Neil Patel

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Ashutosh Garg has raised $400M for his latest startup, with almost half a billion raised across his first two ventures so far. His startup, Eightfold has attracted funding from top-tier investors like Foundation Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, IVP (Institutional Venture Partners), and SoftBank Vision Fund.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • Top book recommendations
  • Raising hundreds of millions during COVID
  • The multi-year process for hiring their president
  • Picking your investors

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    About Ashutosh Garg:

    Ashutosh Garg is the CEO and co-founder of eightfold.ai and a true guru of all things AI, with 10 years of information retrieval, machine learning and search experience. Previously, he was Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of BloomReach.

    Prior to that, he was at IBM research. He is also a prolific publisher/inventor, with a book on machine learning, 30+ papers, and 50+ patents.

    Ashutosh holds a BTech from IIT-Delhi and a Ph.D. from U of Illinois UC. Ashutosh has numerous awards, including the best thesis award at IIT Delhi, IBM Fellowship, and outstanding researcher award at UIUC.

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    Connect with Ashutosh Garg:

    Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:

    Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today, I’m super excited. We have a really amazing founder. He’s done it all. Now he’s on his second journey.

    But before we get started, just a little mention here that on Tuesday, this week, my next book, Selling your Startup, actually released. There are over 20 founders in there that have recommended it and that have sold their companies for over $500 million, and even many of them for over a billion. The main reason for this is because I didn’t see any type of guidance when it came to positioning and packaging your company for an exit. So whether you are getting started or you’re thinking about what that exit is going to look like, I think it’s never too early to understand what the end goal is going to be. Again, this is the roadmap for knowing how that process of getting your company acquired looks like and how to make it happen.
    With that being said, the guest today, his last company, is unbelievable. They’ve raised close to $400 million. One of them that they did last year was literally in the middle of COVID, and I think that we’re going to be learning a lot about how the company has matured from financing cycle to financing cycle and how things have actually happened. He was also a very early employee at Google as well. But without further ado, I don’t want to make anyone wait any longer, so I want to welcome our guest today. Ashutosh Garg, welcome to the show.

    Ashutosh Garg: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.

    Alejandro: Originally, you were born in India, so how was life growing up there, because I believe it was a small town? Is that right?

    Ashutosh Garg: That is correct. I grew up in a small town, [2:59], close to mountains, rivers, and a fantastic life working these days.

    Alejandro: I hear you. That sounds like super peaceful compared to the craziness now that you’ve seen in Google life.

    Ashutosh Garg: Exactly.

    Alejandro: Unbelievable. I guess, in this case, you moved quite a bit, and everything was triggered by studies, and you got into electrical engineering. Why electrical engineering out of everything.

    Ashutosh Garg: I grew up in a small town in India and very quickly realized that education is what’s going to make or break our life and the most important thing. As some of you might know, in India there are these sets of qualities, high IT, which are very stiff competition. I prepared to take the exam [3:53]. To be honest, I didn’t know much at that time. What I knew is that computer science is the best front, but my bank was not high enough to get me into computer science. After that, the next thing was electrical engineering. So you just shored up our accounting. You made the bank list. This IT in this branch followed by this IT in this branch, and my fifth choice was, I went early into electrical engineering, and that is what I got. Then I learned what electrical engineering means and was excited about it, and continued.

    Alejandro: So how did you fall into AI machine learning, because, here you are getting some sort of engineering in your CV, but then all of a certain, here you are going after AI machine learning by luck, and this also landed you in the U.S.—quite a journey all the way from the Himalayas.

    Ashutosh Garg: It is. I like to call myself a creation of luck and chances more than anything else. Getting my undergraduate education, I wrote my thesis on machine learning applications in office environments. After that, I worked in India for a year in the VLSI CAD space. I was employed by Synopsys. I applied for higher education, [5:15] in the U.S. I got admission at UIUC with [5:22] that would allow me to pursue machine learning computer vision and the qualities in VLSI. Believe it or not, in those days, machine learning was not considered to be a hot area. Automation, VLSI, was considered to be very hard.

    Alejandro: What year was that?

    Ashutosh Garg: 1998.

    Alejandro: What drew your attention to that space since it was not hot?

