Although she has built a career as a sales professional, eventually becoming the UiPath sales team leader in Asia and then globally, Andra-Malina Platon, strikes me as the (tech) entrepreneurial type. It was Malina’s passion for technology and love for the product that shaped her career ever since stepping into her first business development role, at Intel, right from the university benches.
“I never dreamt of becoming a salesperson. As a child and as a teenager, I had this image that salespeople have the role of convincing others to do something that they don’t want to do. Growing up in the Romanian ‘90’s economy, I also didn’t have many examples of what modern sales means. But things have turned differently because I discovered my passion for technology and that was a turning point. I found my sweet point at the intersection of sales and technology,” she tells me.
A few years later, on the board of then Romania-based UiPath’s fast-sailing ship, she ventured into uncharted waters, building the startup’s presence in Asia. Her curiosity and people-centric approach were key assets in building long-term customer and partner relationships, as well as a ticket to her eventual relocation to Singapore. Southeast Asian cultures are known for planning long-term and placing relationships high up on the business agenda.
Today, Malina advises startups in Southeast Asia and Central and Eastern Europe to build for global expansion. She is still an evangelist of what she sees as the technologies of the future, a supporter of leveling the playing field for women in tech, and a believer that life is a constant learning journey.
Next, Andra Malina Platon shares tips from her sales playbook, differences between the startup ecosystems in Asia, Europe, and the US that struck her, and what can help Southeast European startups on their scaling journey.
The Recursive: How would you describe your 6 years in the UiPath sales team, taking on progressively higher responsibilities?
Andra Malina Platon: Life changing. I feel this both on a personal and professional level. I had the opportunity to join UiPath when it consisted of a small team of 30 people in Romania, so I was part of the original sales team. At that point in time, there were only two other colleagues who were doing everything sales and marketing related. Together with them and another colleague who joined a month after me, we built everything related to sales, marketing, and customer interaction. It was a fantastic journey because we launched new markets, raised funding rounds, and became a global company, all in a very short period.
And that meant that every four to five months my role changed, the territory I was covering changed, and my responsibilities expanded. If you are in an early stage startup – and that’s the advice that I’m trying to give to the startups that I’m working with right now – you’re in a very fortunate position. Because you are part of the team that is going to shape the course of the company, and if you have a growth mindset, you’re not limited by anything. When I joined the UiPath sales team, I didn’t have experience in managing global markets, nor in managing various cross-functional teams. But it was an opportunity I wanted to take.
Eventually, I started to manage partners across all Europe and APAC. In 2017, we opened offices across Asia, so, being one of the first salespeople, I started traveling, hiring, training, mentoring, and coaching the new sales teams, for them to become self-sufficient and independent in their territories. And because I have always been curious to know more about the other side of the world, I began expanding my role across India, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand – all across APAC.
This was a new, exciting territory for UiPath around 2017-2018. It was very difficult at that point to hire in these countries, because UiPath was not an established brand there. So my strategy was to use UiPath culture, the company’s values and the product value to convince very talented people to join the company.
These people were much more experienced and senior than me, which made it sound like a mission-impossible at first. I was 28-29 at that point in time and I had to hire and manage people who had more years of experience than I had birthdays.
But I think what really made the experience exciting was this element of “if I’m not going to try now, nobody’s going to tell me when to do it and how to do it”. I had to take a leap of faith in building different teams and going through different roles, which involved a lot of risk.
Are there any best practices in your sales playbook that you’d like to mention?
More recently, I started to think about this discipline when I joined the UiPath sales team. Usually, while you are in a startup, and a startup like UiPath, where things are moving so fast, you are almost on fast-forward. You only have time to execute, execute, execute. There is very limited time for planning, thinking, going deep – you need to make so many decisions in such a short period of time and every day is important.
When I left UiPath, from February onwards I started evaluating my experience more carefully. I’ve never considered myself a good salesperson, however, people around me, customers and partners, considered me to be a very good salesperson. And I think this was because what I enjoyed and what the people around me enjoyed was our genuine interaction. I was interested in their problems and challenges and had a genuine desire to help them, to go with them through the journey of understanding how UiPath technology can help them.
But in my mind, all these steps did not mean sales, because going back to what I was saying earlier, for me sales originally meant a very transactional relationship, where you have a very precise, objective end goal.
Yet what made me a successful salesperson was the relationships that I managed to build with the people around me.
No matter if we call it sales, business consulting or business development, I think this focus on relationships is what makes businesses move forward. I have a very vivid memory of when we used to ask customers who selected us in different contexts versus competition, what made them select UiPath. And there were two main reasons: people and product.
It’s refreshing to hear this human-focused and relationships-focused perspective on sales.
For me, it was even more important to consider the human social aspect because I was supposed to do sales in a culturally different region, which I knew nothing about. Anywhere you talk business in Asia, whether it’s China, South Korea, or India, building long-term partnerships and engagements matters. Of course, everyone cares about revenues and other business KPIs, but these are goals which are always changing. I’m a true believer that human-to-human relationships are the ones which move companies forward. An important personal lesson for me was to have more patience and openness when listening, instead of just moving towards my daily, monthly or quarterly goals.
Did you note any other particular differences between the startup ecosystems in Asia, Europe, and the US?
