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Neil Patel

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Venkat Venkataramani has worked with some of the biggest and fastest-growing tech companies in the world. Instead of just collecting an easy paycheck he decided to take on the challenge of doing something even bigger and more impactful for other businesses. His company, Rockset, has been successful in raising more than $60 million in funding from top-tier investors like Sequoia Capital and Greylock.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How you may want to use Rockset
  • Choosing your investors wisely
  • The efficiencies of choosing long term thinking investors

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For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) that I recently covered. Thiel was the first angel investor in Facebook with a $500K check that turned into more than $1 billion in cash.

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    About Venkat Venkataramani:

    Venkat Venkataramani is co-founder and CEO of the real-time indexing database in the cloud company Rockset, which partnered with Sequoia in its seed stage, and he was previously an engineering director at Facebook. When he is not busy with Rockset, you can find him playing cricket with his kids, tending his vegetable garden, and working his way through every recipe in Peter Reinhart’s cook books.

    Venkat Venkataramani was previously an Engineering Director in the Facebook infrastructure team responsible for all online data services that stored and served Facebook user data. Collectively, these systems worked across 5 geographies and and served more than 5 billion queries a second. Prior to Facebook, Venkat worked on the Oracle Database.

    Connect with Venkat Venkataramani:

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    FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:

    Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today, we have a pretty interesting story going from a big rocket ship to starting his own business and making it happen. I think that we’re really going to be learning a lot today and enjoying this story that we have coming. So without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today. Venkat Venkataramani, welcome to the show.

    Venkat Venkataramani: Thanks for having me, Alejandro. It’s a pleasure.

    Alejandro: Originally born in South India, where you were growing up there in a middle-class-type of environment. So how was life there?

    Venkat Venkataramani: It was great. I grew up in Trichy back in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. It’s a small town. People call it a temple town. There isn’t much happening there other than a beautiful river flowing through the town. There’s a lot of farming in the greater area, so it was great. One of the really top-tier educational institutions, the NIT, the National Institute of Technology, is also located in Trichy. It was always my dream to go there and study engineering, and I got to do that. It gave me a very good foundation for building my career.

    Alejandro: And why engineering?

    Venkat Venkataramani: I think it was really computer science that drew me. I remember my parents didn’t know what to do with me when I was in 7th grade on summer holidays, and they were like, “Go sign up for this computer summer camp.” They were teaching Basic programming. I’ll never forget that. It was just fun whenever I got to work with computers and programming. I was the youngest one in the class because it was almost like a professional development thing. My parents didn’t know it was not a summer camp for kids. There were people who had finished college, and I was this 11-year-old sitting there. I was the only one who could actually solve any of the – my brother and I, actually. The two of us were the only ones that could actually solve and write any of those programs that they were teaching us. That was a defining event in my life where I thought, “Wow. This is fun. If somebody would pay me to do this all day, that would be a life.” That got me into computer science, and ever since then, I’ve been going deeper and deeper into the field all the way from finishing my Bachelor’s and then coming into the U.S. and did my Master’s in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is an amazing institution and had brilliant professors, a great-great computer science program that gave me the education and the background to go on and do interesting things post-graduation.

    Alejandro: I’m sure that for you, that was a pivotal moment because here you are in South India. The opportunities, perhaps, are not as great as maybe what you see now in Palo Alto, where you’re based. Coming to Wisconsin was probably life-changing. So how did you manage to make that happen?

    Venkat Venkataramani: Yeah. I think I was incredibly lucky to be surrounded at the education institution, and I did achieve what I went to. We just had my seniors, smart people, students that were one or two years ahead of me in the college, were paving the way for us because they had figured out what good schools are, how to apply for them, what kind of exams to take, and how the professors – the GRE and the subject GRE exams and all that is required to even qualify for admission in these top-tier universities. In all of that, I think we were standing on the shoulder of giants, where all the people that came before us in the institution. But also, the University of Wisconsin is a state university. We couldn’t afford to pay for tuition, especially in the U.S., to say the least. So having full financial assistance for international students like myself really change the dynamic because we could actually afford it. I still remember the first flight I’d ever taken in my entire life was the flight from Tamil to Chicago. I still remember coming there, and it was the first flight I ever took. It was not as crazy as you would think because I would say, I already had a couple of people that I had been exchanging emails with here, and there was the student community at Wisconsin-Madison welcomed us, gave us some temporary housing until we were able to rent a home for ourselves, and things like that. It was not as crazy as you would think it would be because we had an amazing support system both back home in India and in the university when we came. Being a state university and given full financial assistance, that’s a life-changer. Ever since, I’ve never, ever complained about paying taxes because some of that – other taxpayers in the state of Wisconsin were the people who sponsored me and my education. So, ever since, I’ve been very proud. Eventually, I became an active U.S. citizen. To this day, I never, ever complain about paying taxes and my fair share.

