What can happen when God is at the center of it all with Natalie Born and Sangram Vajre
Words of wisdom for this issue come with Sangram Vajre. Sangram was the head of marketing at Pardot (acquired by ExactTarget and then Salesforce for $2.7B). Soon after, he co-founded Terminus which hit $1M in the first year. Within six years, Terminus raised over $120M, growing to over 300 employees and ranking No. 21 on Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500 list and best places to work. Most recently, Sangram co-founded GTM Partners and is helping companies create efficient growth with modern Go-To-Market playbooks.
Natalie: I’ve interviewed Sangram on my Innovation Podcast, and I’m so excited to bring his words of wisdom to Thrive Today! readers. Sangram, can you tell us a little about your background?
Sangram: I grew up in India for 25 years of my life. I came to America with $350 in my pocket. My brother was here in 2000-2001 and obviously when 9/11 happened, the entire economy of the world went sideways. He came back to India when I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree in Engineering. He said, “You’re not going to get a job. But maybe you should go to the States. It’s a different way of living and educating. Spend the next two years educating yourself. I’ll pay for your application fees, but you’re on your own for everything else.” So that’s how I came here. I chose the University of Alabama and somehow got in.
Natalie: Coming from India to Alabama had to have been a culture shock.
Sangram: Twice. Culture, culture shock. I did learn about hospitality in Alabama. I will never forget this. At McDonald’s, there was a 70- or 80-year-old man holding the door for me, even when I was still on the other side of the road. He held it for at least 30 seconds. I crossed the road wondering, “Is he waiting for someone else? He’s waiting for me?” I always want to remember to hold the door for other people in life because that moment really changed the way I thought about it.
Natalie: That moment sounds like it made an impact. That’s pure southern hospitality. Tell us about your business background. You came from Alabama and then somehow made your way to Atlanta?
Sangram: Obviously, there wasn’t much happening in Tuscaloosa. We used to come to Atlanta almost every weekend just to see what else there was. I got my first job at Deloitte Consulting in Atlanta, which officially took me there.
Natalie: You ended up at Salesforce for a period of time. Then you went and launched a startup and that went really, really well. Then you had this moment where you said, “Hey, I need to go out on my own.” Talk about that path and that journey.
Sangram: At Pardot, my last company where I was running marketing, we got acquired by ExactTarget and then by Salesforce. That was a great experience. We went from 200 people to about 20,000 in a matter of months. Everything just exploded for us. I learned a lot. I stayed there for two years. We hit every single record there for the number of leads we could drive. The head of sales came to me and said, “Sangram, you’re doing such a good job. You and your team are creating so many leads for us. Can you generate an additional 3,000 leads?” I suggested that instead, we should talk about how we could close deals faster, or how to use whatever we already have to drive more conversions. They essentially said, “No, I think we’re good. Just generate more leads.” It just made me think like a coin-operated lead machine and I knew that had to change, which led me to starting a company called Terminus. The story about Terminus is also very fascinating because I met both Eric Spett and Eric Vass, who are the co-founders of Terminus, at one of their pitch practices. I saw them doing pitches at Atlanta Tech Village. I said, “If you can turn that into a product, I think there’s a lot of value in that.” They said, “If you’re so passionate, why don’t you join us as a founder and let’s go do this thing?” I came back and told Manmeet, my wife, “I just met two guys and we’re going to change the world.” The typical story. She said, “Just so you know, we just had our second baby. She’s four weeks old. I’m not working right now; I’ve taken a break. You’re working at Salesforce, which is taking care of things. We’re immigrants. Just remember, we have to keep our immigration status.” I reassured her: “All of that is good. It’s fine! I have to do this. I think it can change things.” After a few weeks, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “All right, Sangram. I can see you want to do this. If you don’t do this, you’re going to regret it. Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to get a job so we can keep things running in the house. We’ll find a daycare for our daughter. But here’s the thing: you have one year. In one year, you show me this thing has legs. Otherwise, you’re going to go find a real job.” Natalie, I think that was the best thing she could’ve done for me. That year, that’s all I focused on. It changed the way we went about everything and our go-to-market strategy.
Natalie: Wow, that’s so powerful. I have always wanted to hear about your backstory as a believer. You’re having all of this success. Where did Christ enter in on this journey you were on, work-wise?
Sangram: After that wonderful year of building Terminus and doing everything, whatever it took, almost a year and a half later, Manmeet came to me and said, “You know, I don’t think you’re the same person anymore. I think we need to separate.” I said, “Wait a minute. Is this not what we agreed on and discussed?” She said, “Yes, but not at the cost of you completely changing who you are.” That took me a while to grasp and it only made me feel angrier about the situation we were in. She was right, which made me even more mad. I knew I was no longer the person I once was. I’d become a lot more prideful. I know what I know and I can do everything; whatever I’m touching is turning to gold. They had changed me from the person who came here with $350 and tried to build things. Now that I was building things, I had forgotten the person she married. We were on the brink of divorce with two kids and everything under the sun, from an American dream perspective, working for us. One day, her mom told her, “Go and talk to your cousin. The cousin in London who was a Sikh before and became Christian.” Manmeet talked to her and, for whatever reason, she felt like it was the first time somebody had prayed for her. She had never had someone pray for her like that. Things started to happen in her life. At that point, we had never heard the name Jesus before. Believe it or not, even after being in the States for 15-plus years at that time, and our neighbors being Christians, we had never heard the name Jesus.
Natalie: It was all around you, but nobody was sharing.