    Ashutosh Garg: [5:53] was the best college, which was giving me a scholarship to come. Those were good colleges, not that good. So I was extremely disappointed. I should have had UIUC with almost a comment to myself that as soon as I show up at UIUC, I would switch into [6:12]. I showed up at UIUC. The first thing I did within the first month of my being there is I started talking to professors who were doing research in VLSI electronic automation. As my advisor, who was [6:27] learned that I’m trying to switch. He was like a fatherly figure, 60 years old, and a very nice guy. He was like, “Ashutosh, just get your head down and do the work is what I’m telling you to do. Don’t [6:38].” I was a young kid from India. I didn’t know much. So I was like, “Okay, it sounds good. I made a mistake. I’ll just continue. This division, machine learning, I have no idea what this is. Frankly, that’s history.

    Alejandro: Look at you. You literally were getting started when nothing was really starting. Now, everyone is talking about AI and AI here and AI there, but back then, it was not that big of a deal. In your case, after a Ph.D., you joined IBM, but you were there just for a short period of time, which ended up landing you in Google and with a very interesting interview process back then. These were the early days of Google. We’re talking about 2004 and still 1,700 employees. What was that process like of getting into a rocket ship like that?

    Ashutosh Garg: Google, even in those days, was known for their interview process. Everything was about programming and coding. Here I was doing research at IBM and mainly a tradition with very minimal experience on coding and building things. I showed up for my interview, and I had told Google that “I am not really a coder. I’m a researcher. So please focus my interview on research and not on coding.” But nevertheless, I showed up for an interview. My very first interview was with this individual and decoding. He came in, wrote some code on the whiteboard, saying that I should come and fix this code. As I looked at it, I’m like, “Okay. I’m blank. This is not my cup of tea. I don’t know how to code, so if I even start attempting this thing, it won’t go anywhere.” On the other hand, as my luck would have it, when he introduced himself saying, “I am Andy Golding,” I remember not only who he is. I had even read many of his research publications before he joined Google. It is a mere chance, so I was like, “Andy, I don’t think I can answer this question for you, but you know what? I know your research. I’ve read your papers. So if you want to ask me about your own papers, then I’m happy to walk you through your own papers. We can begin with that or ask me anything about research, and I will do that. And, trust me, if I can do that, I can answer your research, I can answer research questions. I’ll learn coding, as well, if that is what is needed to do the job.” It was quite a challenge to him also. He did ask me, and the interview went well. I got the job, and I was able to shift production code in the first months of joining, so I quickly started the programming languages that were needed with C+, plus Java.

    Alejandro: And you were there for four years at Google.

    Ashutosh Garg: I was there for four years. The other thing that was very interesting about my job at Google in those days was there was a very small research team. When I joined, we were roughly 15 people in the research. I showed up in my office and looked around. None of them were from the research team. I asked my onboarding person, “Who’s my manager, and when am I going to talk to my manager?” The answer was that “Your manager is Alan, and he’s just launched the whole engineering, and he won’t have time to meet you for another two months.”

    Alejandro: That’s amazing.

    Ashutosh Garg: “So, what should I do?” I asked my office mates, and their like, “We don’t know. Just do something; figure out what you need to do.” It was, literally, a computer—go do something.

    Alejandro: That’s amazing.

    Ashutosh Garg: I started working on this problem on some shopping networks, and this is something about Google culture that I admire to this day. I built a prototype of how should you go shopping in malls? I showed it to my office mates. They were like, “This is really cool. You should go and show it to Larry and Serja. I was like, “I’m just a newbie. I don’t know. I can’t do this. It’s not ready.” Within a few hours, there was an email in my inbox from Larry saying, “I heard you built a very interesting prototype. Do you want to come and show it to us?” That gave me the confidence that I can build things; I can make things happen, and if I do it correctly, I will get the right visibility and then continue on the journey of leading the first [11:16] at Google [11:18] and so on.

    Alejandro: What were your biggest lessons from those four years because those were four years of crazy growth, as well, for Google. I’m sure that you being part of that atmosphere, environment, and culture, perhaps there was one takeaway that you knew that you were always going to take with you. What was that?