    Alejandro: I hear you. Oracle – Oracle comes knocking. Here you are, now in the U.S., finishing your Master’s degree and joining one of the biggest companies in the tech world. So, how was that for you?

    Venkat Venkataramani: It was a great experience. In the early 2000s, the database server team internally was called the Server Technologies Division, which I think was unbelievable. They had so many amazing smart people working there, and I had a chance to work with them. The funny part was, I was actually enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Wisconsin-Madison. I was preparing for it. There were exams that you had to pass to even qualify before you can start on a Ph.D. program. I took those exams, and I passed them. Then I wanted to take a break because I’d never worked anywhere. My fear in doing a Ph.D. prematurely was that no one would care to read my thesis other than my advisor and me. I really wanted to work in the industry to understand and discover problems that are worth tackling and worth solving, and then spend many years researching it and getting a Ph.D. I almost took a leave of absence to join Oracle, and I never went back. I think the team at Oracle was unbelievable. The larger team that I got to work with, there are so many success stories there: the founder of Snowflake, the founder of Rubrik, the founder of Nutanix. There are companies after companies that are being massively successful. If you trace their roots back to early 2000, so many of them in the Silver Technology Divisions back at Oracle. I was very fortunate to work with some amazing people there.

    Alejandro: Absolutely, and the founders of Nutanix, two of them have been on the show: Mohit Aron and Ajeet Singh. So, for all the people that are listening, I would highly recommend that they listen to them. After Nutanix, they went, and they both built another couple of billion-dollar businesses. They are unbelievable people. I’m right there with you in terms of ecosystem and networks. Here, in Oracle, you worked for about five years, but then you make the switch to a company that’s not so big at the time. It was maybe a little under 200 employees, and it was a company called Facebook. Why did you make the switch from a well-established company like Oracle to a company that is still not as big like Facebook?

    Venkat Venkataramani: That’s a great question. I think one of the things that has been an underlying driving force in my career has been when things get comfortable; I get uncomfortable. Five-and-a-half years into Oracle, things were really comfortable, working with smart people on hard problems, becoming more and more productive, I felt like I know how to get stuff done, and I can get it done without a lot of effort and keep going. There were interesting career choices inside of Oracle that were available, but what was bothering me was that I just didn’t feel challenged. I felt like it was more of the same. Then I was looking around, and there were a lot of open-source technologies that piqued my interest. This was before start-up was the thing, so I was looking at like MySQL, as an example, NodV, the storage [10:27]. I was reading a lot of research papers coming out of Google at that time. I was very curious to expand my horizon a little bit and learn how to solve problems and build systems. The trouble with Oracle was that, with Oracle, the relational database, which is the cold product that the Oracle database team was building, was in the center of the universe, and all the different use cases and problems revolving around that. You would start solving problems that the relational database was really not the best tool for, and you wouldn’t look to solve the problem the best possible way. They were really amazing people. Once I started talking to folks at Facebook back then, I think the engineering team was less than 100 people. I was really drawn to the caliber of the people who were there. I was drawn to the scale – even back then, they had 30-40 million monthly active users. The kinds of problems that they were tackling, not necessarily the scale, were very fascinating for me because I thought there was a lot to learn that I had no idea how to do. I was making myself uncomfortable again, which was why I made the switch. Once I started talking to them and understood what kind of challenges that they were facing, I felt like I was the least qualified person to work there because I had no idea how to solve any of them. I was walking away from the interview, saying, “If I get a chance to work with these amazing people on these hard problems that I have no idea how to solve or even think about, that will be a fantastic learning opportunity for me. Not in my wildest dreams, I thought one day Facebook would be close to a trillion-dollar company. Back in 2007, I was extremely fortunate to be there that early. What really drew me to Facebook was the caliber of the people, the vision that Mark and the rest of the leadership team had there to think big, and an opportunity to work on really hard technical problems that my previous job wouldn’t have given me an opportunity to work on.

    Alejandro: And at that point, Facebook was still a small company. What were those days like of Facebook?

    Venkat Venkataramani: The early days of Facebook were quite chaotic. Looking back, I have a lot of nostalgia for those days, but it was quite chaotic because, during the early years, Facebook was doubling in size every 4 to 6 months. There were a lot of scaling challenges; there was a lot of fire-fighting, and infrastructure, and what have you, but it was also a fantastic learning experience because there were way more problems to be solved than people, which allowed people who took initiative to be able to step up and do things that helped the company move forward. It was a fantastic learning experience, and Facebook was another place that attracted unbelievably amazing people from whom I learned a lot and grew a lot in those years. The early years were quite chaotic, to say the least, but I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.