Sangram: Nobody ever shared it. A lot of times you think, we need to go on mission trips and do these grand things. There’s mission life right around us, right in our neighborhoods. We were in all these circles and were never exposed to that. Maybe we weren’t ready, maybe we didn’t hear, maybe nobody tried. But I didn’t know who Jesus was. My wife knew something was happening. One day, when we were having an argument, she said, “I need to take the plank out of my eyes before I tell you what’s wrong with you.” My reaction was, “Where’s that coming from? You can’t fight back on that.” She said, “That’s what Jesus said. You have to take the plank out of your own eye to see clearly to remove the speck from another’s eye.”
I asked, “Who’s Jesus?” as if there was a man she was talking to that I needed to know about. She explained that He’s the person from the Bible. I asked her all kinds of questions and she said, “I don’t have answers for these questions, but I know that Jesus does and I’m going to continue pursuing that.” I said, “I’m Hindu, raised Hindu. You’re Sikh. We don’t need a third religion in order for us to fix our marriage. There has to be a better way.” But she said, “No, I believe in Jesus. I’m pursuing this and I’m not going to quit on you.” That was huge.
Natalie: That was huge. After saying, “We’re done” to “I’m not going to quit.” You knew something in the middle had changed.
Sangram: Yes, something big. As I was traveling, I literally picked up the King James version of the Bible at the airport. The airport Bibles do sell for people like me! I picked it up and started reading it. Obviously, the King James version is hard to read. Then I found the NIV Bible so I could understand it. I kept going through it, all in the pursuit to prove her wrong. I still wasn’t there. The pride in me was so high that I wanted to prove her wrong; then the debate would be over and we could move on. If I’m pursuing the truth, I just want the truth. I don’t care what the truth is. I bought Vedas and read Hindu scriptures for the first time. I bought a Quran. I purchased everything I could. I bought a ton of books, listened to a bunch of videos and podcasts and then finally decided to create a list. One night, about six months into everything, I sat down and drew a straight line down the middle of a piece of paper and wrote two categories: “Why I should believe,” and “Why I should not believe.” I started to write and write and write in the “Why I should believe” column. I eventually grew tired of writing in that column, so I decided to start writing in the “Why I should not believe” category. It was blank. I couldn’t write anything on that side of the page. That day was the first day for me where things changed. This is all intellectual. There were so many spiritual things that were starting to happen in our lives, but intellectually, I felt like if you’re putting things together and purely seeking the truth, it would be crazy not to see the truth in front of you. You have all the historical records, the details around it, and the reason why Jesus came and died. When you distill it down, there’s nothing like this that I could even compare to. That restored our marriage. We both truly became evangelists for it and for each other.
Natalie: You started seeking together. That’s an amazing story—that it was your wife who led you to Christ.
Sangram: Her transformation is my testament. I knew her before that time for almost 20 years. We have so much history together. I knew her. If there was a change, I knew that change wasn’t temporary. There was a new creation happening without even going through all of it. Nobody was telling us anything, nobody was talking about it. It was just happening in our lives, right in our living room, without somebody talking to us. It was the craziest thing that we were experiencing.
Natalie: There’s a blog you wrote, one of the featured posts you have, where you highlight some of your near failures. What was the fire that said, “I want to start my own thing and do it differently?” How did you jump out of the boat and walk on water, even though it’s terrifying?
Sangram: It is, and it still is. Manmeet will always joke, “I know you’re going to continue to keep starting because this is who you are. It’s in your DNA.” What’s interesting about the new business I started is that the five people we have are praying every time we meet. We’re doing it differently. Before we go into a workshop, we pray and say, “Let this be you, God. Help us do the best work of our lives here.” It’s just a different level of outcome that we’re seeking as opposed to a pure play financial outcome. Right now, when you see companies doing layoffs like crazy, company CEOs talk about laying off 25 percent of people to show that they have growth over “X” percentage; but in January, you’re going to hire about 10 percent of them back. That’s just playing with lives. I think it’s all rooted in not understanding the value of a life. I think now that I’m starting a new business, I’m not going to do anything just because I want to show something, or be the fastest growing company or achieve some label. We just want to do things right. That’s what we’re trying to do now.
Natalie: That’s impactful. What is the best business advice you’ve ever gotten? And what’s the worst?
Sangram: The best advice, which I think I’ve learned, is that being intentional is way more important than being brilliant. A lot of people think they’re brilliant, and they probably are, but if they’re not international in their area, in their lane of genius—whatever God has instilled in them—they will just be fluttering around for the rest of their lives and never achieve the significance they want to have. The worst advice I’ve received is that you can achieve anything in life that you want. The truth is that you’re going to achieve anything in life that you want, but not all at the same time.
Natalie: That’s really important for people to hear. We’re told we can have it all. When we try to, we find ourselves wanting.
Sangram: You can’t. You can’t have a better life, a better family, a better job, etc., all at the same time. If you want all of it, you have to sacrifice something. You have to understand that different things can be important at different times. You can’t have everything in life all at the same time. Chances are, it’s not going to happen. It’s a hard truth.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
I hope you enjoyed this powerful interview with my friend Sangram Vajre. I wanted him to encourage you, ignite passion for God-breathed ideas you are working on and show you that you don’t have to follow everyone else’s plan and path to be successful and he’s done just that. He has changed the game for himself and his family, putting God at the center. You can too. Let his story spur you on!
This article was extracted from issue 8 of Thrive Today! Journal (Winter 2023).