    Ashutosh Garg: I would say a few things. During those four years, I got a chance to work with some of the smartest people I know till this date. I got to work with some of the hardest-working people that I know till this date. The other thing that I saw in the management at Google was whether people were managing a 5-person team or a 1,000-person team, everyone was into details. Everyone was hands-on. New details in and out. It’s a very different culture and delivery model. It’s no longer about politics; it’s about substance. That has been super helpful as I’ve gone about building my own team because until and unless, as a leader, you understand the details, your judgment will be biased, which it will be based on hearsay, which is not going to lead to a good outcome. That has been a big lesson for me. The second big lesson has been—because when I first showed up at Google, I didn’t know how to build things, and I spent time learning and building things and was able to do it. It gave me confidence that I can build things; I can make it happen. Now, I won’t take no for an answer—just keep working, keep pounding, and you will get there.

    Alejandro: I love that. In your case, eventually, you made the decision that it was time to turn the page and move on to the next chapter, and that was starting your first company where you were more on the technical side. I’ve also heard that you’re quite a risk-averse person. How can a risk-averse person jump into the bandwagon of entrepreneurship?

    Ashutosh Garg: Yeah, I actually call my [13:32], I was a very risk-averse person, so what are you doing with entrepreneurship? That’s not your cup of tea. I don’t think those binary views are the right way to approach life for people. And in fact, part of the thesis of Eightfold is it’s not about who people are but what all they can do. Yes, I’m a very risk-averse person at heart, and what I have done is always try to minimize risks while taking to take big leaps. So, a few examples. At some level, you can say that my life has been pretty straight-line. You go to academia; you do your engineering over there; you come to U.S.; you do your Master’s; you do your Ph.D. So whether you take my education, what I tried to do was minimize the worst-case scenario for me, have the very best education I can get so that the downside is minimized. Joining Google in those days at some level while I came across as risky, it was not that risky in the grand scheme of things, but I worked extra hard to minimize the risk. But especially as I have built Eightfold, many times I talk to entrepreneurs, especially second-time entrepreneurs or third-time entrepreneurs. One of the top things in their minds is about dilution. I’m going to raise money, which will mean that I will get debt out of it, so how should I optimize the financing? In my case, being a tech founder and being a risk-averse person, what I want to do is I want to minimize the risk in the company. If I don’t have to take the financing risk, why should I take that one? Part of the reason we have risk on the financing that we have is because this completely minimizes the financing risk for the company. We have [15:35]. So we can raise the money because we needed to. We are very cash efficient, but it was to minimize that risk, and that has helped us grow a lot.

    Alejandro: Obviously, you guys have been growing like crazy on Eightfold, but before Eightfold, it was BloomReach. With BloomReach, what did you guys exactly do at BloomReach?

    Ashutosh Garg: At BloomReach, we were building an eCommerce personalization platform. The idea was that when you go to any of the top retailers in the country, how can they provide you the right search condition framework? So whether you are searching for a dress or a computer printer, ink, paper, or anything else you get the right product, you are likely to buy. So there was a family-focus area over there. How do we make eCommerce more relevant to everyone?

    Alejandro: How much money did you guys raise there?

    Ashutosh Garg: In the time that I was there, we raised roughly $100 million.

    Alejandro: And you scaled this company up to 300 employees, and then you decide to step away. You stepped away for the creation of Eightfold, but I’m sure that leaving behind such a massive business, especially having been there for 12 years, I’m sure it was not very easy for you.

    Ashutosh Garg: It’s never easy to leave things behind, but we don’t make progress in life if we keep holding onto things which are there with us. Unless you let go of things, you can’t make progress. That’s what I believe in.

    Alejandro: So what was that moment where you knew it was time to turn the page?

    Ashutosh Garg: For me, it was more driven by: what’s next? What I tell people is, we are in the Bay Area. Good education, good health, good financial understanding, good network, good experiences. We owe it to ourselves to do something good for society. Actually, when I start thinking about what’s next, the default would have been for me to start something in a digital marketing space, which was my area at BloomReach, the first space from Google. But I actually started thinking about education. If we can provide first education things, it would be much better.

    Alejandro: What was that process like of incubating Eightfold then and coming up with the idea, and then you saying, “We’re going to go after this.”?

