A very small subset of my friends knew what I was actually doing for the past 2 years. In June 2011, I quit National Instruments(NI) to join a startup, but I left that within a month to pursue some of my ideas. The journey since then has been pretty good. I thought of sharing the same with others
I was very excited that I will be starting a company along with Arjun (ex-colleague from NI) - Refer a Geek. It was a crowd sourcing platform to find talented engineers. In recruitment, referral model has proven to be the best mode so far for all companies. Our idea was to take this referral model beyond any one company. When I discussed this with a lot of people, the feedback was positive. I started building the web app and hosted it on a Linode instance (they are pretty good). We released it on Ganesh Chaturthi (September 5th). I started sending out invitations and I was eagerly waiting for people to accept the invites and in turn, invite their friends. I did not sleep that night. Tracking numbers was really exciting, This went on for several days. Whenever I was not at home, I used my mobile to check the user stats. I used to be very happy whenever there was a steep slope and equally sad when the numbers were stagnant.
I can say that I was paranoid about the status of the server. I used to check if the server was up or not every now and then. If I look back, I tend to laugh at it In the meanwhile, I was getting constant feedback from users of the site. Many felt that the concept was great and many others simply loved the UI. I was happy that many were liking it. Till then there were no companies associated with Refer a Geek. This was a chicken and egg problem. Unless there are enough people in the network, companies would not be interested and unless there are enough companies associated, users would not be keen on joining the network. So I was waiting for the member count to reach a figure so that I could start talking to companies about Refer a Geek. I had no clue about how the next few weeks would be.
I started talking to several product companies. This was the first time I realized that HR in most of the companies are not approachable at all. Getting to talk to them was like a privilege. They would reply to emails after a week or two. They would ask me to get back to them after a few days every single time I called them. I was lucky enough to talk to some startups where I could directly talk to the founders and they understood the concept better and I must say it was a good starting point. I had created a job board where companies can post their openings. I created logins for some of the startups which signed up for Refer a Geek. Struggle with big companies continued to go on for several weeks. Many of my friends helped me get in touch with recruiters at their companies, but only a handful of them responded. I was running out of connections and there were not enough companies on the job board yet. I was waiting for decisions from several comapanies. In the mean time, some of the members started applying for jobs listed in Refer a Geek. I was happy about it, but it didn't last for long. Some of the companies insisted that we schedule the interviews with candidates as well. I didn't want to do it initially, but I convinced myself that there is nothing wrong in doing it since the numbers were small initially and if the numbers grew drastically, I could hire someone to do the same. I started scheduling interviews for candiadates who applied for some openings, very little did I realize that applicants can take you for a ride. If they have other/better offers, they tend to take subsequent interviews very lightly, they are not punctual w.r.t time, they don't respond properly, they don't show any interest in the company. I was totally clueless about all these until I saw them myself. For them it is just another company, but for Refer a Geek, reputation was at stake. Not to forget, before having any offer, these very guys write to you several times!
There was another problem at hand, several companies would judge candidates entirely based on resume / CV. In spite of us stressing on the fact that a candidate is good but he/she does not have the tags(It can be IIT, NIT or some other company previously worked for) they are looking for, they were not willing to talk to them. It was very frustrating. The same folks who were not considered good at one company because of the lack of previously mentioned tags, ended up working for better companies. I really appreciate Google, Facebook and the likes who do not care where you come from. If they feel that a candidate is good, they do everything to take you on board. Adding to that, if some organization states that they do not have the time to interview a lot of candidates, they can use online code checking tools like interview street which do a good level of filtering.
Several months had passed, Refer a Geek was not turning out to be as expected. It was my 5th month without any earnings and my bank balance was coming down at a constant rate I had struck a deal with my parents - if I don't earn enough by March 2012, I will start working somewhere. I was trying to extend that period by earning a little. The first thing that came to my mind was to do some free lancing. So I created a profile on Elance. We generally have to bid for projects.The person who has posted the project will review all the candidates and then assign the project to one of them. So building a profile is very important here. When I started, I could not get any large projects because of no history of projects/rating, which others had. I did bid for some large projects but the attempt was futile. So I had to start small. I went through all the postings and found someone asking for some help in his Python assignment. Sent him a proposal. He was confident enough to assign the project in spite of me having no track record on Elance. I finished the assignment in a matter of few hours and I see a 5 star rating on my profile. He was happy. I continued bidding for projects. Within a day or two, a PhD student from Australia wanted an image processing tool written in Python and Qt with some filters. I finished this in about two days. With these two projects, I had earned about $200 that month. Even though it was like 5 - 10 times less than my previous salary, I was happy with that.
