career. And the reality is that I really got started when I was 27 years old, and I’ve done just fine.”
Paul - “What's so impressive about you is that you are rapidly self taught. It’s taken me a couple of decades to get to where you've got to in about two years. Did you learn on the job what it takes to be a good SDR?”
Nazma - “When I made the decision that Sales was going to be my gig, I really focused on making it work and being the best at my job. I wasn't the brightest and I wasn't as talented as the others so I knew I just had to work harder.
I'll tell you a story that sums up my time as an SDR.
It was my first week in the role and there were all these young professionals that came in as BDM’s so I was super overwhelmed. On one of my first days on the phones, it gets to 5pm and the only other SDR books a demo. He put the phone down and said, “yeah I booked a demo!!” All the other members of the team were BDM’s and everyone thought he was so amazing.
I sat there and I thought, “oh my god, he's booked a demo” and I had a real sinking feeling.
So I carried on with my calls for 20 minutes and then asked to have access to the American data. That evening the Office cleared up and went home, but I stayed and used that American data. I booked one demo, I booked a second and then I booked a third. So when I came in the next day, he was still bragging about his one booked demo but everyone saw that I had booked three.
In that moment it just clicked for me. Always let the numbers make the noise for you. I'm not as smart, or maybe as articulate as some of the others, I just need to work harder.”
Paul - “I absolutely love that story. Your time at GenieConnect was super successful right?”
Nazma - “I was there for an entire year and I was super happy as an SDR. At the point of my progression the company was acquired by Lanyon. So, during that transition I became an AE. It was then I decided I just couldn't work for a corporate. It just wasn't my thing and I felt like I did when I was in recruitment.
It's really important to be self aware and understand the things that you enjoy and the environments that you enjoy working in－startups are not for everyone. However, I saw how they accelerated people’s careers and I thought I had to work for a startup. So when I left London I was on a mission to find an opportunity working in a startup. Never did I think that it would be as a Head of Sales as the first employee but I guess the world works in interesting ways.”
Paul - “Amazing! So you got the job as Head of Sales at Cognism but effectively you were a 360 AE with the title of Head of Sales. What happened in that first year?”
Nazma - “I think of something that Richard Branson said... “If you're given an opportunity, don't worry about what you don't know, just take the opportunity and learn as you go.” So when I got the job I had no no clue what I was doing, but what I did know was what my CEO (James Isilay) expected of me. My monthly targets were very clear and I learnt as I went along.
To anyone reading I would say, look at the type of job that you want and the opportunity you need to get there. Are you in a company that can provide it? I have people that ask me for advice about becoming a CRO and I tell them to go and explore businesses that will give them the opportunity to grow. And then they go and end up applying for jobs at Microsoft or LinkedIn and that's bonkers! You're not going to have the opportunities you need in those businesses. So I did it. I took the hit to my salary and found somewhere where I could progress.
James also did something very interesting, which I would not encourage other CEO’s to do, but when he got his first round of funding he said to me, ‘Nazma. I've got to be honest with you, we brought you in as a Head of Sales but we're probably going to hire someone more experienced because that is what the investors expect - unless you're able to actually deliver the results.’”
Paul - “And how did you feel when he said that to you?”
Nazma - “I just thought I need to fucking do my job! That's it. I don't care about having a glamorised job title or massive earnings, I just want to deliver. I think this approach worked for me because of my personality.”
Paul - “That was the clear trade: If you hit your goals and your revenue targets, you can stay in this role. And, if you don't, we're gonna have to go and hire someone else?!”
Nazma - “Yeah! Maybe I'm used to this harsh approach because I come from a recruitment background and people are quite harsh and honest, but he just made it very clear that if I miss my targets two months in a row, I'm out.
So, I never missed a target in three and a half years. The only time that I have missed the target was when COVID hit. A huge 50% our pipeline was completely diminished. However, the following month, we had a new pipeline with 70% of it generated in the same month. We were able to hit our target again so I'm very proud of that achievement.”
Paul - “What turned you into such an incredibly consistent performer for many many years?”
Nazma - “I break everything down as daily metrics so that everything is attainable and achievable. When I was an SDR my mentality was to book three meetings a day, every day. It was always a brand new day and I never measured it in weeks or months, and that's what I did as an AE well. Even now as a CRO, all I think about is what I'm going to do next month, and that mentality I think really helped me. You can control what you do on that day if you set short term goals.
Also, it is important to believe in yourself. I've created different processes to help me become better in believing in my success. Every single morning, I wake up and I write three things that I'm grateful for and three things that are going to make my day great. It gives me the positive energy I need to face the day.”
