The first thing that distinguishes a successful startup from an unsuccessful one is the people. You need to start with a team that can challenge the status quo in a very meaningful way. Secondly, I would advise to obsess over customer pains and relieving that pain. Work your way up to defining a product that can relieve their pain well.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Venkat Venkataramani.
Venkat Venkataramani is CEO and co-founder of Rockset. He was previously an Engineering Director in the Facebook infrastructure team responsible for all online data services that stored and served Facebook user data. Prior to Facebook, Venkat worked on the Oracle Database.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Looking back at my journey, I feel like I’ve been building databases all my life. I grew up in Trichy, a small town in southern India, located by the banks of the river Cauvery. I started off building databases in graduate school at UW-Madison for a project.
In the early 2000s, I was a RDBMS developer at Oracle, working in the Server Technologies group, where I had a chance to work with some of the most prolific RDBMS experts and learn a lot. In 2007, I went to work for Facebook and eventually led all online data infrastructure there. My team built all the online data management systems that powered Facebook’s user-facing products. When I left in 2015, these systems collectively served more than 5 billion requests every second. I was thrilled to be a part of those hyper-growth years, and that is also where I saw a lot of movement from batch-based systems to real-time.
Since then, I have been working on Rockset trying to simplify the process of building massive-scale real-time data applications in the cloud.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
When I left Facebook in 2015, I spent a year interviewing 40+ companies — most of which were outside the FAANG Silicon Valley bubble. I would spend hours talking to VPEs, heads of data analytics and CTOs to deeply understand what problems they were tackling. This allowed me to develop a deeper appreciation of the sheer amount of complexity enterprises were facing when building modern data applications at massive scale. These modern data applications needed a database that is both fast and massively scalable. But traditional database technologies were stuck in the OLTP for speed and data warehouses for scale dichotomy. Both those choices seemed outdated for massive-scale real-time apps since OLTP systems are extremely challenging to scale and data warehouses are too slow and expensive to power apps.
If I ever had an “aha moment,” it was when I realized the inherent pain and complexity involved in building large-scale real-time data applications using traditional data management systems.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My parents played a huge role in swaying my decision to pursue entrepreneurship. My father was also an entrepreneur, but he didn’t have a penny of venture capital. He quit an entirely comfortable job and started his company all by himself. Leading a startup is hard, but it never felt impossible to me because I’d seen everything that he and my mom went through. She deserves equal credit; it was often her wages that were putting food on the table and paying the rent. Any struggles I’m dealing with are nothing compared to the battles they’ve fought. When I was 11 or 12, I remember asking him, “Why are you doing this?” Having a regular job just seemed so much easier. He said, “There are 70 people who have good jobs because I chose to take this risk, and 70 families who have good homes. I get more satisfaction from that than I ever would from even the highest-paying job.” I still remember everything about that moment, down to where I was sitting. It took me a decade or two, but now I fully understand what he meant.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The thing that sets Rockset apart is our team and our mission. We were tremendously lucky to start with a team of really amazing people early-on in our journey. Good talent attracts great talent, since folks want to be challenged and learn from the best, and it spirally goes upwards from there. Our company’s culture of being open and transparent comes from the inherent trust everyone has with each other. This also translates to how everyone helps each other and holds one another accountable to high standards. Our team is the true source of all my confidence and optimism about our future.
We are on a mission to eliminate all complexity from building massive-scale data applications. If you can dream it, you should be able to build it. Application developers should be bottlenecked on their creativity and not on what their data infrastructure can do for them. We want to build something useful, that we are uniquely qualified to build, and put it in the hands of as many people as possible. Our strength also comes from the fact that we are relentlessly focused on the long-term.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
You bring forth impact in the world by creating something really useful that only you are uniquely capable of building, and then maximizing its reach. That’s how you spark real change. The more useful your creation is, the more people will use it and when more people use it, you will have a bigger impact. The most amazing, world-changing technologies are not those that help the smartest or the strongest but those that help everyone and become the ultimate equalizers.
A bulldozer is a great example of a world changing technology. Anybody can learn how to operate one, and any individual can move as much earth during an eight-hour shift as somebody ten times stronger than them. That just simply isn’t possible without a bulldozer, and that’s why it’s the ultimate equalizer.
