Today, we’re introducing Neil Patil, our newest addition to the core team. With over 20 years of experience helping major brands and startups produce results, Neil will be helming Reaction Commerce’s strategy and operations as our Chief Operating Officer. Prior to joining us, Neil held an executive leadership role at Fluid, a digital retail SaaS solution which eventually got acquired by IBM (where he worked for a brief stint). He is currently based in the Bay Area, where he lives with his wife and two hypoallergenic dogs. We asked Neil a few questions about his professional journey, and TL;DR: he’s absolutely gung-ho about 1) his mom, 2) fulfilling the needs of an ever-changing customer market, and 3) multi-pitch rock climbs.
How did you get to where you are today as COO of Reaction Commerce?
As I was meeting the team, some of the Board members were saying, “Wow, we looked at your resume on LinkedIn, and it seemed like such a perfect fit.” It does make sense, when I look back on my career. The things I’ve done in my past have paid off and led me to where I am today.
I’ve been through two streams. First, there’s the continual expansion of my skills across functional areas. At General Mills, I learned how to be a productive teammate, how to lead teams, and how to bring products to market through their management training program. Since then, I’ve gotten more experience, initially in marketing at Oracle, Activant (now Epicor), and Brio Software, and then at startups leading overall business strategy, customer success, supporting, engineering, and development. I’ve combined all these experiences across all these different functions around leading software businesses, and that’s where I can help Reaction Commerce overall.
Second one is my domain experience in retail. Over the last 12 years, I’ve had deep experience in innovating new technologies and capabilities for retail overall. For instance, I led a company that innovated for large retail chains in pricing products at their shelf edge. Back then, a store person was actually printing out 50,000 labels and manually labeling the shelves. We pioneered digital label pricing solutions. At a company that helped over 30,000 small to mid-size business retailers, I learned everything about their needs competing with larger brands. I took these insights and helped them improve their commerce capabilities, analytics, and more. I also have experience with machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data analytics. Recently, I worked at a startup where we built the first intelligence-based conversational commerce solution, which was used by North Face and 1-800 Flowers.
If you take all that combined experience, both functional and domain-based, to me it was a perfect fit for Reaction Commerce. What attracted me wasn’t just the team and the culture, but the notion that we would be continually rethinking commerce. That’s really what I enjoyed about pioneering new applications in the past: thinking about the problem as a retailer and breaking through to create new business solutions. That’s continual innovation.
Why do you prefer working with early-stage startups? What are you some of the fears that come with it?
At a startup, we’re all creators. We’re creating new ways of doing things minute by minute, from product to processes, and we approach the market differently than how an established company would. Startups naturally attract the types of people who are comfortable dealing with gray areas. These are people who enjoy the type of environment where they can change and innovate without waiting 2 weeks for something to get approved.
A few general fears of mine—when you try brand new things, you have to make the market believe that it’s going to help them. That requires time, money, and trust. The old saying goes, “The pioneers take all the arrows, and the settlers take all the land.” I don’t really have the fear of product-market fit with Reaction Commerce. We understand that the way of doing things can’t just be the way going forward because of the major technical advancements that have happened in the last 5-7 years. There needs to be a new platform in the marketplace.
Other fears would be culture. It’s one thing to be smart and have experience, but it’s another to be a productive part of a team. Culture is about doing the right thing for the marketplace, and seeing that mission align around the values we express while working together. I thought about this going into Reaction, and after the last few weeks here, I now know that to be true.
You’ve been here a few weeks now. What are some of the exciting things you’ll be tackling first?
I’m trying to strike a balance between listening, learning, understanding points of view, and interjecting recommendations with the team as I learn. As a leader in the company, I want to continue to shepherd the culture and have discussions with the team.
From a business standpoint, I’m focused on taking what is a very well-incubated product, one that thoughtfully leverages the right technology and has gained the interest of business users and developers, and bringing it to market in a launch. How do you take this great product that is open source and scale it while being fair to our market and customers? It’s the the way we price, package, support, and communicate with our customers. We have an extremely engaging community, but my job is to make sure we turn our platform into a scaleable business. Otherwise, none of us can be successful—our community, our partners, our employees.
Taking on leadership roles can be a challenge. How do you avoid burnout? Do you have any rituals you like to perform?
Right now, I’m working 24/7, but that’s not always the case. I guess it’s not fun, but to be honest, I’ve never been good at being in the moment when I’m really into work. I’ve certainly improved on it, but my mind wanders back to the problems I’m solving. The way I’ve combated this is by doing things that naturally get me out of that mode, so that means leaving my phone behind when I hike, backpack, rock climb, or take the dogs out with my wife. I also shut down work-related conversations with family and friends, which can be a challenge, so I’m still trying to figure that out. I think we can all relate: if you’re mind’s wandering, regardless of what you’re doing, you’re not being a participant in the way you want to. if you’re thinking about something else, then you might as well just work!
Do you have any personal or professional principles you live by?
I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, period. If you start off believing and trusting people, then you’re likely to have better relationships and a better life. I also always believe in focusing on the customer problem.
Did you have any role models that led you to where you are today? Who influences you now?
At the risk of sounding cliche, my role model was my mom. She was a nurse who eventually ran all of nursing for VA. When I was 10, I remember visiting my mom at her workplace and seeing her in a different light. When I walked in there, I was like, “Wow.” She had the persona of a boss. The staff was eager to meet me, and told me so many great things about my mom. She was this highly respected individual, and it was amazing how she operated on a daily basis both at home and at work. She had high expectations and told things like they were, but was extremely fair and compassionate. I hope to carry on these same values.
What’s a piece of advice you would give your younger self?
Don’t join startups. Just kidding. Um, I’m kind of happy with how things turned out? But I guess what I’m learning as I get older, and what other people tell me, is this: “Don’t take work too seriously, Neil.” I still do, though. It kinda consumes me. That’s just who I am.
My wife jokes that when I get into new things, I don’t just get into it, I get way, way into it. When I started sailing 10 years ago, I had never ridden a boat before. Then I took a lesson, and in a matter of 6 months, I was racing across the San Francisco Bay. When I got into rock climbing 5 years ago, my son had bought me a guided trip with him for a nice weekend outdoors. Now, you’ll find me doing multi-pitch climbs at Yosemite and in the Sierras. I tend to take things all the way to the end, I guess, and the same thing happens with work.
Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
I’ve always seen commerce platforms being the bane of innovation. Just last week, I heard from a big retailer saying that they were falling behind in innovation because of the legacy platform they just couldn’t get off of. What we’re coming out with is a platform that truly delivers on the things that you’ve always wanted to do—through dynamic personalization, intelligent merchandising, real-time analytics—and with speed and agility.
To learn even more about Neil, check out the full press release.