(Photo by Sam Markowitz)
This article is sponsored by Odessa and was reviewed before publication.
As humble startup origin stories go, Odessa CEO and cofounder Madhu Natarajan has a great one to tell you about his leasing software company: He started it on a shoestring budget in an Illinois college dorm room in 1998 while in the United States from India on a student visa.
More than 20 years later, Odessa, named in homage to Homer’s “The Odyssey,” has made its own epic journey from designing simple mobile finance calculators to becoming a software leader in the niche equipment leasing industry (think fleets of trucks, aviation, IT and medical equipment). Today, the company has more than 650 employees between its Center City Philadelphia headquarters and its offices in Bangalore, India, which Natarajan says he makes an effort to visit a few times per year.
“I go just enough to make sure they recognize who I am when I go there, and the guy at the entrance lets me in,” he jokes.
With about 75% of Odessa’s customer base in the U.S., staying anchored out of the company’s Philly HQ is strategic. Natarajan remains very involved in the customer experience, from the initial sales cycle through ongoing touchpoints in customer support, and that personal touch pays off.
“If you look at our financials, 40% of our top line comes from new customers,” Natarajan said. “In our industry that is not normal.”
Around the Philadelphia office, Natarajan’s personal touch shows, too. New Odessa employees discover that their boss has some cheffing skills and enjoys whipping up annual feasts for the entire 60-person team to fuel and reward their hard work.
As Odessa prepares to both double its Philadelphia team and move into a new Two Liberty Place office, Natarajan is thinking a lot about what makes a candidate stand out to him as Odessa material. We talked to him about what means.
“I look for authenticity and a sense of being grounded,” says Natarajan. “Yes, of course we’re also looking for experience, aptitude, a sense of intellectual curiosity and a willingness to learn, but we want to hire people that understand how to navigate a high-growth, fluid environment with grit and grace.”
Odessa has grown and changed so much over 20 years. How does that feel?
That last few years we’ve seen some acceleration for sure, but I think that acceleration is more psychological. From a personal standpoint, it just feels like another year at Odessa. This is just normal to me even though every single year the company has been different.
How do you make sure Odessa stands apart from others in the industry?
What separates us from our competitors is our mindset, it’s just ingrained in us that we need to continuously build something better or do something differently.
You mentioned intellectual curiosity as key to working at Odessa. Why is that so important to you?
The reason intellectual curiosity is important is because you’re often jumping into a new client business that you have no idea about and you are essentially telling them how to run their business, so you need to love to learn.
You have a lot of growth planned for Odessa and the Philadelphia office over the next couple of years. What are some of your goals?
We intend to disrupt the heck out of this industry, and to do that I need bandwidth and muscle. We’re changing how this industry operates, and that’s what Odessa is going to be known for. We’re opening up Europe this year, and we’ve started to put all the pieces together to move into additional global markets, so we need to test the establishment of our brand in these marketplaces. The niche that we have in the U.S. can be replicated anywhere! And for that we need people.
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