    Alejandro: You joined there when there were less than 200 employees, and now there are over 81,000 employees. What a ride! In your case, from working with such a team and with someone like Mark Zuckerberg, what did you learn. What do you think were those special traits that make Mark Zuckerberg so effective to build a company like that?

    Venkat Venkataramani: Yeah. I admire and have so much respect and especially for what Mark has done in scaling Facebook and being there. I think the thing that always struck awe in me was what an amazingly fast-learner he is. I’m much older than him when I started there, even though it was many years ago. I still remember being struck in awe of how mature he was. He was literally like a 20-year-old that I felt was talking like a 40-year-old with that much more wisdom and growth. I was always amazed at how he carried himself and how mature his thought processes were. That has always been helping Facebook make the right calls and do the right things, even though on the day, it feels weird. So, yeah. I think there are so many things to talk about, but what strikes me, even now when I look back, is just what a level-headed thought process and how mature and far-sighted Mark was as a person and as a leader and as a visionary where it took the entire world, including people working there like myself many years to realize what he was talking about. I think he’s an amazing, amazing CEO for an era-defining company like Facebook.

    Alejandro: In your case, when you joined, we were talking about 30 million users, and when it was time for you to leave, it was around 1.5 billion, so tremendous growth there. At the beginning, getting into Facebook, for you, you had to have had an interesting conversation with your parents, and they thought that you were crazy for joining a company like Facebook. Now, they think that you’re crazy again for leaving Facebook. So, how was that?

    Venkat Venkataramani: Oh, yeah. That was definitely the conversation because the first people I told that I was thinking about leaving were my parents. I remember telling them, “I’m going to leave Oracle to go to this Facebook thing.” They were like, “Facebook is what?” They really had never heard of it. Facebook didn’t have any presence in India back then. There was this other social network called Orchard, which was very popular among college students and things like that, which was the only thing that was happening in India. Then Facebook eventually grew, and by 2015, I think it was the biggest social network in India, and so eventually they were able to understand, “Okay. This is where my son works,” and they could tell their friends what I was actually doing for a living. Then, when I said I was going to leave, it was quite a conversation because the first question they asked was, “So, what are you going to do next?” At that time, I honestly didn’t know. I wanted to leave because, again, things were getting very comfortable. Facebook had grown much, much bigger and scaled both in terms of the number of employees and infrastructure and product, userbase – everything had gotten so big that things were slowing down. I think the fast pace like the learning environment and the innovations that were happening and the speed of innovation was all slowing down a bit. Things were, again, very similar to my previous time when I left Oracle. The middle of 2015 is when I started thinking that maybe I should leave and take some time off to figure out what I want to do next. That conversation was also very tricky with my parents. They’re like, “What are you going to do next?” I’m like, “I don’t know, but I’m going to take a break to figure it out.” It was not an easy conversation because it’s not something that you do. Where I grew up, you go to work, and you’re the breadwinner. You make yourself useful. That’s how your worth in the world is measured. If you take a year off, everybody looks at you and goes, “Are you crazy?”

    Alejandro: Yeah.

    Venkat Venkataramani: But I have to say that year was a very important defining-year because it allowed me to reflect a lot on so many different things and look forward, and it really paved the way for me to be able to start this company called Rockset and build an amazing team and still be super thrilled about what we’re doing here.\

    Read More: Spike Lipkin On Raising $100 Million To Modernize The $160 Billion Insurance Market

    Alejandro: Let’s talk about Rockset. Here you are. You take some time off, and eventually, at one point, the whole idea of what you were incubating there in the background, which maybe you didn’t even know was there, really pushes you over the edge to bring this to life. Can you walk us through what that process was like and how you made it a reality?