W.r.t. Refer a Geek, many HR folks were on leave during December and January. I wanted to utilize this time properly. So I continued to bid for a few more projects. On one fine day, I got a reply for one of my bids. I just saw that the person who had submitted the project had provided his email address and he preferred communication over email as compared to the Elance interface. I was a little skeptical to deal outside of Elance since there are many instances of freelancers getting cheated. Elance has a way to ensure that one gets paid for whatever work they have done. I wanted to know if this guy had any online profile which I could see and know more about him. So I did an email search on google but it returned no results. So I sent a reply to the person asking him if we are dealing outside of Elance. I did not receive a mail for a day or two. I was looking forward to it and just out of curiousity, I searched for the same email address on Facebook. I had a mild heart attack when I saw the about section of his profile, which read - "Technical Assistant to Mark Zuckerberg". I was a lot more confident after seeing that! He got back to me and said that he is fine with transactions on Elance, he went on to say that he would like to have a conversation with me on skype before assigning the project, but none of that happened and I was hired for his project - PricePoint.
I was not happy with the progress on Refer a Geek front. I was actually in a helpless situation. Without thinking much, I decided to take up some more work. If some freelancer tells you that they don't have a boss, don't believe them! They probably have 5 - 10 different managers and each one of them will be constantly asking for status. Its not easy to manage all the work parallely. For about 3 - 4 months, I have worked on all 7 days. I had forgot the meaning of a weekend. All days were same. And I was almost following US timings. I used to sleep at 6 - 7 in the morning and wake up at around 5PM in the evening (It feels awful when you realize that the day is already over!). All this time, I used to ensure that I go for a walk in the evening. That was the only thing which kept me sane for so long. My social life had gone for a toss. I missed office very much in the first few months, got used to it after sometime.
Amidst all this, I got a call from Facebook for an opening in their Palo Alto office. I was happy but did not consider myself so good for Facebook. So I never replied to them. When my friends came to know about it, they insisted that I just give it a shot. I did the same. At least it would help me know where I stand and how facebook interviews generally are. I replied to the recruiter and I received an interviewstreet link where I was supposed to write code for a problem stated. I submitted my solution and it cleared all the test cases. Soon I was contacted by the recruiter to brief me more about the upcoming interviews. I had 3 more interviews and I was knocked out in round 4. I realized I could do much better if I had prepared well. I liked the overall interview experience.
During christmas, one of my seniors Nithish, was in India. I met him and he was talking to me about his work and I told him about whatever I was doing. He forwarded many of the projects he would get to me. He introduced me to one of his friend Justin who had some work for me. I worked with him on a project. Though he was not from a programming background, he was very keen on learning it. He had started with PHP and I insisted that he should learn Python and Django. He loved it and mastered it in a span of few months. Recently, He raised more than $50k on kickstart - Coding for Entrepreneurs . Felt great to see him do this.
After a few months, BlockBeacon was acquired by Dunn & Bradstreet credibility corporation. It was comparatively a large organization and did not have policies for remote employees in place. So I decided to take a break for couple of months before deciding what to do next.
I did consider pursuing masters since it is something I was keen on from sometime. So I gave my GRE and TOEFL and started applying for some of the Universities in US. Around the same time frame, my friend from NI - Vishal was looking to startup. After his MBA from IIM Bangalore, he worked with Avendus for sometime and he wanted to start a Mergers and Acquisitions platform for Small and Medium Businesses in India. He asked me if I would be interested in developing the product. Having worked with him at NI previously in the same team, I knew him well and I was convinced with the idea too. So, I decided to go ahead with it. It's been quite sometime since we started SMERGERS. It is doing well at the moment and we have a lot of expectations from it Hoping for the best.
Refer a Geek is currently in a Zombie state. I continue to connect students with startups. I have seen that it benefits both of them immensely. I hope some day, I am in a position to revive it and take it to the next level. If I look back, I am glad that I took this route. I have committed several mistakes in due course and these very mistakes have taught me lessons that I will never forget. I believe that all this will help me a lot in the future. I would like to thank all my friends who helped me during this period. It would have been very difficult without all the support from them.
I will be heading to University of Southern California for my masters in Computer Science this fall. I am very excited about getting back to school after 4 years and I will update by blog frequently from now on