Paul - “How did you know how to create a foundation for a strong team in that first year as VP Sales, to then go on to achieve that second year revenue goal (from 500,000 of arr to 3 million of ARR)?”
Nazma - “I didn't know. What I did do was fail, and I failed quick and fast. I realised early on that I should be hiring one-to-two people at a time and teaching them what I know. Once I had dedicated a lot of time with the two and ensured we were hitting our revenue target, I turned those hires into mentors within a couple of months for the new hires.
I always make it very clear when I hire people that I don't hire for talent specifically. I hire based on whether they can handle the grind, whether they have that grit. I need to understand their drivers because if they’re committed to the role, I can make them a superstar! So I learned that early.”
Paul - “How did you acquire your knowledge, I'm still confused! Did you read books or scour the internet?”
Nazma - “It came from situations where I was challenged. Someone would ask me for a report and I would look on Google for resources, and then just try to figure it out. A lot of it was winging it, but making sure that I executed. And, and that's what I did a lot of. I put in a lot of hard work and I tried and I executed. And if something wasn't good, I wouldn't be on account of not trying or because I shied away.
But I would say there's a lot of resources out there like Saastr, which is a SaaS community. There are also loads of books that you can read. I honestly don't read sales books. I read more about self development because I just think that you really need to evolve your character to be a good leader.”
Paul - “How did you create your incredibly strong and enviable culture?”
Nazma - “The culture that the company is going to have is going to be your culture because you're the first employee. Don't ever look outwards, look inwards, because you are the culture.
Culture comes from the top so you need to lead by example. If you expect people to be working really hard, you need to be the first one in and the last one out. If you expect people to be loyal to you, you need to be loyal to them.”
Paul- “You also create a very good learning and development culture. How did you do this?”
Nazma - “That was totally organic! I never ever hired experienced SDR’s. I only hired graduates. I tried to be very fair in terms of promotion. As an SDR you always had a mentor and someone to support you if you were trying to transition to a new role. I really helped everyone that was transitioning into BDM’s and gave them lots of opportunities, and that in turn they were willing to help other people further down the line. This created a culture of kindness and generosity towards professional development.”
Paul - “Roll forwards now to the end of 2019. You've now got to $7 million of ARR, and been promoted to CRO, which was just an incredible achievement. There's a couple of things I want to talk about in terms of that transition. On a personal note, did you have any challenges being a Pakistani woman in a very male dominated industry?
Nazma - “Recently, what's going on in the world has really got me thinking about my experiences. I think that there could have been situations where I received comments for being a woman, but nothing apparent happened to me. Just because I haven't experienced it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist because these things do happen. But, I think I've been very fortunate not to experience these things.
Now, the reality is that being somebody that is an underrepresented minority means there are situations where you're going to end up having to work harder because you want to be recognised. Regardless of the colour of your skin or your sex, focus being really good at your job. I had the mentality that in order for me to be recognised I just need to work really hard. So I didn't entertain any negative voices and I focused on what was important. Be so good that they can’t ignore you and that they couldn't possibly promote anybody else!
Also I've been given opportunities because I'm a woman. For example, sometimes events would want speakers who looked different, and had different experiences. When the opportunities came to me, I took them. And I think that these situations work to your advantage. People want to have gender equality and racial diversity. It is not to say that somebody else deserved that opportunity more than you - just make the most of every opportunity.”
Paul - “Shifting gears slightly, how did you cope with that transition from being frontline manager, to an executive? What advice would you give to others making that leap?”
Nazma - “You will be in a lot more meetings, and will have less time all round. Your focus will pivet more towards strategy, and data analysis. If you don't like numbers the CRO isn’t the right role for you. There is also less engagement with the wider team. One of my biggest challenges was that I wasn't engaging with people on the front line as much as I used to. Nor was I acting as a mentor in the same way. I of course had meetings with the sales leaders but they were able to just crack on and do the job. I had to learn to shift those relationships.
One tip I would give is to remember that 10% of life is what happens to you and 90% is how you respond to it. I live by this!”
Paul - “That’s fantastic advice! And finally, what’s next for you?”
Nazma - “At the moment I am on a sabbatical. I just felt like I just needed to stop because I've been going for a while, and I didn't know what was next for me. When I was an SDR I knew I wanted to be an AE. Similarly, when I was a VP that I wanted to become CRO - I always knew what was next.
That's the reason why I decided to take a break so I can have some headspace and figure out my next goal. I’ll let you know once I do!”
Catch up on this amazing interview with Nazma Qurban on-demand through our YouTube channel!
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