    Venkat Venkataramani: Great question. I think that year was a very, very important year for me, personally speaking, because if you remember, I was at Facebook from 2007 to 2015. It’s like Facebook’s infrastructure and the scaling problems and all of that; if you look back, the world had completely changed by then. AWS happened; the public Cloud infrastructure happened; Docker happened; Kubernetes happened. The whole new ecosystem had started, blown up, and then they were on the tail end, and then what’s-next kind of conversations started to happen. The world was a very, very different place in the span of eight years. I wasn’t paying close attention because my own attention was around the problems that were worth solving within the boundaries of Facebook. In some ways, I called Facebook like Disney World. There’s still a city; there are still shops in there, but the regular rules don’t apply there. It’s one world. When I left, the first thing I did was to ask as many people as possible, trying to understand how the actual world works as opposed to how Facebook worked. I would wake up, drop my kids at preschool like a regular workday, and then I would go to work. I would be going and meeting someone that I’m talking to, for example, the IT people from hospitals, banks, cybersecurity companies, and anybody from my extended network who would be willing to sit down with me and help me understand what their teams were working on and what problems they are solving. I did all those conversations with really no intention. I didn’t have a pitch deck. I really wasn’t even thinking about a product or a company. I was just there to understand, in a very selfish way, and make myself relevant for the world by understanding what problems we were solving and what is creating them. That was the genesis of Rockset because I took down a lot of notes from these interviews, and I started walking away from more and more of these conversations, thinking, “Building a large-scale data application is way too complicated. Everybody is struggling with it. If building a data application within the boundaries of Facebook was that complicated, Facebook wouldn’t have innovated anything. The light button came on of a hackathon, and you could just take it for granted that yeah, if you put this on every content that was ever created, including every comment for every content – if you couldn’t just take for granted, “Oh, we can make it work and the infrastructure magically will just scale and work.” It was a lot of work, but without that level of infrastructure and scalability that developers would take for granted, you just simply couldn’t innovate. When we looked at that, that was the genesis of Rockset where we wanted to do the same thing for everybody in the world in the public cloud, where building a large-scale data application should be possible without a lot of cost and complexity. Those conversations were the defining moments, I would say that gave me this confidence that “Yeah, this is a problem we’re solving.” Right around the same time, an amazing set of people reached out, and through Dhruba Borthakur, my co-founder, through Tudor Bosman, who built and architected the search at Facebook. Dhruba was the creator of the Hadoop File System, and RocksDB, other amazing data infrastructure projects that I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with him at Facebook. We got together, and we started talking about these ideas that were simmering in my head, and that was the genesis of Rockset. It started with a journey of educating myself. In hindsight, they look like customer interviews, and problem discovery, or pain discovery. I didn’t even know that those phrases existed. I started those conversations simply to make myself relevant to the world, and it helped me pinpoint and start thinking about what should we do about that? So, of all the different opportunities that I had, I wanted to start Rockset simply with the idea of building something that we are uniquely qualified to build and build something useful and put it in the hands of as many people as possible. To this day, I’m convinced that is the way we can have a lasting impact in the world is to build something that we’re uniquely qualified to build and put it in the hands of as many people as possible. That’s the journey that happened for a year and a few months from leaving Facebook in the middle of 2015 up until late 2016 when we started Rockset.

    Alejandro: Let’s talk about the business model. What is the business model of Rockset?

    Venkat Venkataramani: It’s a cloud database. If you’re familiar with Snowflake, I would say think of Rockset as a real-time Snowflake. We are a real-time database in the cloud. Using Rockset, you can build very fast, interactive, real-time applications and real-time analytics in the cloud without a lot of cost and complexity. If you’ve seen, the world is going from batch to real-time. One of our customers said something like if my internet data applications are slower than Instagram and if my internal dashboards are slower than Instagram, nobody in my company would use it.” The world is moving to fast queries and fresh data as opposed to slow queries and stale data, which is usually what real-time analytics is all about. I think there is a lot of innovation that we’ve done since funding Rockset in building a bond in the cloud with built-in cloud scalability for real-time analytics. That’s the crux of Rockset. If you are looking to interact with real-time analytics, let’s say you’re a SaaS product, and you’re trying to build it for your customers, or this could be for operational analytics within the business where you have a business operations team, and they need real-time insights to make better operational data additions. Rockset is a really good solution for you because you can now do that without a lot of custom complexity as compared to any other technology that exists out there.

    Alejandro: How much capital have you guys raised to date for the business?

    Venkat Venkataramani: To date, we’ve raised a little more than $61 million over three rounds: seed, A, and B. Our B Round was closed last October, and we announced it in late October or early November of last year. Greylock and Sequoia have been our two partners in all these three rounds, so they tripled the investment late last year because they both did our seed and our Series A, and now our Series B.

    Alejandro: How does it look when you’re so lucky that you have investors that they’re actually doing the round internally, where you don’t have to go out and distract yourself. What does that look like?