    Ashutosh Garg: Then I very quickly realized that education is not for me. So I started thinking about healthcare and left BloomReach to start a company in the healthcare space. Now, today what happens is that the primary buyer of healthcare solutions is actual [18:31] of large enterprises because most large enterprises are self-insured. So I started going from one shopping department to another to discuss my healthcare idea. What came back to me was, “Healthcare is interesting, but our bigger problem is talent. We don’t have people. We need the right people. We don’t have the right ones in our company.” That is when it dawned on me that actually, if I was consulting for employment, getting people the right job, I would have a fundamental positive impact on society. That is what led to the startup Eightfold.

    Alejandro: That’s amazing. With Eightfold, let’s talk about getting the team together because you’ve talked about working with the smartest and hardest-working people at Google. I’m sure that gave you an idea of the type of professional people that you wanted to surround yourself with, and this being your second startup too. Probably with BloomReach, you were exposed to hiring and getting those 300 really solid individuals, so now with Eightfold, how did you go about arming yourself and surrounding yourself with the right individuals? What were the early days and assembling the A+ team like?

    Ashutosh Garg: Actually, the journey goes back to when I interviewed at IBM research in 2002. I asked my hiring manager, “What are you looking for when you’re hiring someone?” His response was, “Ashutosh, I’m looking for people who are better than me.” That almost sounds like a clique. It sounds good—moved on. Then I saw all these smart people at Google who could do anything. When I started to [20:33], “Let me just go find the smart people, and they will learn throughout the job and make things happen. One thing I realized as we were doing this is that quite a few times, you were learning on the job. Then I first knew how to research many of these things, which made it very hard for us.

    Alejandro: There are probably going to be a lot of people that are listening that they haven’t been lucky enough to work in an environment like Google. Now, they’re like taking the leap of faith in starting their own company. What does it look like when you come across someone that is smart, or smarter than you, or who can do things better than you? What does that look like? How do you come across these people and identify them?

    Ashutosh Garg: I think there are two or three things. 1) At Eightfold, what we did differently this time was to combine the people with a lot of experience with the people who are new or upcoming. So we bring both wisdom and intellect together. That’s one part. 2) When we say we’re looking for people smarter than you, that sounds like a very generic statement. But the idea is that anyone who is coming in, can do that piece of the job better than you can do that piece of the job? So, try to dig into that as well. 3) Try to understand, based on their past experiences, how well they might have done in their career, and how will that reflect in your own organization? 4) Hiring is not easy. It takes work. Sixty percent of my time goes into hiring people, looking for people all the time. When you come across good people, you don’t give up. You pursue them like crazy. I remember hiring our president, Kamal Ahluwalia. I met him in July of 2017. We met five times. I was excited to bring him on board. I made him an offer. He declined in August, saying, “I’m not interested.” In a normal case, someone’s approach would be, “Okay, sounds good. He’s not interested.” From August until January of the next year, I met him pretty much every weekend—every weekend. In February, he resigned his job and joined us.

    Alejandro: I love it! What were you telling him every weekend? Was it just to get together to talk about something else or to bring him up-to-speed on the progress? How did you approach that?

    Ashutosh Garg: At some level risk continues, but every time you’re learning, asking questions, trying to get [23:26]. As I was building the business, he’s a business person; I’m not a business person, so for me, it was always about discussing how should I think we’re partners? How should I think about go-to-market, sales, business, and those things? That got his excitement up. We realized that we can work well together. There’s a good chemistry between us.

    Alejandro: Nice. Then, let’s talk about the business now. Especially for the people that are listening, what ended up being the business model of Eightfold that we know today?

    Ashutosh Garg: Today, our business model is a SaaS offering. We have reseller software, price it as a SaaS model. The pricing is platform-based, and the platform is priced based on the side of enterprise. So for a family selling in two Fortune 500 companies across the globe—if you’re a 10,000-employee company, we will price it based on the number of employees that you have, roughly 10,000 or a geared model. In addition to that, we have a number of models on top of our platform that enterprisers can buy, and each of these models is priced separately.

    Alejandro: Nice. So then, also for this company, you guys have raised quite a bit of money. How much money have you raised for this?