I started to look at the differences between startup ecosystems from February 2022 onwards, as I was trying to learn and understand what differentiates the mentality of founders from Europe vs US vs Southeast Asia. If I look from a maturity perspective, of course, it’s obvious that the US is the most mature tech ecosystem and an example that Southeast Asian and European startups are aspiring towards. A lot of the startups that I am meeting are looking to expand into the US as their first international market, due to the size and the abundance of funding options.
Nevertheless, I think there are a lot of opportunities right now coming from Central and Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, too. And I do find a lot of similarities between these two regions. A lot of interest in deep tech, interest from the corporate world, but also from the government space to support the tech ecosystem. If I look back to when UiPath was an early-stage startup, there wasn’t much traction here, but in the last 6-7 years things have changed, unicorns emerged, companies went public, and hopefully this will encourage more success stories.
A difference that I see quite often between US, European, and Asian companies is the ambition or willingness to become a global company. In the US, it’s almost natural for startups to want to become global companies, fast. In Europe, the willingness and ambition are more moderate. Even Europe is quite a fragmented territory, so going into different countries in Europe involves some challenges. But when it comes to Asia, this ambition is even lower than in Europe and I think a lot of the reasons are linked to how society and education are being built here. There is a lot of debate nowadays, in Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries, about helping children and teenagers to be bolder, more ambitious and entrepreneurial. I think this is what the US, and some European countries have been doing very well from early ages.
You recently embarked on a new career path, as investor, strategic advisor and mentor for startups and scaleups. What do you like about it, and what startups are you working with?
I have been looking at this period as a learning opportunity for me to share my experience from UiPath to the startups that I am supporting. I’m working with pre-seed and seed stage startups, helping them understand if they have a product-market fit, what is their positioning versus the competition, what is their value proposition, and how they can go to market. I am also working with startups that are a bit more advanced, Series A, looking to raise a series B, or beyond. These startups have raised enough capital to now want to expand from Romania to other countries and other regions. I help them identify which are those countries and build a go-to-market strategy for those countries.
The type of startup that I’ve been generally working with so far has been very naturally linked to digital transformation and automation. Most of them have a component of optimizing work, doing work more efficiently, no matter if they are fintech, medtech, or manufacturing. I can see a trend that UiPath has built in terms of how people perceive work, and how companies think about work internally and externally. It’s encouraging to see this because there are so many opportunities for improvement across all industries.
One area which I have started to look into recently is cybersecurity. Especially in countries like Singapore, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, cybersecurity is a very hot topic, both for government and for enterprise customers. I haven’t been working so far in this area, but it’s a very exciting space, which is growing tremendously.
The world keeps getting faster. Can you speak to when insanely fast growth is needed (blitzscaling) and what can improve the chances of startups from Southeast Europe to reach massive scale fast?
I think UiPath even beat this concept. Things happened so fast, that no one was really able to name the phase we were in, we were just moving ahead. Everything had to be done yesterday. But if I’m looking at companies that really want to scale fast and consider that moving fast would confer an advantage, there are a few elements which I have in mind.
An important one, which was a lesson I took from my experience in the UiPath sales team, is to build a company for the future. I know this sounds counterintuitive, and maybe opposite to blitzscaling, because you think of blitzscaling as taking actions very fast.
But if you want to move very fast, you need to put it into balance what is going to happen tomorrow. And you need to have the fundamentals in place; that means having a solid company culture that is able to attract top talent in the long term to attract top talent.
One action you need to take in this sense is to hire the right people at the right moment. You can have the best strategies and the best product, but if you don’t have the people who will put this strategy in practice and push the product into different markets, then it’s almost impossible to be successful. So, my recommendation in this sense is to define a clear company culture and hire the right people at the right time.
This really matters, because in a startup that is growing very fast, you need different people for different stages. You’ll need people with more generic skills in the beginning, to do a bit of everything. But as the company matures and becomes ready to become a public company, skills become more specialized. So then you need people who are very good at specific tasks. The nature of building teams becomes more complex compared to the first years.
Are there other risks to scaling and how can startups avoid them?
I think the challenge is to identify the right moment when a company should become regional or international. What I’m seeing as one of the main challenges in this area is that a lot of companies are quickly thinking that they want to become a regional company, but before they even have a tested product and a clear value proposition, which would differentiate them from competition. So in that context, it’s very difficult to go to other markets where no one knows you.
My advice is not to hurry, and to be product-first. Companies need to have a very clear product vision before thinking about scaling and even before building a sales strategy.
As a woman in tech, what do you think of women’s representation in the tech startup and venture capital worlds? What are the current obstacles for women in this field, and how can we address them?
There is ongoing interest in a lot of the countries that I’ve been working and living in. It’s good to see that more and more ecosystems, either in the investment space, startups, government, or enterprise companies, are looking to build programs and awareness around women in tech.
I’ve been meeting quite a lot of female angel investors and women at venture capital firms in Singapore, which is a very diverse country, socially and culturally. But if I look at the founder ecosystem, there are more things left to improve. In Southeast Asia, there aren’t too many female founders yet, and if I look at Central and Eastern Europe, I would say the same, or at least I haven’t interacted with too many women founders there.
There is a lot to improve in terms of the support that women get early in their education and their career, from the moment they start thinking about building their business and raising their first fund. I put this forward as a challenge for Eastern European VCs to start thinking about building programs that empower women early on. I think it would be very beneficial for the entire ecosystem to gain more diversity.