    Venkat Venkataramani: We’re very, very fortunate to have amazing partners, amazing investors, simply because I think they’re also extremely obsessed about the long-term and not the short-term. I think it takes an enormous amount of courage and maturity to be able to do that in the VC world. We’re very lucky to have Sequoia and Greylock, specifically Mike Arnold from Sequoia and Jerry Chen from Greylock. They are amazing, amazing investors, and if you get a chance to work with them, you definitely should. They are the best founding CEOs and board members. They’re the best partners because they’re obsessing about the long-term, too, and you know that they are not just – even when they do a Seed Round or an A Round, they’re not just there hoping that they close that particular round. They really partner with you to build a company and to build a lasting, amazing company, and their guidance has been spectacular. Inside rounds are one of those things where when it happens, it’s great, but it’s not something you can count on. We’ve been fortunate to be on the receiving end of it now two times in a row because once the A and B happened that way. It definitely makes your fundraising processes a lot simpler, so much simpler that even if you want to talk to other investors and potentially bring a third investor to the table, the starting conversation is already like, “We already have a term sheet from our existing investor, so let me know if you want to participate in the round.” I think that completely changes the dynamic. I think we’ve been very fortunate. I think they also have a lot more information about the company, about the product, about the competitive landscape simply because they’re also working with us along these years continuously with us. In some ways, I think they also have an unfair advantage in terms of visibility into the company. When they invest with all that knowledge that they have, and they’re the lead investor, it almost sends a huge signal to other VCs that this is a great company with a bright future ahead, which also is super helpful for us to be able to go and talk to other investors if we want to bring more people in. So, yeah. I think we’re very fortunate to have amazing investors like that. I really can’t speak more highly of them.

    Alejandro: What’s in store for the company? What do you guys have coming up for Rockset?

    Venkat Venkataramani: We’re hiring, and every part of Rockset is growing at this point, from sales and marketing to product and engineering, and company operations, and everything. The last two quarters of last year have been amazing. The company has seen a lot of growth in the business. More and more businesses are, as I said, going from batch to real-time and looking for world-class real-time analytic solutions. We’re very lucky to be building the right technology and the right product at the right time. I think what’s looking forward for us is focusing and doubling down on the product, making the product continue to innovate on the product, but also doubling down on the execution in terms of scaling our sales team, scaling our marketing team, and being able to grow the business in the coming years so that we get to do this now and put the product in the hands of more and more people.

    Alejandro: One of the questions that I typically ask the guests that come on the show is if you had the opportunity to go back in time – let’s say, in your case, back to that time when you were thinking about launching this business back in 2016 and when you were doing your year off after your experience at Facebook. If you had the chance of talking to your younger self and give your younger self one piece of advice before launching a company based on what you know now, what would that be and why?

    Venkat Venkataramani: Great question. The one thing that I would crystalize and probably tell my younger self is don’t bother maximizing success but work on minimizing the regrets. I think this frame of mind didn’t occur to me until 2016, 2017, and I wish I had that kind of a mental framing for my decision-making. I think it was very implicit and subconscious, but I think I would have benefited a lot from that type of thought process where there were multiple different options in front of me, including founding Rockset, and go work at other very interesting companies. The natural way to think about that was maximizing expected value or something like that. You have Option A, Option B, Option C. What’s the potential success outcome if I go in that path, and what’s the probability of that success? You look at all these three options, and you pick the one that you think is going to be the most successful. Something didn’t feel right about it, and I was looking for a better way to think about getting a stronger conviction on what to do next. I started thinking about what would make me or what would be the more successful path and trying to predict that. What I started thinking about was, assume that we’re going to pick the path, and I’m going to be walking in the path for three years, and then after three years is when I’m going to figure out it’s going to be a spectacular failure. Then, you go back and say – knowing that you’re not going to find out for three years, what is the path that you would gleefully open and pursue. When I was comparing the option of starting Rockset with other potential carrier options that I had, that was the only one standing because that was the path that no matter what the outcome was, it was very clear to me that I would be gleefully going through the journey and the learning experience and the growth that comes from that, I thought was so much more valuable. It was a very interesting and impactful way to think about it. I think minimizing regret or regular minimization, I think, often yields counter-intuitive whistles but eventually leads you on a happier path for yourself and everybody around you. That is something that I wish I had learned as a decision-making framework that I had used toward my life in earlier days. That would be something that I would tell myself.

    Alejandro: Very cool. For the people that are listening, what is the best way, Venkat, for them to reach out and say hi?

    Venkat Venkataramani: I’m on LinkedIn. Send me a note. If you’re curious about the product, you can go to Rockset.com, and there is a free trial. You can check out the product that we’re building. There is a contact address if you want to get in touch with anybody in the company. If you do want to say hi, reach out to me on LinkedIn, and I’ll be happy to connect.

    Alejandro: Amazing. Thank you so much, Venkat, for being on the DealMakers show today.

    Venkat Venkataramani: Thank you, Alejandro. Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure talking to you.

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