    Ashutosh Garg: I think close to $400 million or slightly more.

    Alejandro: That’s incredible. How has the journey been of raising money from one financing cycle to another financing cycle? And, more specifically, how has it been raising or trying to raise in the middle of COVID?

    Ashutosh Garg: Tell me about it! COVID. To be honest, it has been quite a journey with a lot of ups and downs. But the last year has been indeed a crazy year for us. Our plan last year was to raise money in the middle of the year, around the June-July timeframe. But then, in late February, early March of last year, as COVID started spreading, it was on that day that it felt like the world was going to fall apart. Everything was shutting down. And here, Eightfold was a company in the talent educational space largely speaking on that day. If we’re not hiring, what is the future of Eightfold? Probably, nothing. As I thought about it, I being a risk-averse person, said, “Okay. What do I do? I have two options. Either to let people go and let this storm settle and then go place money into [26:11]. But then, with this uncertainty, if you want software employment, it doesn’t make any sense to let people go. It was the worst time to let someone go. So what I did, instead, was I went to my investors and convinced them to write me a convertible note so that I can weather this storm and see what I need to do. March was a crazy month. We risked money on a convertible note in March of last year. As soon as that happened, we got an opportunity to build a talent exchange. The idea was that as companies were laying off people, can we take those people and connect them to the enterprises that are hiring people at that time? That was a phenomenal success. But while we were doing it, we used our talent management offering as well. We decided we were getting very good traction. So both our investors and investors outside realized that Eightfold is executing very well even during the pandemic. That escalated our financing, and we ended up raising a large round with the convertible note, a $130 million raise in September/October of last year.

    Alejandro: Wow! That’s incredible.

    Ashutosh Garg: That, as well, capitalized our talent, and we did extremely well. We did a lot of these in the public sector, as well, so business was thriving.

    Alejandro: One thing that is amazing here that I’m seeing is that the risk-averse type of profile has served you very well because I think that as entrepreneurs, our biggest responsibility is to the risk, as much as possible, the execution. I think that paranoia of risk and de-risk has definitely played a good part, and I’m sure a critical ingredient of the success of Eightfold. And in your case, as you’ve been raising money and going from round to round, now, as you were saying, around $400 million, what would you say has been that process? A lot of entrepreneurs think, “Oh! This investor tells us no,” and then they give up on that investor, and then they go on to the next. But I think that’s wrong because when an investor that has an investment thesis applies to your specific business when they tell you no, it’s just because there are concerns that have not been addressed. In your case, how did you go from turning non-believers into believers that would actually end up becoming investors in Eightfold?

    Ashutosh Garg: I think there are two parts. 1) Investment rarely happens on a single day. It takes a while. My first round came from Lightspeed, who was also an investor in my previous company. My second round came from Foundation Capital. They’re a partner who also wrote a personal check in Series A. But, more importantly, we have known each of them for ten-plus years, and we almost started a company together in 2008. My third round came from IVP, which also tried to participate in a round at BloomReach in 2012. My fourth round came from General Catalyst. They engaged with us in conversation in our Series C as well. The final round came from SoftBank with the latest round. We are [30:04], and I have known each of them now for ten-plus years. But more importantly, we almost conceived the idea of eightfold on his kitchen table in 2016.

    Alejandro: Wow.

    Ashutosh Garg: I think that’s one part. 2) What people do is that the first time they meet you, they may not be excited about you, but over time as they see the progress, they get excited. The third thing I’ve seen a lot is as founders, entrepreneurs, we try to maximize our valuation and chase that investor who is ready to write the biggest check. Actually, in almost four out of five rounds in the company, we didn’t even shop around. We talked to one investor who we had a relationship with. They gave us a term sheet. We met with them, and we signed. Not because we couldn’t shop around, not because there were not enough marketing tests, but more importantly because it’s better to go with someone who really believes in you because it’s their own belief that will help you during good and bad times.

    Alejandro: Yeah.

    Ashutosh Garg: They will stay with you. Whereas, if you go from one shop to another to another to see how has the best price, you take it from them. Then they are giving you the money because of the fear of missing out because they didn’t believe in you. Then when things fall apart, on a bad day, it will be very crazy.