Even if you look at the product we’re building here at Rockset, there are a lot of core ideas that stem from this perspective. For instance, many products we compete against have their own domain-specific query language which only a small percentage of people in the world know. On the other hand, the whole world speaks SQL when they want to talk data, so we decided to make SQL the query language for Rockset.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I don’t think of leadership as successful or unsuccessful. Success is almost always how the world evaluates your work, but it doesn’t capture progress, growth and development. If there is a single trait that has helped me the most, I’d say it’s having an obsessive growth mindset. When you have a relentless pursuit of excellence in anything you do, success has a way of following you as opposed to distracting you.
Aside from that, I would say you need to know what your strengths are and what you can work to improve. Self-realization is key when it comes to determining those aspects about yourself, which in turn leads to growth. More importantly, you should be aware of what kinds of leaders you need to hire to have a strong team, so that you’re not just hiring people with the same blind spots and weaknesses that you have. Actively seek to bring on folks that complement you and maximize the cognitive diversity within your teams.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Unless someone’s advice personally and strongly resonates with you, you shouldn’t start following it. Advice from others can either be a blessing or a curse. I’m skeptical by default and only tend to follow advice if it makes sense to me, and I view advice as others pointing me in the right direction rather than telling me what path I should take. Think of advice as more of a compass as opposed to a trail map! It’s important that you take ownership of your decisions.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
COVID hit us right when we were starting to scale our company and sales. It threw a lot of uncertainty and anxiety our way. We decided to double down on our product during that time and it paid off well. In Q2 2020, our product got a lot better and by Q3, our GTM was off to the races and we closed our Series B in October of 2020. A lot happened in those 3 quarters, and I am really proud of our team and how we responded to the challenge.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
It goes back to my earlier answer of building a world class team! Our team is always the source of all my confidence and optimism, even during the most challenging moments.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
As a founder, things are never as awesome or as bad as they seem to be. I would advise any entrepreneur to have a culture that celebrates successes, but in a measured way. The same goes for the opposite as well — when things are really difficult, you need to have the trust in your team to be able to openly share the challenges and work with them without feeling insecure that they’re going to take a step back from the collective mission. Be authentic on both ends, and don’t get too ahead of yourself with just a few moments of success. Be the gyroscope for your team.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Think about what kind of company you are building. Not every company needs to be venture backed. If it’s going to be venture backed, you should be chasing a large market in which you can see your company growing at a level where VCs get the kind of returns they expect. My biggest piece of advice here would be to make sure that venture backing is the right way to build the business that you and your team are envisioning. There are so many ways to get capital and start a business, and not all companies should be venture backed.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
The first thing that distinguishes a successful startup from an unsuccessful one is the people. You need to start with a team that can challenge the status quo in a very meaningful way. Secondly, I would advise to obsess over customer pains and relieving that pain. Work your way up to defining a product that can relieve their pain well. Next, make sure you have the right partners in terms of investors, who are aligned with how you want to go through this journey. If you have the wrong investors, your milestones are going to be very different than what you initially mapped out for the future of your organization. If your investor wants a different trajectory and they’re evaluating you on a different bar, it gets tough! You not only have to be aligned with those you bring onto your team, but your partners as well. Lastly, I would say to really focus on your growth mindset and maximizing cognitive diversity within your teams.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think I would say a common mistake CEOs and founders tend to make is not breaking down the company building process. Phase one typically involves a lot of R&D, phase two is all about product-market fit, phase three is scaling execution and then so on. I think it’s easy to get paralyzed with phase two or phase three problems when you’re still on phase one. Really learn to embrace the stage you’re in. It’s almost like playing a video game: don’t use the tricks or tactics you need to defeat level three when you’re still playing in level one. Similarly, if you break down the company building process into phases, you can think through a lot of things in simpler, easier terms.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
This really depends on what stage of your life you’re in and how you personally define wellness. For me, starting a company was not a simple decision, nor was it an individual decision. My wife and I had many discussions and have a mutual understanding of how we both achieve balance, even if I’m working long hours. In my home, there’s a Friday 6:00pm cutoff which lasts until Sunday night, in which I try my best to step away from work unless it’s an absolute exception. All in all, pursuing the startup life was not my decision, but my family’s decision as a whole. My kids are old enough to understand the difference between work and play time now as well. They have this little box outside their bedroom, and when I go to read them a book in the evening or spend time with them, they say, “Leave your phone here!” Having those rituals really helps you transition off from work to family time.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would push to make top-tier tech jobs accessible to anystudent in the world with internet access. Students shouldn’t have to go to an Ivy League school or a place where top tech companies have a deep university recruitment program.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to sit down for a meal with MS Dhoni, the cricketer. I am a huge fan of his leadership style and he always brings out the best in his team. I would love to learn how to build a world class team from him.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!