    Alejandro: I think that also shows integrity on your end. As we all know, companies go up and down. What you want to make sure of is that when you’re on the down part, that investor is going to chip in, and they’re going to have your back and send that positive signaling to the market to other investors on that next financing cycle. I think that’s a very good way to forge that relationship early on.

    Ashutosh Garg: Also, are you trying to build a company for the next year, four years to sell? Or are you trying to build a company to last for the long term? If you’re trying to build a company to last for the long term, you can’t be overoptimizing in the short term.

    Alejandro: Right. That’s fantastic advice. In your case, now, when we’re talking about people, how big is eightfold today? Anything that you can share around employees or anything else?

    Ashutosh Garg: Yeah. We are roughly 200 people as of today. This year, we’re growing to 300 to 500 people.

    Alejandro: That’s fantastic. Wow. What a growth! In your case, imagine you go to sleep tonight, and you got to sleep, and you wake up in a world five years later. You’ve never slept like this in your life. You wake up in a world where the vision of eightfold is completely realized. What does that world look like?

    Ashutosh Garg: The world of talent is changing extremely fast. Whatever we know today will be at least half as valuable in five years from now. The way we seek employment has already changed over the last ten years and changing even faster. COVID happened. Remote work has become the normal way. The next five years are going to see massive, massive changes. I want to live in a world where we get the job based on what we can do, not based on who we know. I want to live in a world where you get the job, [33:38] age, ethnicity. You get paid based on the hours you’re ready to work, not limited by the location where you live. You are constantly learning on the job. You may not be tied to a single employer all the time. You may be having five different jobs at the same time. That’s the world I want to live in. My vision is that I’m going to enable that world over the next five years.

    Alejandro: That’s amazing. Let me tell you, that world is already looking amazing in my eyes, so obviously, I’m rooting for that to happen. Let’s say I put you into a time machine, and I bring you back in time with all the ups, all the downs, and everything that you’ve learned from this experience of building and scaling two companies. I bring you back to that time where perhaps you were still at Google, and you were thinking about maybe starting something of your own. Imagine you had the opportunity of sitting down with that younger self, and you were able to give that younger self one piece of business advice before launching a company. What would that be and why based on what you know now?

    Ashutosh Garg: Spend more time with customers. Spend time selling. Learn sales. Another big one is, believe in yourself. Be confident about what you are, what you can do. Actually, there’s another one I would say, which I gave to myself two years back, and that has completely changed my life since then. You are accountable for your actions. Whatever you do or going to do, you need to own that. You can never go, especially as a founder and CEO, and blame anyone else for your success or failure. The only person who is responsible is you. Anytime you come back and say that I didn’t do this because my board wouldn’t let me do this, etc. The only one person to be blamed is you. It’s the reason why you’re a CEO. Once you are a CEO, you are accountable to make it happen and whatever it takes to make it happen.

    Alejandro: And making things happen, Ashutosh, what would you say has been one book through this journey of building and scaling companies that had a big impact on you that you wish you would have read sooner?

    Ashutosh Garg: I don’t think there’s any single book. It’s mainly collecting [36:31] from wherever it comes. These days, I’m reading [36:38] from India. It’s a book around strategy to the art of work to misbehaving. Another one that I’m reading right now is Build to Last; Build to Create. I’ll tell you one book, which you will find very funny that probably no one has ever talked about on this.

    Alejandro: Which one?

    Ashutosh Garg: [37:00]. I was reading that to my young kids when my first kid was two or three years old, and I was getting frustrated that I would tell him and he won’t listen to me. There’s a book on parenting, which is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. I read that book on a plane ride, and that is a phenomenal book to be able [37:24]. It’s really taking that mapping to real-life can be a phenomenal transformation for you.

    Alejandro: That’s definitely a book that I’m putting on my list as well. Thank you so much for sharing that. For the people that are listening and watching, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?

    Ashutosh Garg: Email me. My email address is Ashutosh@eightfold.ai. I’m always there and would love feedback and anything I can help entrepreneurs as they want to pursue their dreams.

    Alejandro: Amazing. Ashutosh, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.

    Ashutosh Garg: Thank you. Thanks for hosting me.

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